Today we continue our exploration of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what it means for education. Last week, we looked at comparative education as a field. Today we look at teachers. What are the prospects and perils of the fourth industrial revolution for teachers?
My guest today is Jelmer Evers. Jelmer is a teacher, blogger, writer, and innovator. He teaches history at UniC in the Netherlands and works with Education International, the global federation of teacher unions. He was nominated for the global teacher prize in 2012 and is known for his book called Flip the System.
Today Jelmer and I discuss his new co-edited volume Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice, which was published by Routledge earlier this year.
Citation: Evers, Jelmer, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 117, podcast audio, January 4, 2018. www.freshedpodcast.com/jelmerevers
Will Brehm: 1:49
Today, Jelmer and I discussed his new co-edited volume “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice” which was published by Routledge earlier this year. Jelmer Evers, welcome to FreshEd.
Jelmer Evers: 2:04
Thank you. Glad to be here.
Will Brehm: 2:06
Why does it seem like every other news article that I read lately mentions something about the fourth industrial revolution?
Jelmer Evers: 2:15
Yeah, I think you are right. That is also I wrote the book. I think there are several reasons for that. I think there is a general fear of disruption, I think people can see that technology is having a major influence on how we live and work and also in education.
But I don’t think that is just it, not just a fear, which is can be right. I think it’s also to do with sort of, the techno-optimism that is sort of like pervasive in the last 10, 15 years are like a dominance of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship start-up culture.
So technology is cool and happening. If you compare to education, education is sort of still an old school. Sort of this is techno utopianism to it.
I also think, at least from an educational point of view, the idea that technology will make these old progressive dream come true, personalize education, I mean, we have we ever been having these discourses for at least 200 years. If you look back at all these, like, older thinking, and books and articles on education, you can still see the similar languages pop up, and now it has the name Fourth Industrial Revolution, or personalized education to it. I think the idea is and there’s grain of truth in it, that it makes it more easier to allow this to happen, although, with lots of caveats.
Fourthly, and that’s something I only learned, like learn later on at least in my teaching career when you start look outside of the classroom, and schools and system etc. has all these policy networks that are out there that have been out there for a long time, and also have been latching on to sort of like this, this whole techno utopist (view) vision of society and also in education.
So this whole 21st Century Skills debate is predating the idea of the fourth industrial revolution. And that’s already been out there for quite some time, at least in the Netherlands, like early 2000s, we’ve been talking about this, and as a means also for politicians, but also for teachers to push for innovation in education. And now we have this sort of like more profound technological change, which I do think is there embedded into it. So that’s why I think it has become stronger, there’s the sense instead of that there is something going on, and it makes it more easy for these narratives to, from whatever viewpoint to take a look at education in that way. But for me, as well, it’s also part of these bigger, bigger, longer neoliberal discourse that has been going on as well and people have been latching on to it, like I would almost feels like GERM 2.0. like the Global Education Reform Movement, as Pasi Sahlberg points out, and now we’re having sort of like these big tech companies pushing into that space as well. And with this teacher ambassadors, and the Google ambassadors and the Apple ambassadors, and it’s a really powerful narratives are both from an optimistic point of view, but also from a fear point of view. So that’s it. That’s what I think, where I think that’s why it’s there.
Will Brehm: 6:03
So the fourth industrial revolution is about what? What is the revolution?
Jelmer Evers: 6:11
Well, I think you have to also look at who coined the term Klaus Schwab from the World Economic Forum in a yearly gathering in Davos, mostly by CEOs, and sort of like academics who buy into that stuff.
And his book has been quite influential. So he coined this term, what’s going on, and it’s his idea is that there was the first Industrial Revolution, of course, steam engine and the second one, early 20 century, late 19th century, with electricity, oil, like mass production, the whole birth of the Ford era and Taylorism, but in the 60s with these reflect the birth of the digital age that the more simple digital revolution, which of course, is a major impact on communications are productivity. And now he’s saying there’s a fourth industrial revolution. And it’s sort of like an exponential technology, where different kinds of strands of technological innovations are now being combined, and accelerated. And you have to think about like AI and robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and like quantum computing, those kind of things. And they’re all like interacting with one another. And there are new industrial sectors, like data scientists, those kind of things to do that, it’s ubiquitous all over the place because everybody needs to be a data scientists nowadays.
