Monday, April 16, 2018

Resilience of skills learning versus content ‘knowledge’


A short sequence of facebook comments with a few of my relatives, triggers my thinking this morning. The topic is piano playing. As a child, I and many of my relatives, were taught to play the piano. We had weekly lessons and worked out way through the various music theory and piano practical grades. My mother’s contention was that music and being able to play the piano, would be a ‘fall back’ if I could not make it into higher education. Music teaching would be a way of earning a living. Pragmatic Asian parents did not articulate or maybe consider the broader consequences of funding music lessons. For me, the music lessons led to a lifelong appreciation of music, through exposure at an early age to the classical Western composers. The benefits for learning how toplan a musical instrument on one’s cognitive function and many other contributions are well-known. Suffice to say that music lessons, provide a myriad of advantages for young brains.



In a busy life, all my relatives now only play the piano occasionally. Yet, the muscle memory and skill connections to the brain are still strong and despite not playing for many years, everyone seems to be able to effortlessly pick up piano playing again.


Skills learning is thus resilient as when compared to ‘learning content’. In particular, if the skill becomes ‘automatic’ or ‘sub-conscious’ or ‘tacit’. The bringing together and overlaying of motor skills with cognitive skills (e.g. thinking and learning), assists the brain to solidify neural networks. Leading to lifelong retention. Piano playing, like riding a bike, skiing, driving a car with manual gear shifts etc. remain etched and embodied into our skills repertoire.

The above attests to the efficacy of experiential learning. If we couple learning of complex knowledge, skills and attributes with ‘learning by doing, learning becomes much more resilient over time. Learning 'content' is but one way to engage our brains. When learning 'content' we are using our cognitive functions and learning to learn is therefore an important asset attained through 'working through content'. It is not so much the content that is important, but the process of learning the content which we need to help our students connect with. How do they learn difficult to understand concepts? Helping learners unravel their metacognitive process assists them to then apply their learning method to other contexts. Like learning how to play a piano, once you learn how to learn effectively and understand how to deploy this across the many occasions one has to learn new skills, knowledge or attributes, should still be a major objective of being educated.




Monday, April 09, 2018

Limitations of robots and AI

Here is an interesting read from the BBC on 'four things to help us understand our AI colleagues'.

The article summarises the current state of play with regards to AI and how it impacts on the future of work. Of note is the summary of findings from the 2017 McKinsey Report stating only 5% of jobs would be eventually fully automated but 60% of occupations could see 1/3 of their roles be undertaken by robots.

We see the second scenario panning out now in many ways. For example, almost all the 'finding our more information' component of my research, is undertaken through access to databases which filter my searches. The results are collated into another database which is my bibliographical Endnotes. Instead of using manual index cards, the searching is done through electronic means, with its inherent biases and challenges.

The article provides for four rules which support the argument that robots are not quite ready to afford us of total leisure. These are:
- Robots don't think like humans
- Robots are not infallible - they make mistakes.
- Robots are not able to explain why they made a decision
- Robots may be biases.

All of the above can be circumvented with sufficient resourcing, but for the moment, there is some importance in ensuring we humans understand the limitations of robots and AI. It is especially important to work on the ethical issues around how robots and AI are governed as it is how these entities are 'programmed' with their inherent prejudices, which will dictate how they react and make decisions.

As per the book 'Smarter than you think' - see overview - we all need to learn now to work with 'smart machines' and one aspect of working with these 'tools' is to acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses. Robots and AI are powerful tools to augment human work and ensuring everyone understands how to best work with these tools, is one important aspect for the future of work and education.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Degree apprenticeships - overview

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) has begun a series of consultations which will lead to reviews of the NZ qualifications system. The first one is on microcredentials and I overviewed some of the definitions and implications on this blog a few weeks ago.

Another initiative may be the concept of degree apprenticeships i.e. a degree qualification completed primarily through workplace based learning. Degree apprenticeship is not a new concept but have undergone a recent revival, particularly in the United Kingdom. At the INAP conference in Washington DC late last year, there was a large contigent from Ireland, presenting on their first roll out of their degree apprenticeship, situated within the insurance industry context.

The revival of qualifications completed through a 'learn while you earn' system, is a response to the increased costs of degree qualification completions. Especially given there is evidence to suggest that the payback via completing a traditional apprenticeship in the trades / technology provides similar economic gains to degree completion - see this report for NZ perspective.

In NZ, the engineering industry, has had major challenges finding sufficiently skilled and qualified engineers, especially at the 'technician' level which supports engineers with technical support and expertise. A pilot study, undertaken by Massey University suggested good returns for both industry and individuals. Findings were also presented at last years NZ Vocational Education Research forum by Professor Jenny Poskitt.

