We still need our schools in real space, not cyberspace

13th May 2011 at 01:00
Analysis - Pupils could now be educated alone via computers. So will there be any point making them gather in bricks-and-mortar buildings in future? Professor Keri Facer argues there is,

The future for the school, in some visions of the next two decades, is that it should disappear.

One of the founders of the online School of Everything has suggested that the focus of education reform should switch to lifelong learning and that "schools will be 10 per cent of education policy in 20 years' time".

Taken to their logical extreme, such discussions are leading to suggestions that the school itself will simply be dissolved into the learning landscape and replaced by personalised learning environments. Riel Miller, who was senior researcher at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's International Futures Programme for a decade, has explored what might happen if education moved away from focusing on supporting "large factory schools" towards providing help for individuals to learn, announcing the end of compulsory schooling by 2020. In this scenario, he imagines the following major milestones: "By 2015, half of high school students have opted out of the compulsory system. By 2020, the old classroom school is a historical vestige."

I want to make a different argument. I want to argue that the potential for socio-technical changes to amplify massively social and economic inequalities in the coming decades is significant. This means that, more than ever, we will need schools that are physical, locally accountable organisations, committed to building viable and sustainable futures for everyone in their communities.

For fear of stating the obvious, any consideration of the relationship between education and the future needs to acknowledge that educational institutions cannot be considered natural and unchanging phenomena.

The next decade promises to bring some significant challenges to the way we think about schools. First, children's participation in digital cultures raises a set of questions about how and whether we should police the boundary between formal education and informal learning.

Second, the potential to set up online schools combined with an impoverished national debate about education is opening up the possibility for a fragmentation of state education, raising questions about who should govern schools.

Third, the "ecosystem" of education outside the school is becoming increasingly complex. The web is also populated by thousands of more specialised and less professionally produced videos made by a new groundswell of "folk teachers".

These individuals have particular skills that they thoughtfully and precisely document and then post on YouTube or similar sites for everyone to access - whether it is advice on turning a heel when knitting a sock, managing a tricky bit of fingering on the guitar, or bleeding a radiator. As new folk educators are beginning to make their presence felt and as workplaces become sites for formal accreditation of learning, questions are raised about the institutional and economic arrangements that should underpin education.

All of these developments have the potential to challenge the monopoly of schooling over educational processes. These developments also open up radical new futures for schools, teachers and the relationship between schools and communities. They open up the possibility of schools fundamentally detached from "place" and connected only by shared educational values. They open up the possibility of schools radically distributed across cities and workplaces and fragmented into millions of personalised learning environments.

So why argue the case for "a school" even as it becomes theoretically possible for the first time to equip individuals to wrap their educational resources around themselves and to personalise their learning to meet their own needs? The oppression of standardised teaching and curriculum, and the exclusionary and sorting practices of schooling, after all, might be overcome by the use of digital technologies to allow individuals to construct their own educational pathways from a range of different education providers and resources. For some children, their survival is predicated upon their withdrawal from hostile schooling experiences.

The reason we need to continue to invest in the school as a physical space and a local organisation is because I believe it may be one of the most important institutions we have to help us build a democratic conversation about the future. A physical, local school where community members are encouraged to encounter each other is one of the last public spaces in which we can begin to build the intergenerational solidarity, respect for diversity and democratic capability needed to ensure fairness in the context of socio-technical change.

Moreover, the public educational institution may be the only resource we have to counter the inequalities and injustice of the informal learning landscape outside school. The school is also potentially the most powerful local institution to help resist possible futures of breakdown and dispossession that seem increasingly possible.

Far from being irrelevant in a world of digital networks, the local is an important sphere for achieving change that has an impact on people's lives and for building children's social and educational resources. It is often at a local level that substantial budgets are allocated and decided, often in ways that are determined by special interests.

Face-to-face meetings encourage relationships of reciprocity and care; acting at the local level may encourage greater participation because people care more about what happens in their own areas; and the local is a site in which differences of age, ideology and religion cannot be avoided. The local, in other words, is a place where we are forced to learn to live together and in which important decisions are made.

All of these reasons suggest the need for a public education institution rather than a landscape of atomised, personalised learning environments.

