One of my passions for 30 years has been educational technology. So, the following quote in the Times Higher Educational Supplement made me sit up:

‘But I have had many opportunities to observe that very intelligent people leave their brains behind when it comes to technology. The MOOC (massive open online courses) phenomenon is just further confirmation of that simple truth.’

This is not from a technophobe or traditionalist, but from one of the most respected academics in the field of education technology, Diana Laurillard. A longer and more detailed critique can be found in Neil Selwyn’s latest book ‘Distrusting Educational Technology’.

Every few years there is a claim made that technology X will ‘transform’ education such as whiteboards, the WWW, podcasts, tablets, VLEs, mobiles and now MOOCs. Indeed claims on technology and its transformational potential can be found around TV, film, radio and other media for over 100 years.

In conferences I ask if TV has transformed higher education. I get blank looks. When I ask if the Open University (where I first met Diana Laurillard), has transformed HE, then the fog starts to lift...sometimes.

Many educational technologies have in the end disappointed or failed to thrive. It’s about time we made a step change. I find both Diana and Neil’s critiques helpful in shaping the next phase of the debate and practice.

Education is the organisation of learning, so what the challenge is for me is to discuss new organisational arrangements for learning.

The OU delivered HE at scale by developing new models. Just a few examples illustrate the picture: a campus with no students; the use of TV to delivery modules; team structures for creating academic curriculum; new models for feedback to remote learners were developed and home kits for experiments. Importantly, the OU had an honorable tradition of developing inclusive approaches.

A new model of university was enabled by embracing TV and video recorders!

In focusing on the classroom of the future, school of the future, college of the future much investment in learning technologies has been poured into unreformed institutional arrangements.

The result for me is that we end up talking about, and deploying, learning TECHNOLOGIES not LEARNING technologies.

Some years ago I wrote a paper for the IPPR where I gave an example around modern languages.

I envisaged an education system where every child could learn any modern foreign language in any school. Why should a child be deprived of learning Mandarin because their school doesn’t have a Mandarin speaker? Technology could enable this model, but you’d need to rethink curriculum, school inspection, teacher contracts and many other facets to realise the possibility. Above all schools would need to be networked to each other and cooperate.

I’d like to suggest that this should be the grand challenge for web science. If we are to ‘transform education’ we need an interdisciplinary approach, not technology determinism.

I’d like to get past the current impasse, which I describe as ‘The answer’s a MOOC. Now what’s the question?’

In the words of Pete Seeger, RIP, ‘When will we ever learn?’

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.