The Open University learning environment is a technology-mediated communication role model. Even so, the OU still brings learners together for ‘real-world’ events. That has been the reason for a no blog posts this last week – I have been working my little socks off at Bath University, conducting research projects with a few hundred other people.
I was bowled over by the tenacity of my fellow learners. People who had been studying towards their degree for years, on top of their day jobs. People who were still 5-7 years away from getting their professional qualifications (which involve a PhD and chartering for some). This was a group of people who are committed to learning. There again, tenacity is at the very heart of the Open University.
The roots of the OU go back to the 1920’s, when educationalist J C Stobart envisaged a ‘wireless university’. Those words mean something different today – it sounds more like someone using a wifi enabled laptop in the back garden to do literature searches. However, back then it meant using the cutting edge technology of the day to create an open learning platform.
It look a few more decades for the OU to be born, predominantly driven by the tenacity of Jennie Lee (you can read the full story on the OU site). It’s that tenacity again. Today the OU continues a tradition of technology-mediated learning, using social software tools to connect students and tutors to form a gigantic learning organisation. It is the largest Moodle deployment in the world (Moodle is an on-line social-learning platform – think of a blogging, forum and content management system on steroids).
Non-technology industries work on different timescales. A couple of decades working in the technology industry has twisted me into believing that 2 years as a long-time, and 3-5 years is a time window beyond which predicting change is futile. Technology means that software and hardware develop rapidly, driving quick changes. Building institutions and companies takes longer. Much longer. When was the last time you took on a 10 year project? It takes tenacious long-term goals.
The long-term path of the start ups, now grown ups, I have worked with has been relatively predictable. Likewise, the major technology trends of the last few years have been too. Yes, 20-20 hindsight does make predictions simpler, but technology has strong homeostatic tendencies. After all, it is driven by people and people change slowly, if at all. Today, people drive (or hold back) technology, rather than the other way around.
The emerging web-browser and cloud computing model isn’t that different from my early experiences of computing with dumb terminals and mainframe computers. What is new this time around is a greater emphasis on people-centric design. The nature of application and systems design is being changed by rafts of new technologists with user experience qualifications (many of whom studied the same Psychological theories I was wrapped up in last week).
The area of science that I am most interested in doesn’t really exist yet, but it will, because it must. How does all of this technology change the way that we work? How can we build companies that make better use of technology, and technology that makes better use of people? We can’t do all of our learning at school or university anymore. Successful businesses and people will have to make continuous learning part of their very being, just to keep up.
There is still a long way to go in all of these things. It involves big goals. But tenacious long-term goals have always been how big things get done.