There are also other, equally important reasons - not least that while everyone learns and everyone teaches, there is such a thing as expert professional knowledge in education.

Those who have specialist disciplinary knowledge of a particular subject may be lousy at helping other people understand it. There is a powerful argument for retaining schools as sites for important professional learning among educators, as a network through which insight into learning sciences can be shared and as important resources to enhance the overall quality of teaching and learning in the wider educational ecosystem. Finally, barring revolution and complete breakdown, there will continue to be a need for social institutions that provide care and protection for children and such an institution is likely to be tasked with an educational role. In that case, we may as well ensure that it works well.

Given these concerns, we would do better to rethink the role of the school than to proclaim its impending doom. It is therefore the time both to defend the idea of a school as a public resource and radically to re- imagine how it might evolve if it is to equip communities to respond to and shape the socio-technical changes of the next few years. The trajectory of this evolution will be dependent upon schools' responses to five major challenges - how they adapt to changing intergenerational relationships, how they address the networked individual, how they engage with new conceptions of knowledge, how they locate themselves in relation to growing inequalities and how they see their roles as actors in democratic debate.

Keri Facer is professor of education at the Education and Social Research Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University. Her book Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change is published by Routledge, pound;19.99


It's alive: are we prepared for the new marriage of man and machine?

The idea of breaching the human-machine boundary may cause an instinctive shudder of disquiet.

Yet, for quite a few years, western medicine has led many of us to take for granted that it is possible to embed digital technologies into the body. Pacemakers, for example, are a relatively commonplace medical intervention, both for the heart and, more recently, for the brain to manage some forms of Parkinson's disease. Cochlear implants (devices to allow deaf people to hear and that integrate human biology with computers) are beginning to become routine.

Such tools are intimate augmentations of the human body, blurring the boundaries of biology and machine. The integration of computing and biology is also being driven by the prosthetics industry, fuelled, not least, by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Less visible is the use of "smart drugs" taken to enhance cognitive function. Take the increasing frequency of use of ProvigilModafinil. Designed for people with sleep disorders, this drug is now increasingly being used for cognitive enhancement.

High school and university students are frequently reporting using Ritalin and Adderall (initially designed for people labelled as having ADHD) to help them concentrate and study for longer.

Already today, some commentators are reporting that the intersection between subcultures of drug experimentation and a highly charged and individually competitive economic culture can make the use of such drugs feel obligatory rather than optional, while parents are reporting that they may feel pressure to encourage their kids to take them.

We are also already seeing the development of bio-computing (the shift from using silicon to using biological material as the basis for building computers). Recently, although at a very basic level, there have been experiments in which slime mould has been used as a control system. There is also substantial investment and excitement around the possibility of DNA computing (computational devices built from DNA material), not least because it seems to require radically reduced energy consumption. Such developments begin to allow us to ask the question: at what point will we begin to consider machines "alive"?

Second, the capacity to engineer at a microscopic scale is developing. This not only opens up the possibility of biological engineering but also potentially allows the development of very small-scale devices - including sensors and other computational devices - that could be embedded in, and in time become an everyday part of, human bodies. As computer processing power is expected to continue to increase, such embedded devices would potentially make massive informational power routinely and intimately available to humans (as contemporary brain-controlled interfaces are already beginning to demonstrate).

There are those today who see these sorts of development as harbingers of radically new ways of being human within the next 50 years. These individuals and groups are already actively working towards the goal of merging human and machine intelligence and relish the arrival of what they have called "singularity".

Singularity advocates suggest that, some time in the next 50 years, it will be possible to meld the human and the machine, either through modelling human intelligence in a way that allows the "uploading" of consciousness to machines or through integrating machines with bodies through nanoscale engineering, to allow humans to move to a "post-human" or "trans-human" phase.

Such a future vision brings into sharp focus the question of what we would want to protect and preserve about our current way of "being human". It also exposes the limited boundaries of many contemporary discussions of the implications of socio-technical change for education: if the children entering school today might conceivably (in some visions) come to live, work and play in a trans-human era before the end of this century, then fretting about whether they can use spreadsheet software or not may be the least of our worries.

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