So and like gene therapy and DNA. And I mean if you look at it for the whole list that he goes through, it is quite remarkable, I think, what is going on. So you definitely cannot discount the technological change that is going on, I can, I think we can see that all around this. But I think he coins towards that there’s this whole political economy sphere and context to it, but he stays within a certain frame. And I think that’s sort of like the biggest issue that we it’s not a technology that we need to tackle per say, it’s more like, who profits from it? Who owns the technology? Who owns the data? That kind of stuff.
Will Brehm: 8:29
And how are people talking about the ways in which the fourth industrial revolution will impact education?
Jelmer Evers: 8:40
That’s a very interesting question. And that brings me back I think, to the progressive strands and philosophy that we have in education. So for example, if you’re looking for, from a really practical point of view, people are really pushing sort of actors, adaptive platforms, these tutoring platforms that can help students learn at their own pace, maybe you don’t need a teacher anymore, maybe the platform is good enough with all the learning materials, the videos, and the readings, the interactivity, that’s more easy to produce. So there’s already been there. But now sort of like with these algorithms and a promise of activity, I think that’s the main focus right now.
And also that’s where it has the biggest impact. And I think there are some, like, for example if you look at like math skills, basic math skills, I see with my own children, so they’re practicing on the internet for the whole, like drill part of education and teaching, it actually helps. It can ease the formative feedback cycle, that’s great with children work with them on that. So you can outsource a little bit of sort of formative aspect. I think that’s actually a good thing.
But if you look at what kind of articles are you reading, and if teachers will, we will be replaced with AI, and, you know, that kind of stuff. And that’s quite worrying. And it’s completely besides the truth and reality, I think, there are different things going on. But it’s sort of like the basic things. And if you look at the impact of technology in another level, which I think is more progressive is sort of maker education. And so all those technology associated with that as a service with 3D printing, but also like, it’s easy to program, little little computers, etc, those kind of things are having a major impact. And students can be producers, and they can interact with students all over the world, etc. So, I think there is the problem is, there’s this true promise of progressive education, but it’s also sort of like hijacked by more behind the scene by a more standardized form of education. Because if you look at sort of the oldest platforms, they’re trying to sort make these little data points everywhere like the learning goals and then you are run through this maze as a student without the help of any teacher and that sort of like the old standardized dream. So it has this two-face thing to it.
Will Brehm: 11:25
Have you experienced any of these two different faces of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 or whatever it’s called the fourth industrial revolution inside your own classroom?
Jelmer Evers: 11:38
Well, you know, for example, the whole networking, it connects with people all over the world, I can connect with class, with people and other students from all over the world, they are connecting themselves, I mean, I get it, they’re doing it anyway, and I get them anyway.
So that aspect is there, it makes it more easy for me, for example, to create a learning environment where they do have lots of choice, I’m not just fixed to a textbook, for example, while I do also use textbooks, because the students enjoy them, I think working from papers way more efficient than then digital technology that is good or not all these studies that have come out lately that have warned us about sort of like not to go too deep into the digital world, from a learning aspect, but also from an addictive aspect.
So it’s there. And what we’ve also seen is that these types of technologies are being pushed. So we have a major change, we’ve just changed Microsoft, for example, the Microsoft environments, and I don’t think our school which is quite autonomous, and we, as teachers were on board with that you get bombarded with all these actors, policy actors, networks, research people try to sell you stuff. It’s a huge market, also in the Netherlands and more worryingly, I think what we’ve seen, and it was even, I think people from my own school boards were like, part of this, they’re looking into sort of, like, we have a teacher shortage so we can’t pay for it. So we’re going to look at other scenarios. And that means sort of like, and then we’re actually talking about using AI and all these platforms to invest more in that. It will be more cheaper in the long run. So it is definitely affecting us and me still on the ground and lots of different ways, I think.
Will Brehm: 13:44
Do you literally have people coming into your classroom or your school trying to sell you the latest education technology?
Jelmer Evers: 13:52
Well, they’re trying to and trying to approach you, of course, and through different ways, it’s through school leadership, or the board, etc.
