By Franklin’s Field

A cold wind signalled winter’s imminent threat as I stepped out of Philadelphia airport under a laden grey sky. Distant, idle, smoke-stacks, rusted rails and the shells of former warehouses and factories punctuated the two-stop rail journey to University City, on this, my first visit in several years to the Ivy League. As I trundled my luggage (silencers for suitcases, anyone? Dragons’ Den?) through UPenn’s campus, quiff-headed, blazered ‘chaps’ strode confidently by, en route to some function of the rowing team or Alpha Delta Sigma. I arrived at the hotel, unpacked and gave myself permission to stroll around the city to loosen up the limbs that had been packed tight in economy class for eight hours.

My only previous experience of Philadelphia was via Glasgow’s impression of it in “World War Z” (looks like fun making it). It was certainly interesting to walk in and around the city centre, all very accessible on foot from the University. There was a nice atmosphere in the German Christmas Market and thereabouts and I determined to take a wider wander early the following morning to make sure I caught all the sights including the Liberty Bell (wonder if that crack has gotten any bigger since the election result), Independence Hall and that sort of thing.

But back to the reason for this trip, attending the ‘Re-imagine Education’ conference hosted jointly by QS (the rankings folk) and the Wharton School of Business (at UPenn), the connection being that Nunzio Quacquerelli (the ‘Q’ in QS) completed his MBA at Wharton under the tutelage of Jerry Wind. Which of these two marketers thought of the idea of luring conference attendees with a ‘Congratulations. You have been shortlisted for an award’ invite, I’m not sure. Whether it’s the idea of the $50,000 cheque (a portion of the conference fees) or, as seemed more the case from chatting with fellow attendees, the fact that Presidents and funders expect participation at QS sponsored events (profile raising and all that), is not entirely clear, but anyhow it seems to do the trick of raising awareness of this event which otherwise would be little noticed in a sea of edu-tech shindigs (indeed, many participants had just trundled over from OEB16, in Berlin the previous week).

The management of the sessions would have proven a challenge to those with a more laissez-faire approach to timing, although in practice this depended strongly on who was chairing the particular parallel track. Sadly the AV support in one room at least, failed to match the tight script and lots of time (from the precious 7 minute allowance) was lost rummaging in folders, starting the wrong video clip, or just getting the AV person to notice the frantic arm-waving of the presenter. Giving control of the slides and media-player to the AV team might have seemed a good idea for such a jam-packed programme, but in practice it would probably have been a lot smoother if the presenters had simply had the laptop at their fingertips. That would certainly have been the case for the poor fellow who had travelled from India just to speak with a blue-screen backdrop despite having provided all his presentational materials.

The keynote speakers were, as with any event, a bit of a mixed bunch, though to be fair most were interesting and the tightness of the schedule spared us from any protracted monologues. The panel sessions too, were mixed, with the underlying, implicit ethos of only two of them being pure neoliberalism. Ben Nelson (another Wharton alum — as is of course Donald Trump) sneered somewhat at traditional higher education institutions as he championed Minerva’s approach to admissions based only on academic performance (which of course is strongly correlated with socio-economic background, unfortunately) — applicants being good enough, (yet not good enough?) for traditional élite universities, and being charged a considerably smaller tuition fee due to the lack of facilities (library, labs — that sort of thing), but enjoying jaunts around the world. Whether you get the total undivided attention, during the online 5 minute burst Skype chats, of the expert contributors, one of whom “taught class from an airplane seat while on a book tour,” is a question, but Ben is convinced that Minerva is the ‘Tesla’ of higher education. Other commentators are not so sure, but these panel sessions were of the like-minded and not for contestation. It’s one thing to critique higher education, and the exorbitant fees experienced by students in the US (and England these days), but is the solution really a for-profit, venture-capital funded, élitist, online experience?

Early comment on MOOCs?

We dabbled a little in the world of MOOCs in a session entitled ‘What next for MOOCs?’ (rather than “What? MOOCs are still a thing?”) where we heard from the latest of Coursera’s spokespeople about the continuing success that organisation is having in terms of ‘pivoting’ it’s mission and business model every few months. The founders now departed, the aspiration of ‘disruption’ of higher education now down-played, as they seek partnerships with accredited programmes in those very types of institution they promised to disrupt and focus their attention on charging fees for certificates for IT training programmes.

At a couple of points in the proceedings, Jerry Wind expressed his disappointment that, innovative though the competition entries were, there was nothing really disruptive; no “Uber of higher education.” Shame those MOOCs didn’t quite cut it in the end. As for ‘Uber’? Perhaps it’s not clear to an Ivy League prof, but for many working in ‘zero-hours’, non-tenured, low pay, contract positions, on whom much of US higher education has become increasingly dependent in recent years, Uber’s been here for quite some time.

