Steve Walker

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Solutionism in action

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Solutionism in action

Evgeny Morozov has used the term ‘solutionism’ to describe the phenomenon of technologists framing problems in terms that the technology they’re promoting can ‘solve’. These solutions typically operate at the level of the individual, and while appearing to offer individual choice often serve to remove choice in the longer term. In a recent podcast of a talk at the RSA in London he gave the example of New York landlords advertising apartments via Craigslist. They insist on seeing potential tenants’ profiles on a well known social media site, presumably to satisfy themselves that they’re not about to let an apartment to a psychopath or a bankrupt. This has the effect of making it very difficult to exercise the ‘choice’ to remove oneself from the site while trying to find an apartment. There are plenty of other example (for example BT’s removal of payphones on the grounds that almost everyone now has a mobile, making it harder to choose not to have a self-tracking device).

This article by Bill Gates about the potential of ‘personal assistants’ in reducing the internationally high drop-out rates of US college students is a cracking example of solutionism. We can build an app that will nag students to attend lectures or tutorials, but this won’t address issues such as highly wealth-dependent variations in the quality of secondary education, the nature of HE funding or the structure of courses and pedagogy… Gates’ solutionism removes educational attainment from a social or political setting and makes it a technocratic, individualist problem and is a fine example of the style.

Written by Steve

July 21, 2013 at 3:03 pm

Education Uncut Leeds

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Education Uncut LeedsI had planned a short presentation for today’s Education Uncut event in Leeds, but fortunately for the other participants I lost my voice had to bail out.  In any case, the presentation was essentially a series of examples of ‘open-ness’ in learning for a socia purpose that include the use of ICT. These were organised in three areas – open resources (inputs), open methods and ‘voice’ (outputs of social purpose learning). The examples are given below, but they are only that – the intention of the presentation was to sketch out some of the terrain of what is available or possible.


By resources, I mean the kind of things than can be reused and repurposed (usually, but best to check on any restrictions) in designing social-purpose learning events.

OpenLearn – the OU’s repository of open learning resources including this collection of resources under the banner ‘Participation Now: Experiments in Public Action‘. They are resources about/links to examples such as campaigns, petitions and other participation mechanisms.

iTunesU contains a wealth of freely downloadable podcasts that can be used. As many friends know, I can bore for England about how I use some of these as intelligent company when driving. . Some examples include: University of Oxford’s  Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, as well as Social Science Bites and, personal favourite, Philosophy Bites.

IFWEA YouTube channel: a collection of short videos from the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations primarily about youth and globalisation.


There’s a plethora of methods associated in various ways with ICTs which might be of value in learning for a social purpose, including:

  • hackcamps
  • digital storytelling,
  • participatory video,
  • international study circles,
  • citizen journalism
  • Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have been the subject of much recent debate in higher education recently (see John Daniel’s “Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility“). The approach may also have potential in other contexts.


To be continued…


Written by Steve

July 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Posted in education

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July 6th – Making Change Happen: open workshop on work, community and education

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VotingWith colleagues from unions, adult education organisations and universities in and around Leeds I’ve been involved in organising a workshop on the future of adult and trade union education, to be held in Leeds. The workshop outline is below. I’ve been involved in organising the education strand. If you’re within striking distance of Leeds, please come along and share your thoughts. It’s free and you can register here.

(The picture to the right is of a replica of a sculpture ‘Voting’ at the  Runo Folk High School in Sweden, which I was lucky enough to visit several times).

Making Change Happen

Inspired by the debates in the ‘uncut’ and ‘occupy’ movements around the globe, a group of us have been meeting in Leeds to talk about what’s been happening to adult and workers’ education. We’d like to ask you to join in our discussions so we can generate ideas and action that work in communities and trade unions and inspire new ideas about the content and delivery of an education that we own ourselves.

We’re holding a one day ‘education uncut’ event in Leeds on Saturday 6th July (details below). It’s an ‘open day’ and free to come, so please join us, have your say, and bring your ideas for action so that the ‘Leeds day’ becomes inspiration for other days in other communities.

Why are we doing this?

We’re doing this because we believe that there has been an often unnoticed attack on adult and worker education that means more and more people are being excluded from access to an education that meets their needs. Lifelong learning should not be just some empty policy promise that focuses on delivering what employers demand. It’s what we should all have the opportunity to engage in once we have left school and it should meet our needs in terms of what we want to learn and when and how we do it.

We are all aware of the attacks that have been taking place on education from pre-school to university. For adult, mature students the likelihood of accessing a university course with all its fees and expenses are becoming smaller and smaller. Further education colleges have suffered cutbacks and lack of investment for years and are also obliged to charge course fees taking them beyond the means of many.

In the past, universities and colleges prided themselves in offering courses aimed at adults returning to learn and they were supplemented and supported by organisations such as the Workers Educational Association branches or trade Union based colleges like those at Ruskin in Oxford or Northern College. Today, these organisations are under threat and the brilliant work they have done with trade unions and local communities is in serious danger of being lost.