I’m usually approached quite often because I write these books and quite well known in the Netherlands, so that sort of like, also, they want to work with us, and we’ve got this product, etc. So that’s definitely a thing.
Will Brehm: 14:14
How does that work? Like, what’s the economy there? Do they want to give you some sort of monetary kickback? Or, like, how does it work?
Jelmer Evers: 14:23
No, no, that’s never the case. That’s the interesting part. And that’s why I always say, No, I said, I mean, I’m happy to consult in any way, as long as you pay me for it. And then usually the conversation stops.
So it’s also a very interesting now it’s just, we give you your, you can try our product for free, and then with your writing little piece on it, or we want to try it out and give us some feedback. So I sort of like free labor kind of thing. So I would say no to that, whilst I do think there are interesting things out there, that definitely help me in my teaching, but it’s definitely a big thing, you can see the major publishers moving from textbooks towards they’re all trying to create this platform, and sort of like trying to create a monopoly and like the major book distributor. And you can see that there are really changing their course, into a sort of, like, a platform kind of way. And they’re actually so big, that they might have a chance for that in the Netherlands.
Will Brehm: 15:26
What is the platform by the way?
Jelmer Evers: 15:28
It’s sort of like, where content’s almost free, but where you want to be where the interaction is ready, where you can gather data, and sort that data and so that’s, you know, that’s sort of, like, if you look at Uber and Airbnb, etc, so they don’t own anything anymore. They don’t own the books anymore. But he might not even own a company anymore. As long as you have enough people on a platform, and it gathers data so that’s a revenue stream, and huge revenue streams for Facebook and Twitter, etc. So, or also doing. And if you have all these learning interactions, then you’ve got all these data points, you can fill this correlations and then you can sell this as look, we know that this works, they don’t really know what works because just the correlation but that’s the days they’re sending a sort of like this model of learning also still don’t know a lot about learning. So that’s sort of like if you can occupy that space. And a lot of people are trying to do that.
Will Brehm: 16:28
So let me just try and get my head wrapped around this. The idea here is that there are these companies, these education businesses that are creating online platforms that they are trying to get students to use and teachers to use. And then while they’re using these platforms that offer all sorts of content, like you said, maybe that has been developed for free externally, they then are collecting data points on how the students interact, and use that material, and then somehow analyze it, and then sell the analysis back to the school. That is the revenue?
Jelmer Evers: 16:39
Yeah, so those kind of things, and also for other products. So you can build off products on that platform as well. And what I’ve been looking for, for example, so I’ve been using all these different kinds of tools, extra credit, and we’ve got a virtual learning environment and all these other things, but they’re not talking to one another. So for me, it would be really useful to have a single point of view that like people are talking about dashboards, for example, learning dashboards. If you can organize that, and then you become sort of like the Spotify of education because you’re already entry point to everything. So you can ask revenue from the people that are providing apps. So you can you can ask for like, small fee from the schools and the students, you can sell your data to other companies again, so this is sort of like how people learn. So that’s sort of like the whole that’s what a lot of companies are trying to do around the world at the moment even in the developing world.
Will Brehm: 17:01
And these sort of companies are I mean, they’re obviously working inside public schools as well. Is that correct?
Jelmer Evers: 18:08
Yeah. So (we have we haven’t) we have a little bit more of a different system in the Netherlands it’s completely privatized nonprofit but that’s more from a historical point of view so it was that religious education was funded just like public education and you know the whole Neoliberal reforms in the end of the 90s early 2000s every school was privatized but with a really strong accountability system Inspectorate etc. Profit is like a big no go, although we have a lot of scandals here in the Netherlands, increasingly, so.
So it is we still consider it public, but a lot of people don’t know how privatized it actually is. And it also makes it more easy to sell this kind of stuff. So if you look at how the government operates, when they’re talking about ICT and ethic and they’re creating these policies, the only people they’re talking to, are actually like the representatives on our boards, like way high up, and the publishers and the ethic people and technology people. So teachers don’t have any say, or schools themselves don’t have any say in those policy networks. They are huge, are well funded. And they know how to approach the ministry, etc. And so it’s been quite worrying. And I’ve been, as a teacher be quite disgusted by the whole direction that has taken the last like eight years or so.
