Universitas21 & Learning@Scale keynotes


While my day-job is immersed in analytics/AI-enabled ed-tech in higher ed — the co-design of tools, practices and policy — I’m increasingly compelled to step back and survey the bigger picture: as a species, we face overwhelming, interlocking crises — and we seem to be paralysed. I’m asking whether, and if so how, this should more strongly frame and shape my work and that of the communities I’m in. I’m drawing much inspiration from an exciting neuropsychological account of how we attend to/construct the world (Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things), and the increasingly urgent call for education to equip students to create a more equitable society (Henry Giroux’s work on critical pedagogy).

I was honoured to receive invitations to speak at two recent events focused in different but connected ways on the future of education, in the context of current debates about university futures in the age of AI, and the social context for platforms enabling learning at scale. These gave me opportunities to share and get feedback on how this preliminary thinking helps frame these pressing issues. Here are my Universitas 21 and ACM Learning@Scale keynotes — your feedback most welcome.

Universitas 21

Universitas 21 is an international network of research-intensive universities, committed to sharing insights. In 2014 they invited me to share my thoughts on the toddler field that was Learning Analytics, as part of their focus on personalised learning (an interesting flashback to watch that talk!). I had barely set foot in Australia, but had lots of ideas about what would be possible in my new job at UTS. So in June, it was a pleasure to reconnect, and reflect on that journey. They invited me to their Educational Innovation Symposium:

“U21’s Educational Innovation Symposium, titled ‘Scoping the Future in Higher Education: Transition or Transformation?’ brought together delegates from across the network to tackle some of the big questions currently facing university educators. The symposium, held at McMaster University, explored issues arising from swiftly advancing technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, which affects many areas of educational practice.  This includes curriculum development, the way in which teaching and learning are delivered, assessment practices, digital ethics and, significantly, how students can be part of the conversation.”

Transition or transformation? In my abstract, I propose that what we have learnt on our journey at UTS running CIC provides some assurance that universities can transition into the effective, ethical use of AI, since we’ve been inventing, piloting, evaluating and scaling  analytics/AI-powered ed-tech since 2015. Conversations with diverse stakeholders are at the heart of this process: Boardroom, Staff room, Server room, Classroom. The talk summarises my take on what we’re seeing in the GenAI-for-Education frenzy, examples from my own work (Bing Chat for argument analysis), and unpacks how we have been responding at UTS in the last 6 months since the GenAI rollercoaster launched, to support faculty academics and students. Human-centred design and Deliberative Democracy are important pieces of this jigsaw puzzle.

However, flipping the order in the abstract, before diving into that detail, in the talk I decided to engage with the bigger picture — the transformation question posed to the symposium. This is where the work of Giroux and McGilchrist has important contributions to make, as introduced below.

Buckingham Shum, S. (2023). Learning, Analytics, AI, Trust (and the future of universities). Keynote address, Universitas 21 Educational Innovation Symposium, (29 June, 2023, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada). [abstract/replay/slides/reflection]

Thanks to U21 for engaging the talented Emma Richard who created this artful graphic recording (click to zoom)


Last month I presented the opening keynote to the 10th ACM Conference on Learning@Scale in Copenhagen. For those not familiar with the L@S community, the conference first emerged amidst the excitement (and data deluge) triggered by Massive Open Online Courses. As an ACM conference L@S started with a strong computational flavour, and while maintaining data science, educational data mining and AI, there is also qualitative attention to the critical human dimensions in all forms of large scale learning. The focus for this year:

“The theme of this year’s conference is the learning futures that the L@S community aims to develop and support in the coming decades. Of special interest this year are contributions that examine the design and the deployment of large-scale systems for the future of learning at scale. We are especially welcoming works targeting not only learners but also educators, educational institutions and other stakeholders involved in the design, use and evaluation of large-scale learning systems. Moreover, we welcome qualitative and mixed-methods contributions, as well as studies that are not at scale themselves but about scaled learning phenomena/environments. Finally, we welcome submissions focusing on the role of culture and cultural values in the implementation and evaluation of large-scale systems.”