The main advantages of situated, authentic learning apply for study whilst working. Many people complete degrees through part-time study which provides similar opportunities. However, workplace learning has always had inherent challenges. There is a large corpus of literature on how to ameliorate the issues and to support practice-based learning in busy workplaces. So, simply doing small tweaks to institute based / structured and designed learning curriculum, does not perhaps deliver the best opportunities for learners or to industry. There is a need for innovative design of learning to encourage the development of important 'soft' skills and most importantly, the skill to be able to learn/ relearn continually to keep pace with the rapid change many industries are experiencing.

Therefore, as always, important to look clearly at what is expected of a graduate who has been accredited a qualification. How can many of the graduate profile outcomes be met through 'naturally occurring evidence' of learning and how can rigour be assured, especially when it comes to 'knowledge' when workplaces each have their own, idiosyncratic 'learning curriculum' best suited to their own needs.


Friday, March 23, 2018

Education reform in NZ - continued - University sector views

Another flurry of activity through the media as the various NZ tertiary sectors submit views to the new Minister of Education's mandate to reform the NZ education system.

Following on from posts over the last couples of weeks on vocational education and the school qualifications, there is now perspectives from the university sector. These are recorded from the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) convening of a workshop from the NZ university sector with submissions also from unions and students. The Ministers perspectives are found here and the summary of the recommendations arising from the workshop are reported here.

All the above signals the Labour Government's intention to move away from the decades of emphasis on market-let economics - the neo-liberal agenda. In NZ, a good overview with regards to neo-liberalism's effect on education is the book - Children of Rogernomics - a neo-liberal generation leaves school. Aspects of the perspectives collected in this book are also reflected in this survey on 18-24 year olds - worried about the prospects of the digital future on work. In particular, on the precarious world of work with poor prospects for tenure, intensive demands to continually retrain / re-skill / re-invent oneself and the dated career advise the currently receive.

Discussion on the effects of neo-liberalism on education is not new. See this 2006 book mostly on the American context. The world-wide push back on the negative effects wrought by neo-liberalism is a decade old. It has taken time for people to understand what the effects are and research and explore alternatives. In NZ, under an MMP (mixed member proportional) electoral system, the current Labour Party came into government at the end of last year, due to the decision made by 'king maker'. The decision was based on his feeling of the electorate seeking a change towards a more balanced social system.

 Therefore, now important to explore what other governments have been doing with their education systems. Especially ones which encourage collaboration across the sector instead of a competitive market-driven ethos. Interesting times ahead for all NZ educators which is perceived by those at the chalk-face to be under-funded, with teacher shortages in the compulsory school sector and a need to shift curriculum and pedagogy to reflect the needs of the future.

Monday, March 19, 2018

NZ school qualifications - review

There has been discussion for several years in NZ, on how to reform the NZ school qualification structure. There is already a high level review of NZ education system, signaled by the new Ministery of Education, with movement in the vocational education sector as summarised in my last blog.

One avenue explored is from this report by the NZ Initiative, titled "Spoiled by Choice".  The NZ initiative is a non-partisan 'think-tank' which is on the 'right' of the political spectrum. It seeks to promote competitive, open and dynamic economies and a free fair and cohesive society through uncovering policies and ideas.The report, provides a good overview and history of the National Certificate in Education (NCEA), which was introduced between 2002 and 2004. Both my children just missed the changeover and finished their secondary school just before NCEA began, so I was spared the angst of having to understand the 'new' system. The report details the promises and how some of these became challenges. One aspect being the process of 'credit harvesting' and the shift of teachers and students to 'teaching / learning for the assessment'. The report also proposes that NCEA has not lessened the socio-economic divide and that a 'one size fits all' system has been difficult.

Stuart Middleton, who has been a supporter of NCEA provides a summary In particular, he has always advocated the 'flexibility' inherent within NCEA to meet the needs of student who are 'non-academic' and seek a different pathway through school towards work or tertiary study which is vocational.

The main recommendations in the NZ Initiative report are:
Raise English and te reo and maths requirements
Expect a broader core of subjects
Reduce number of standards
Make it harder to teach to the test
Reduce reliance on internal assessment
Use comparative judgment software 
Commission independent analysis.

Another report which is connected is one commissioned by the Children's Commission in NZ. This report - titled "Education matters to me: key insights" provides for the student voice. A summary is provided through Stuff. In the report, there is a call to listen to students and to be cognisant of their needs. In particular, their individuality, what they bring with them to school, an end to racism and to 'teach me the way i learn best'. 