Will Brehm: 19:24
And what direction has that taken in the last eight years?
Jelmer Evers: 19:28
I think we’ve managed to stop a lot of neoliberal discourse, like the standardized testing and the top down managerial sort of like culture that is sort of completely embedded in our schools. I think we’ve managed to stop that. But the whole privatization aspect of it and the whole more it’s more easy to start schools and then people want to do away with the central exams, it becomes more easy to penetrate sort of like our school system through these networks, where our teachers don’t have any say. So I took the whole public aspect of our system is broken without it being really clear to people. So for me, that’s sort of an example of what you see around going on around the world, not just in the Netherlands, it’s happening in a strong system like the Netherlands where you can imagine and you know what’s going on in the United States, but also in the developing world and in African countries, but also Asian countries. I mean, it’s huge and well organized like I see here in the Netherlands as well. So let’s that’s going against I think, I think we’ve another one a lot of sort of, like discourse battles against sort of like that’s how standardized narrative and now we’re up against a new sort of like narrative. And it’s not on a lot of people’s radars. It’s progressive side to it. And that makes it more difficult to counter I think and even be aware of it.
Will Brehm: 20:58
How would you define that progressive side?
Jelmer Evers: 21:01
What do you mean like?
Will Brehm: 21:04
Well, you were saying that education technology sort of furthers the privatization efforts inside schools, not only in the Netherlands, but around the world, and you’re trying to in a sense mobilize against that movement. But because perhaps education technology has this progressive side to it and makes it a little more difficult to mobilize that resistance, can you talk a little bit about that progressive side?
Jelmer Evers: 21:35
Everybody wants to personalize as you want to bring out the talent of the individual student, that’s a given. That’s sort of like one of the major goals, that’s what we do as teachers. If you want to try to build a good relationship, you want to see what’s in there, what comes out of it and improve on that you want to give him every attention or her every attention that he can. So if somebody says, well, here’s the solution that we can give you a real personalized education. Well, before it was just a standard industrial, Prussian solution which is complete nonsense, of course model well it’s based on a faulty premise, that it’s just sort of like jumping through hoops and running through a small like, standardized maze, that it’s sort of like standardized education in disguise, and in another ways. And it’s also like, at least in the Netherlands, and I think definitely in the West, a formative assessment has really taken off in classrooms, and teachers are really aware of it. And I think more research informed on these kinds of developments. And it also buys into that kind of narrative. And it actually helps I’m not against that, per se. But if people then take it to the next level, and start replacing, and like a narrative replacing teachers, and we don’t need teachers anymore, or they’re even better than teachers then it becomes really, really problematic, because those technologies can do that whatsoever at all. If you look at sort of, like what AI experts are saying, it can do and really specific thing really, really well.
But a job and especially in education is so much more than that. And it also has to do with empathy and ethics and morals and bringing up the child as a society, and I sort of like as a and the school is also a small community where it creates sort of like new communities and prepares him for a wider world, which isn’t just about economics and jobs.
So if you, I mean, artificial intelligence can never do that. At least definitely not for the coming 50 years. If you look at all these what AI experts are saying. But at the same time, if you don’t open up, like the times education supplement, for example, it says, well, we need to be really afraid of AI, because they’re going to replace us in that’s just not true. So where’s this narrative just coming from, and then it becomes more easy to sell this kind of things well. But we’re personalized, and how can you be against personalizing education.
So that’s sort of like the real difficult thing I think people are grappling with. And if you’re also then offered incentives to be part of a global network that you can visit conferences, and it’s being paid for, etc. So like, our teachers are now also sort of like in these corporate networks and big tech networks, and that those are the best-funded teacher networks around the world. And they’re having this corporate there, they’re now having a corporate identity instead of a professional identity. So that’s, you know, those are the dynamics that are going on under the heading of personalized education.
Will Brehm: 24:50
It seems slightly analogous to the way in which medical or pharmaceutical companies sort of engage with the medical profession.