It was also interesting to note the contrast between the views expressed by some at this event (US business academics and a shouty (very) representative of Microsoft) on the Uber model and the dominant narrative at the OECD event I attended this summer where it was described as ‘using 21st century technology to revive 19th century employment practices’. Many of the participants at Re-Imagine (especially those from Europe) that I spoke with were very much in agreement with this perspective. Indeed, for those from countries in which higher education is seen as a public good (and hence for which there are no individual fees, or at most a nominal sum), there’s a discordant perversity associated with the proposition that the best way to deal with the inequalities and failure of the US’s high-fees/high-debt culture is to seek solutions from the for-profit, private sector. Rather than, for example, to advocate for education as a public good — a model that works elsewhere and ensures that citizens are on as equal a footing as possible when they start out on a life of work and/or public service rather than divided into the privileged and the permanently indebted.

Martin Seligman, speaking at the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program

Of the keynotes, Martin Seligman, was probably the most recognised name and clearly a giant in his field. He shared with us his ideas for ‘positive education’, which seeks to embed the research findings from ‘positive psychology’ into the lived experience of teachers and learners. He gave an overview of the development of positive psychology as a response to the discipline’s focus on depression and ‘negative’ aspects of personality, performance and experience. He spoke eloquently and effortlessly about the domain he and colleagues created and about the opportunities for educational design and practice in adopting his ‘PERMA’ framework: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement.

From time to time he referenced his work with the US Military in building resilience amongst soldiers, but of course didn’t allude to the more controversial aspects that many of us in the audience were thinking of, namely the use (or misuse) of his ideas on ‘learned helplessness’ in the torture of captives at Guantanamo. As I tweeted at the time, though, despite the likelihood that he was indeed focussed on building resilience amongst soldiers (as he contends) rather than anything quite as extreme as supporting maltreatment of prisoners to induce helplessness, the relative ease with which some US academics (of any political persuasion) work with the military can be jarring for those from European countries (or at least, some of them!) where to do so constitutes a political act.

Richard Culatta, Chief Innovation Officer of the State of Rhode Island, gave an impassioned and accessible overview of UX (User Experience) design, with illustrative examples of how traditional college systems often misalign with learner needs. He highlighted some work in RI including their commitment to Open Textbooks.

Jonathan Rochelle of Google (inventor of docs and drive) spoke at the Gala dinner, clearly demonstrating a personal commitment to learning and education. The dinner was held in the National Constitution Center, an impressive venue that overlooks Independence Hall in the distance.

Wandering around at the reception, more than one participant noticed that the wall of Presidential portraits seemed to have no room for any additions after Trump.

The event itself was a great opportunity to chat with colleagues and that really was the strength of this event: the sheer diversity of countries represented by the participants, and the broad scope of the projects.

The final awards were announced during the dinner, after a somewhat confusing process of deliberation and attempted electronic voting, but there was no doubt in terms of the quality of the shortlisted projects, even though the mix from university-student projects and full commercial products must have been challenging to compare for the judges. Indeed, a number of the participants at the event had commented (at coffee) throughout the two days about their confusion over the categories (and which was best for particular projects) and the way in which the various awards didn’t seem to align with those. However, trying to make sense of several hundred diverse projects can’t have been easy. The top prize was split between the LSE’s variant of ‘student as producer’ and the laboratory simulation package Labster. No doubt the sponsors (Deakin and Tecnológico de Monterrey) were pleased to see their projects win in other categories.

Themes, topics? Too many to describe, although perhaps best gleaned from the twitter feed (#ReImagineEdu). Many of the ‘usual suspects’ such as AI, AR/VR, learning analytics (sorry, “closed-loop, realtime, learning analytics”), personalisation, MOOCs, made appearances. On the AI front, the speaker from IBM gave a comprehensive overview of developments in the field (focusing of course on IBM’s Watson) and did acknowledge that “we’ve been here before” with Intelligent Tutoring Systems research in the 80s and 90s, though the belief amongst the AI-enthusiasts is that now we’re actually close to achieving the original goals of such systems with massively scalable, cloud-based computing (rather like nuclear fusion, it seems to be always just around the corner). We saw demos (or were some of them mock-ups?) of various augmented and virtual reality systems. Apparently, having web resources projected out all around us and filling our wider visual field is a good thing that we’re all going to benefit from.

This tech future (for some) seems very much to be one of individuals constantly retraining (in their own time, at their own expense) and competing with one another for contract work in new industries. Fortunately, quite a number of folk have different views, one that is more collaborative, socially and environmentally engaged and in which the aims of education are far more broad than simply job training. Liz Coleman put it best in the debate on the role and future of the Humanities: ‘until we stop making “earning a living” the objective of education, rather than simply one of many outcomes, we’re in trouble.’

Next year? How about having the participants/attendees select the final winner? And as for keynotes? Audrey Watters. Why not?