Kiron Talks

June 14th, 2020

Scenario’s are vehicles to learn: planning, or to be more precise, strategic visioning as learning (Arie de Geus).

“The denial of uncertainty sets the stage for surprises” “The ability to act within a knowledgeable sense of risk is what separates a wise from a bureaucrat or a gambler” (Mintzberg)

Last Thursday, June 11th, Robert Schuwer and I were guests at Kiron Talks. We were interviewed about our contribution to the collective article edited by Aras Bozkurt. The entire interview can be seen here. In the interview Robert and I went deeper into some parts of the article. On two topics, which I touched upon in the interview, I would like to go elaborate in this blog. At some places, it will be a repetition of what was published in the article. I have done this so that this blog can be read as a contribution in its own right.

Strategic visioning as strategic planning

As said in the article, the outbreak of COVID-19 has made it evident that the Dutch education system was not prepared at all to handle a pandemic situation. It has been, in different degrees and with different consequences for students and teachers, unable to face the challenges of the situation. If I was to ask why it has been like this, a large part of the answer lies in the lack of awareness about a pandemic outbreak. 

The 2020 annual report of the Education Inspectorate (Inspectie van het onderwijs, 2020) has outlined the long-term developments and results of education as a whole. The report did not yet address a risk like a pandemic, nor did the Ministry's previous annual reports and multi-year policy plans. Forecasts for the future consisted mainly of extrapolations or trends observed. Only the foreword refers to the plausible risk that the global pandemic will have far-reaching consequences for education. 

In other words, pandemics or other similar risks scenarios have not been part of strategic thinking about alternative strategies for delivering education. What this crisis, however, has made clear is that educational policies will also have to take into account non-linearities because the future is not a simple, not even a sophisticated extrapolation of past trends.  Pandemics and their impact on different education systems must become part of strategic education visioning. 

Every now and then there is a sudden dramatic change, unpredictable in nature. Peter Drucker called them ‘discontinuities’. Highly improbable events take place: asymmetric outcomes or Black Swans as Taleb has baptized them: “I will never get to know the unknown, since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that” (Taleb, 2008:210).   

National education systems need to prepare for the potential long-term consequences, but also to seize the opportunities to change and reposition education and training with a view to sustainable development: taking a long view. “Not simple tales of possible futures, but plots which imagine decisions that might have to be made: the gentle art of reperceiving, not the art of predicting the future. People need to be able to reperceive, to question their assumptions about the way the world works" (Peter Schwartz). It is not having a more or less accurate picture how the world will look tomorrow, it is about imagining a highly unlikely future, and by familiarizing this unlikely future you become familiar with this scenario, and when it actually unfolds itself, probably the shock-effect will be lesser. “ (Peter Schwartz – The Art of the Long View”). 

To me the best example of this ‘art of the long view’ are the scenario’s made by Shell in and around 1970. One of the five scenarios developed was ‘oil crisis caused by political decision making by governments of Arabic oil producing countries’. At that time this scenario was seen as most unlikely, an unthinkable future! Yet it happened. And when it happened Shell was more prepared than the other companies, since this story was not unfamiliar to them. They knew how to act more quickly than the others. And that is what it is all about (Peter Schwartz).

At the end of the introductory and summarizing chapter of the collective case study, many questions are raised, amongst which “what will we do for the upcoming interruptions?” (page 11). I hope I have made it clear that one of the answers to this question is ‘strategic visioning ’ for the various national education systems. Pandemics and other similar risks have to become part of strategic thinking about alternative strategies for delivering education. To my opinion, the report World at Risk Annual Report on Global preparedness for health emergencies, is a good starting point for this type of thinking. 

UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition

It is encouraging that UNESCO has launched the Global Education Coalition. It is a very powerful network of supra-national organizations like UNESCO, World Bank, OECD and UNICEF, the global education industry of edu-business such as Coursera, consultancy firms like KPMG, investors, ed-tech providers like Moodle, as well as big tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft.

Their aims are twofold:

  • to support countries in their efforts to mitigate the immediate impact of school closures, particularly for more vulnerable and disadvantaged communities,
  • and to facilitate the continuity of education for all by providing appropriate distance education for all learners.

“Investment in remote learning should both mitigate the immediate disruption caused by COVID-19 and establish approaches to develop more open and flexible education systems for the future” (homepage). See also the recent blog of Robert Schuwer

In their publication Digital Education after COVID-19, Neil Selwyn, Felicitas Macgilchrist & Ben Williamson have pointed out that most likely  the multilateral and tech sector partners of the coalition are heading for ‘building a private infrastructure on which public education will depend, that will:

  • Emphasize digital technologies as a solution to a perceived ‘crisis’ of education that pre-dates coronavirus
  • Embed digital technologies as long-term infrastructures of teaching, learning and assessment
  • Empower private sector technology companies as key providers of educational infrastructure, platforms, apps, content and other services
  • Further decentralize education systems into connected networks where learning can be conducted across homes, schools and other settings
  • Enhance data collection and expand use of data analytics, personalized learning software and AI in education
  • Focus on human capital development for the digital economy, and on lubricating learning-to-earning pipelines

It is not clear from the available documentation how the various partners will be involved. A key action of this global coalition is to “match on-the-ground needs with local and global solutions” and “provide distance education, leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and non-tech approaches”.  One of the overarching conclusions of the collective case study is that developing ‘soft technologies’ (competencies, skills, etc.) is crucially important. Investing and developing these technologies are just as important as investing in hard technologies (broadband internet, computers, mobile technologies, etc.).

So, I hope that a good balance can be found in the solutions between the hard and the soft skills. However, it would not be the first time that a 'crisis not seen before' is used to accelerate and comprehensively implement longer desired economic-technological changes, as Audrey Watters does not stop telling us.

Therefore, I want to repeat the warning given by Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century: "A market economy ....if left to itself....contains powerful forces of divergence, which are potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice on which they are based" (Piketty, page 571). This should not be happening now big-tech companies, the global education industry, global consultancy firms and global ed-tech providers have become main providers of ‘global solutions’, for the short term as well as the long term. For the short term this is understandable, but for the long term the implications for the educational systems all over the world, the future implications could be far-reaching.