As any change in the school system impacts on tertiary education, it is important to keep up with what is happening. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Vocational Education reform - New Zealand

The coming few years will be interesting times for NZ educators across all sectors from early childhood to tertiary. The new Labour government has launched discussions into an overhaul of the NZ education system. The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, announced late last year, sweeping reforms of the sector, including review of National Certificates in Education and scraping National standards at primary school level.  There will also be a study into the funding model for the 16 NZ Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs).

The last major reform in NZ of education was 30 years ago when the then Labour government devolved centralised control of schools through the 'tomorrow's schools' changes. As with all reforms, there have been pluses and minuses and winners and losers. The National Centre for Educational Research NZCER has a series of reports on impacts through the years.

It is timely to look into how NZ's education system is coping with the advent of 'future of work' impacts and 'Industry 4.0'. As will all reforms, there will be compromises and people with strong opinions along the right / left continuum.

One of the initiatives into seeking opinion on how to go forward with vocational education in NZ, was a workshop convened in Manukau a couple of weeks ago - the Voices of Tertiary Education forum. The workshop gathered representatives from the teacher unions, students, and ITP leaders to produce some recommendations for the NZ VET sector. There was another workshop for the university sector as well.

The outcomes from the workshop include:

·        - Work with staff, students and sector leaders to develop a new funding model
·        - Ensure a new funding model guarantees the regional provision of tertiary education, so all people can access learning opportunities in their communities
·        - Take the immediate step in Budget 2018 of changing the Student Achievement Component funding under-delivery figure to a more reasonable level
·        - Host further forums dedicated to discussing the future of the vocational education and training sector
·     -    Build a system that recognises and provides for diverse learners – including, but not limited to, Māori, Pasifika, second chance learners, sole parents, mature students, students with disabilities, and LGBT


In general, responses from the sector have been positive, to need to re-vitalise and re-evaluate IPT funding systems. For example, Toi Ohomai CE was mostly optimistic. TEU also collected responses from Kirk HOpe who is CE of Business NZ - who called for better alignment between qualifications, educational outcomes and industry and Sandra Grey, National TEU president response of a call to action to make the NZ educational system better. Chris Whelan, Executive Director of Universities NZ, provides the university perspective.

All in, there is a need to keep up with what is happening as the sector submits proposals and various committees are convened to discuss and feedback on recommendations. Exciting times ahead :)

Monday, March 05, 2018

Industry 4.0 - challenges and implications to education - NZ context

The term Industry 4.0 was coined in Germany around 2011. It has roots in the manufacturing industry and the term is based on societies move into the 4th industrial revolution. First one being the use of water power and steam to drive machines, second the shift into mass production and the use of electricity, and the third being the info. tech. computer and automation revolution. The fourth industrial revolution is premised on 'smart technology' with the leveraging of AI and robotics, the internet of things (IoT) and integration across machines and devices.

The principles driving Industry 4.0 are interoperability, information transparency, support of human work by cybernectic / cyberphysical systems, and decentralized decision making (i.e. AI).

In NZ, Callaghan Innovation convened a meeting of industry leader to discuss the impact of Industry 4.0 on NZ manufacturing and wider industries. Industry 4.0 is envisaged eventually to encompass all aspects of manufacturing across the supply chain. For example, NZ primary industries have been working for many years on a 'farm to fork' system to better meet customer needs but also to maintain sustainable practices. Industry leaders across NZ have had many occasions to catch up the implications to their businesses - including this article (2015) and this conference on the internet of things. (2017).

The impacts on education are many. Firstly, there is the push towards STEM as Industry 4.0 hinges on the interface and interconnections between machines, materials and digital technologies. However, understanding the implication to humans, the society at large and being able to see the big picture, requires a high degree of critical thinking. The humanities need to be proactive in representing the 'human' in how industry 4.0 evolves. Secondly, there is the need for all to understand the promises and possible threats of IoT, in particular, the pervasive effects across future lives. Education needs to prepare people for collaboration not only with others but to include 'non-human' entities. Included is the need to be able to work across a networked world, whereby cultural competency includes others who view the world with different perspectives. Thirdly, there is a need to help all individuals become savvy about how to proceed in a world which changes rapidly and where 'careers' across a lifetime, shift constantly. This NZ Herald 2016 article calls for the need to prepare 'kids' for the robot revolution and recommends an optimistic approach to meeting the surge of change. As the new Minister of Education announces reforms in the NZ education system, it will be important to contribute to the discussion as this is a crucial time for how countries shift their education systems to cope with the challenges of Industry 4.0.