We are also seeing a curriculum in our schools and higher education institutions that are increasingly defined by government and employers. Michael Gove wants to instruct children in a British history that leaves out the lives of ordinary people, forgets the radical campaigns that won women the vote or built strong trade unions and leave us with a collection of dates and data. In further and higher education, funding is focussed on the demands of employers to the abandonment of critical courses that ask us to challenge and change our world.

In sum, we came together because we want to campaign against the narrowing of access to education for adults in general and working class adults in particular and because we want to build our own curriculum for learning not have it imposed on us.

What do we want to do?

We want to support the initiatives that are already there in our communities and trade unions. For example, the TUC’s Union learn projects across the country have consistently provided support and advice for adult learners both in the workplace and in local communities. We hope they continue to attract funding but are wary of the likely challenge from the coalition. Equally, local WEA branches have kept delivering high quality programmes and we want to work with them and support them (people involved in the WEA and Union learn will be bringing their personal expertise to our ‘uncut day’).

Our approach is to provide a source for ideas and action that builds campaigns and delivers education to adults alongside and in addition to what is already being done. We don’t have a ‘programme’ but we do have ideas and different areas of knowledge and skills that we want to share as a basis for developing education events whether they be one-off sessions or begin to build towards courses. There are all sorts of ways we can do this with technologies that allow access and interactions across the country and when it’s convenient. However, we also believe that education is an interaction between people who come together face-to-face to ask questions, disagree, argue and debate.

Finally, we would argue that education is a guide to action. Of course, that action might be about one individual gaining the knowledge that changes their life but we also believe that education is a co-operative venture. We learn together and pass on what we learn back to our workplaces, where we have them, our unions and our communities. In that way, knowledge and understanding becomes a guide to action and to change; the sort of changes we want, to those imposed by uncaring coalition governments or to satisfy the needs of employers for low paid workers or no-paid interns.

How can you join in?

Up to now, we’ve been working together in Leeds as a group of people working out some ideas that we now want to put into practice. We’ve planned a day to be as open as possible but, broadly, in the morning we want to share ideas and arguments and, in the afternoon, plan how to take these ideas forward in our unions and communities.

We are proposing three broad areas of discussion and debate and members of the group will start off each of the sessions.

  • What’s happening at work? Work is changing rapidly in terms of what is done, how it’s done and where it’s done. These sessions will look at how we might understand these changes and their impact and will develop the argument with a session on global work. The future of work will look at ideas of self-management and co-operation.
  • What’s happening in Education? These sessions will look at different ideas and ‘visions’ about what education is and what it might (or should) be. They will explore how people are ‘fighting for learning’ and, particularly, adult learning. The future for learning will look at how the fight might be progressed but will also ask participants to look at how we can do things differently and take control of our own education.
  • What’s happening in communities? These sessions will explore the importance of education for communities as an agent of change. This raises questions of what sort of chages will benefit communities and how can they be actioned. How can communities encourage and support free and accessible access to education and what priorities are there for community action.

That’s our ‘agenda’! Those are the areas and ideas we want to discuss but we want to hear from you with your ideas and plans for action. We hope our ‘Leeds uncut day’ is that start of a process that rebuilds adult, community and worker education on the basis of our needs. We can only do it together so come along and join the debate and plan for the future in your community or your union.
City of Leeds School
Bedford Field
Woodhouse Cliff

Written by Steve

June 23, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Posted in education

The best reason for university students not to cite Wikipedia

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Yesterday, I listened to a podcast from Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ festival. Jimmy Wales was talking about Wikipedia. A member of the audience asked when Wales thought that Wikipedia would be accepted as an appropriate reference for (in the question) a first year undergraduate paper. I was astonished to hear his answer, which from memory was something like: ‘Wikipedia won’t become a source. If I’d cited the Encyclopedia Britannica as an undergraduate I’d have been laughed at. Encyclopedias are good for helping you orient yourself to a new topic, not provide the last word.’ Which is, I suspect, exactly how a lot of academics use it –  as the first word on an unfamiliar subject, but certainly not the last.

Written by Steve

August 10, 2012 at 8:24 am

OU graduation – now and in five years?

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This afternoon I went to the OU graduation ceremony in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. They really are wonderful occasions. Every student who crossed the stage has a story to tell – whether it’s the older gentleman who was collecting his BA _and_ his BSc or the one whose (adult) granddaughter shouted ‘Well done granddad!’ from the audience, the woman whose PhD was on elearning in Unison, or the woman whose infant child’s cry of ‘well done mummy’ and, of course, many others. These events are family occasions in a way that other degree ceremonies aren’t – while most undergraduates disappear from the parental home for three years, many OU students’ families will have been an important part of the support network that got them through. As the VC said – if there’s one thing harder than being an OU student, it’s being a member of an OU student’s family. And it was particularly moving when some of the students stood to applaud the OU staff.

But amidst all this, I felt increasingly angry. What will an OU graduation look like in 5 years? Will there still be the same diversity of students across their lifecycles, studying for their own reasons rather than for employment? Despite our best efforts, I doubt it. Who’s going to decide, once they reach middle age that now is the chance to study for that degree they’d always meant to? The demolition job that the ConDems are carrying out on HE funding, taking advantage of New Labour’s preparatory sorties, will have consequences that are little short of evil.

Written by Steve

October 7, 2011 at 7:18 pm

Posted in education, OU