Saturday, November 19, 2016

#SUNZSUMMIT - What I learnt from attending SingularityU and what I reckon it means for education in NZ


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Earlier this week (Mon-Wed) I was lucky enough to attend the inaugural SingularityU NZ Summit in Christchurch. Since then (Thurs-forever) my brain has a been a whirl as I have tried my best to understand and appreciate exactly what it is I learned and heard at the event. The saying "the more you know, the more you know you don't know" kept coming to mind. I went in to the event fairly confident I was abreast technological developments, what was in store and what that meant for education. I came away from his event patently aware that whilst I am relatively aware of technological developments, my knowledge really only skipped across the surface like a skittery ol' skipping stone and my understanding of the impact it is going to have on education was way short - I need to stop thinking Blue Sky High and need to start thinking Intergalactic Intelligence Building!

The SingularityU NZ website describes the event as bringing "the world’s top speakers and experts on exponentially accelerating technologies together with New Zealand's and Australia's leaders of today and tomorrow, giving us the knowledge and insight we need to compete — and win — in an exponentially changing world." Basically, think a future-focused TEDx on steroids and you will get the idea.

As someone who has the attention span of a flea or truly worried about the format, I would probably rather perform a bit of at home dentistry rather than sit through 20 lengthy TED type talks, but somehow, the format worked...maybe it was something in that tasty and ridiculously healthy cuisine they kept feeding us...and the free coffee certainly helped. I came away from the event with my brain absolutely stuffed full with new learning and with an appetite to learn more and more importantly to ACT!

Moore's Law
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The first day was all about setting the scene and ensuring each and everyone of use understood the concept of exponential change and what the ramifications of this change will be for every one of us. Kaila Corbin (who made this event happen), kicked us off with lesson in exponential change. Exponential change was often exemplified by the concept of Moore's Law which is based on Intel founders prediction that computing power would double in power every year and would half in price and size (or something like that) and thereby providing a handy example that is symbolic of the exponential technological change we are experiencing. Moore's Law is something that I have often quoted, so whilst this wasn't a new concept, what I did take away from Kaila's talk was the realisation about how the vast majority view the trajectory of development and resulting change. If you look at the graph at the top and imagine you are standing on the "you are here" dot and looking backward. The slope is insignificant, and by looking back, there is nothing to suggest that the trajectory will change, thereby lulling us into  the notion of gentle change, change that can make you feel like you a skipping through a field of daisies, the change is visible, at times its exciting and other time's pretty disappointing in it's glacial nature. However if you turn around and look forward, with a knowledge of the principles that underpin exponential change, you are hit, smack bam in the face by a sudden acceleration that results in a trajectory that appears damn near vertical! Unprepared, and it could feel like chaos, more prepared, I reckon you might more likely experience amazement and ultimately be more ready benefit from the down right bonkers rate of change.

Along with this intro to exponential change and many examples of it (think Uber, Tesla, Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence) the first day also set the scene for ensuring we approach all this technical whizz-bangery with empathy and ethics. Basically we can use all of this stuff for bad and selfish means, or we can use these developments for the good of humankind, as Nathaniel Calhoun asked us - what impact do you want to make on society?

The three days were jam-packed with lightbulb moments and technological takeaways. There is no way I can do it justice here, so here are just a few that stuck with me:

"Re-spect abundance... If you look again you might see that there enough resources for everybody" - Tiago Mattos stressed the idea that whilst we might have been plundering our Earth's resources that if we harness technology in a positive way it can lead to abundance for all.

"Technology allows us to be more human" - David Roberts flipped the notion of us all being bereft as a result of being replaced by robots in our workplace, we can see it as an opportunity to be freed from tedious repetitive jobs and to have more time. Of course that does also beg the question asked by Kathryn Myronuk - what will life look like when 80% of our work is automated? And I kept thinking how will we then make money? I keep clinging to the rather romantic notion that this may lead to a modern day renaissance...just don't ask me how we will fund it.