Given the intersecting crises now confronting us, I took these opportunities to share some of my current thinking on a question that has increasingly troubled me: What difference, if any, should the climate crisis should make to ed-tech research, especially involving analytics/AI? This is of course just one of the interlocking dilemmas we now face, in what some have termed the “meta-crisis”, but this one comes with an hourglass running down all too fast.

Buckingham Shum, S. (2023). Trust, Sustainability and Learning@Scale. In Proceedings of the Tenth ACM Conference on Learning @ Scale (L@S ’23). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, pp. 1–2. https://doi.org/10.1145/3573051.3593375. [abstract/replay/slides]

Diagnosing our collective paralysis

In the talks, I propose that a plausible diagnosis of our current paralysis — whether or not it proves terminal — is failure to learn. We are simply not learning fast enough and deeply enough. No doubt that is a partial diagnosis, but as people passionate about education and lifelong learning, we can hardly wash our hands of any responsibility when we survey the blasted landscape that is our planet, and the dysfunctional state of civic discourse in so many democracies.

I might have added failure to remember: urgently, we need to re-engage with First Nations people’s knowledge systems. This comes up in the talk later, inspired by Iain McGilchrist, and I also point briefly to the work of Angie Abdilla (Indigenous AI protocols) and Tyson Yunkaporta (Sand Talk). I need and want to go much deeper into this in future.

So, at L@S I asked — intentionally rhetorically — given this massive failure to learn@scale, how should the learning@scale community respond? And to U21, is there anything new to say about the kinds of graduates universities should be cultivating?

Dispositions: how we attend to the world

Knowledge and skills are important, and an ever-changing landscape given cognitive automation. I focus instead on dispositions — ways of attending to the world that are short in supply, and seem particularly salient in these times. I draw on two diagnoses of our collective paralysis — Iain McGilchrist’s neuropsychology work on how we attend to the world (notably his acclaimed new book, The Matter With Things), and Henry Giroux’s work on critical pedagogy, continuing the work of Paulo Freire (Giroux is at McMaster University, and we had a spirited and enjoyable hour in his office!). There is much to read and watch online, but to get a flavour of their work, try Giroux’s keynote to this year’s International Society for the Learning Sciences, and McGilchrist’s keynote to the AI World Summit.

I see McGilchrist and Giroux converging in their calls to resist dehumanising, decontextualizing, extremist ways of representing issues, people and nature. Both challenge us to use technology to help nurture citizens who can think differently, and not merely fuel the mindset that has brought us to the precipice. Both call us to engage with the world in a way that honours relationships, context and justice. Both call for defiant, educated hope as a form of resistance in dark times.

In case this slide is misunderstood, the argument is not that “right-wing politics has a neuroscience basis”. It is that extremism of any sort, of any political persuasion, is black and white thinking, erasing nuance, humility, context, empathy, dehumanising, objectifying, and seeking to manipulate. That has all the hallmarks of how the left hemisphere attends to the world so carefully documented by McGilchrist, when not under the balancing disposition of the right hemisphere’s mode of attention. The polarisation we see now in the culture wars is extremist mindsets of all flavours. But since I’m drawing on Giroux, we’re concerned in this case with right-wing extremism as it threatens educational freedom, the marketisation of universities more broadly, and hence threats to democracy when universities are not playing their role in developing graduates with critical consciousness to fight for a more just society.

Worked example: Belonging Analytics

I don’t think this translates into direct implications for all ed-tech research, but I suggest they pose important provocations for any educator to reflect on, especially those of us immersed in educational data, analytics and AI. Descending from high altitude to practices on the ground, I describe how at UTS we build trust in our automated feedback platforms by democratizing the design and governance processes. And in the L@S talk, I take as a worked example an approach that we’ve termed “Belonging Analytics”, to show how data-informed platforms can be aligned with some of the values championed by Giroux and McGilchrist.

What do you think?

I had encouraging feedback at both conferences, helpful ideas on how I might craft a stronger narrative, and some critical questioning of the arguments. There is so much more to learn, better ways to make the case — and the clock is ticking. I’m looking for intellectual soul mates, and welcome your honest feedback.

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