There were other less scary concepts to think about, I particularly like the idea of bitcoin and blockchain and the way that it allowed for things like mircopayments, allowing to bypass advertisers and companied to simply pay micro amounts, say 10c, to read an article. "Imagine our browser had digital currency built into it. A simple click & a micropayment goes directly to the original creator." said Mandy Simpson. Imagine how this could allow for individuals to flourish by cutting out giants such as Amazon or Facebook. 

There was also a lots (and I mean A LOT) of talk about self-driving and electric cars, this was combined with Uber and the concept of "uberisation". Basically the message was that we will all be in driverless, electric cars before we know it, and we will probably access vehicles as and when we need them. As stated by Amin Toufani, it will be about "access instead of ownership". Brad Templeton warned that we should not underestimate the level of disruption electric/driverless cars will cause - "Ownership, parking, real estate, energy, retail, food, medical… Just some of the industries self-driving cars will disrupt".

Health was another area that will see massive disruption. Raymond McCauley terrified and excited us with the potential impact of biohacking - "By 2022, sequencing a human genome will be cheaper than flushing a toilet. That’s so cheap it’s almost free". Basically stating that in less than 10 years our ability to "fix" by sequencing human genomes will be a viable option for many. If you could produce a child that was immune to influenza, immune to HIV, could be born without Downs Syndrome, would you do it?? I experienced massive internal ethical debates after this session. We also heard from Michael Gillam about the potential for exponential improvement of health advice around the corner, with the use of IBM's Watson in medicine we have "not just the mind of one doctor taking care of you, but the minds of 7 billion doctors taking care of you".  Now that's got to be better than my one vaguely interested GP.

And of course it kept coming back to the idea that all of this technological can do damage or can do good, depending on how we, the humans, harness it. As Ramez Naam so eloquently (and terrifyingly) stated - "We’re in a race - how fast we screw up our planet and how fast we innovate with these new technologies".

So what does this all mean for education?

Well for one, I feel like each and every session reinforced that we as a nation are doing one of two things:

The first group are sticking their heads in the sand by thinking that education (and probably everything else) won't or doesn't really need to change. Think back to that early image I created where people were standing on the "we are here" dot looking backwards. These are the people in education who protect the status quo, who think BYOD, makerspaces and a bit of coding will equip our young people for gently evolving future. And I fear A LOT of our schools are exactly in this place and space.

The second group of people are pretty much who I have been hanging with (up until I attended this pesky event ;-), a growing number of educators who are trying new approaches, enjoying Blue Sky High thinking. They are the schools exploring knocking down walls, exploring project based learning, integrated studies, self-directed learning time, STEM and STEAM initiatives. These are the educators who are aware that the world is changing and who are exploring innovation from within the still largely traditional enabling constraints of our primary and secondary schools. An increasing number of educators are in this space and this is exactly where we need to be....for now.

What I now realise is that second scenario is a good one for the very short term only. It is a scenario that relied on the idea of a qualified teacher being optimal, a physical school being necessary and the notion of a localised curriculum and qualification being relevant. After the three days at SingularityU I now no longer believe any of these things can be relied on as a "enabling constraint" for more than the next 10 years, 15 max. Sue Suckling (Chair of NZQA) set the scene when she stated - "The day of the qualification is over. The era of verification is coming". Now when the CHAIR of NZQA states that the very idea of a qualification is numbered we need to sit up listen. Consider this. One of the main reason children attend school until 18 (aside from it's obvious appeal as a free baby-sitting service) is to gain a qualification. What if the whole concept of a localised curriculum and qualification disappeared, would there be the same compulsion to remain in school? Combine that with the reality that access to the Internet and increasingly engaging, sophisticated online learning options become available we are no longer going to be able to lure students in by our ability to teach them anything they can't get online. And I am not just talking hokey MOOCs and Khan Academy, I am talking training with NASA experts and leaders from all fields from across the world. Who knows what the future holds when you combine this with AI and VR. You could be walking around NASA, learning alongside astronauts from the comfort of your home. And basically you can translate this to any field.

At one point during the summit I had an absolute lightbulb moment. Here we are with people stressing about local educational developments - how we can evolve NCEA, sticking antiquated exams online, worrying that COOLs will bring about terrifying change. And all we are doing is panicking about the sideshows, getting distracted by the local developments. We are standing on that "we are here" dot, kidding ourselves that the gentle incline we are standing on will continue ahead of us. If we use the "horse to cars" analogy, I can't help feeling we are painting wings on a pony when we should be building a freakin' Tesla. We need to be thinking beyond the bricks and mortar and the local curriculum and qualification and start thinking about how we can harness each and every learning opportunity beyond our classroom walls, whether it be out in a forest, in a local business or in a virtual landscape. We need to think about how we can completely revise this concept of a school or at least this concept of a physical school. As Jane Gilbert often reminds me, we need to come back to the big question of "what is education for?" and go from there. I was only half joking when I tweeted the following:


But seriously, if we want to do this thing and we want education (and educators) in NZ to be relevant beyond the 10-15 year window we might have, we need start thinking outside the box and most definitely outside this thing we call school!

Innovation: doing the same things better
Disruption: doing new things that make the old things obsolete.

Basically our days of "innovation" being enough in education are numbered. I suspect we might experience disruption sooner than we think. Whether we want it or not. Let's stop seeing the "we are here" as a destination and recognise it for what it really is....a bloody exciting starting point!!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

#SUNZSummit - Why I am looking forward to SingularityU


On the eve of the inaugural SingularityU NZ Summit I am continuing to build some very genuine levels excitement about what I might learn and how it might reframe my thinking about the future of education. It has been awesome to be part of what feels like a groundswell of educators who share a passion for futures thinking and educational change and it has been equally exciting to see this become a theme of large scale conferences such as Ulearn and EduTech and the many smaller corporate organised edu-conferences that have popped up in recent years.

However alongside this excitement this excitement there has also been a sense of frustration. Whilst there is absolutely a growing demand for educational change, there is also sense that these "edu-changemakers" still, in a sense live within a bit of a bubble. Head to any conference and you see the same lovely group of educators, speaking for the most part about variations of the same stuff - me included (see above). You can't help feeling that those wanting to make real change exist in what can feel like an echo-chamber, who for the most part are simply preaching to the converted.

So I guess I am looking forward to SingularityU for two key reasons.

The first reason - I want to hear fresh stuff.

I am really looking forward to hearing stuff that blows the top of my freakin' head off. Whilst I am passionate about and a passionate advocate for the concepts and thinking that sit behind "design thinking", "makerspaces", "e-learning", "BYOD", "learner agency", "coding" and all the other educational jargon that I and everyone else seems to be waffling on about at educational conferences, I  fear I am suffering from "jargon jaundice", and worry this may lead to "futurist fatigue". So SingularityU I am looking to you! I want new learning, like hurt-your-brain learning. I want to be shaken out of my "modern learning malaise" and come away thoroughly coated in some "exponential ectoplasm".

The second reason - I want everyone to hear fresh stuff...and want them to want change.

I really hope this event is a catalyst for a widespread call for change, particularly in our schools. One of my frustrations is the sense that whilst people love educators writing and talking about change, they still seem to hesitate appointing "change leaders" to lead their (secondary) schools. Until each and every school leader is a leader of change, education in NZ will stumble and ultimately stall. Schools in NZ are governed by Boards of Trustees, who for the most part are interested parents and community members. I am hoping an event like SingularityU reaches them, the communities and families who will then demand schools (particularly secondary schools) evolve to meet the exponential change we are are experiencing in our workplaces and society at large. NZ already has one of the most open and future-focused curriculum, we also have a pretty flexible and forward thinking qualification framework, yet many secondary school timetables look the same as they did 50 years ago. I really hope this event can rattle the "college cages" and help our schools and communities to understand that it is going to take more than BYOD and Makerspaces to properly prepare our young people.

And of course I am looking forward to visiting Christchurch and meeting many like-minded people! Bring it on SingularityU!