Jelmer Evers: 25:01
Yeah, I think there’s definitely and I hadn’t really thought about that way yet. I will have to pursue that as well, I definitely think that’s, that’s the case, and I’ve got a few of my friends are general practitioners, and they definitely have an issue with it. And I know there’s a whole internal debate, like from a professional point of view, but there are lots of people who are buying into the system that goes, you know, it gives them opportunities, it gives them a platform, and it’s the same kind of dynamics. And the problem is, like, the people who are fighting for public education are always underfunded, less network, we’re not at the vows, so to speak. So yet, so that’s you know, and you want to get your voice out. And actually, a lot of people are doing good work. And some of you know, some of the lesson plans that are that they’re talking about, and, and pushing out and really valuable. But if they’re part of this bigger discourse, and I read a, there was a series of the New York Times about these networks, but this kind of networks how Google and Microsoft and Apple are opening up their schools to sell their products.
I don’t think we, as a profession, we have had a real genuine discussion about this. And it also becomes that we’re because we were quite a weak profession, I think, in another sense that we don’t have standard lots of standards, professional bodies, unions have been focusing on bread and butter issues, and it should be way, way wider than they do now. So there’s so many things that we still need to organize around and do and we need to do it globally, I think. It is a global discussion, because these operators, they all operate on a global level. So you can never do it in on a national level, or just on a national level.
So yeah, that’s sort of like the, there are so many things that you need to be involved in. And if you’re, then as a teacher, for example being educated as just focusing on pedagogy and just focusing on the classroom, and you’re not sort of like, brought into this wider discussion, it makes it really hard for people to resist. And that’s also what happened, I think, in the 90s and the 2000s people were, teachers were really being pushed back into the classroom and just sort of like it, then you’ll be, you have to do it you’re told, so this whole history that we’ve had, at least in the 80s and 70s and 60s and more critical pedagogy, but also, like, a really strong profession that’s also being has been undermined. So it sort of makes it really hard to fight back, I think, on these issues.
Will Brehm: 27:41
And so what can teachers do? I mean, if they had, say, a stronger profession, or more professionalized like you were saying, and these global networks, teachers still need to be very literate in all of this new technology, and have a voice at the table, in a sense on how it can be incorporated. So in a sense, how do teachers in your perspective, sort of resist or engage with this large network of education businesses that are in a sense spearheading this fourth industrial revolution?
Jelmer Evers: 28:22
Well, first thing is, I think there’s the idea of a network teacher is really powerful. So they’re actually tapping into something that is really worthwhile. I think, also, if you look at professional development, and why teachers stay in the classroom, that is networking aspect, and collaborative learning is extremely powerful. It’s probably one of the best ways to retain teachers as well, but also for us to become better as a profession. So I think what we need to do is sort of like, try to find ways to support those networks. But then also when we start talking about pedagogy, and good and what is good pedagogy, educational technology, formative assessment, we also start to sort of like pushing these narratives, what education is for, what are all the actors involved in education, what kind of role are you taking, so the networks are always there. And there’s this really powerful network here in the Netherlands, but globally, and I’m talking to teachers from United States, Australia, Africa, African countries, like Uganda, South Africa. So I mean, we’re already connected. It’s just that it doesn’t have a real organizing bit to it. And that’s what I think we’re old fashioned unions that unionism comes in. And I think they need to take a wider approach from just focusing on salaries, for example, or workloads, it’s about being a profession. And I think a lot of unions have already had that, but they also sort of like, let themselves be pushed into this, no more narrow narrative. But just focusing on grassroots networks is not good enough. If you look at sort of, like the field revolutions in the Middle East, the occupy movement, etc.
So if there’s no powerful, political, organized, well-funded movements, combined with this, sort of, like more grassroots network, social media kind of activism. If you can combine those things, I think you have a really, really good chance of sort of, like changing the narrative and our own sort of like what we’ve learned here, at least in the Netherlands, if you if you have a powerful narrative, and if you’re going to influence the general public, you can turn those things around. So we moved away from standardized testing. And I think there’s, there’s a distant, a new sort of, like, powerful grassroots movement and Facebook group that popped up, and they were sort of like a catalyst for a national strike. And you’ve seen those things pop up in the United States as well. So if they’re even comes from like, the, the core of the resistance, like in the, in the red states, Red for Ed. So I think everything is there already, I think, but we need to be more conscious of this. And I think it also starts with being in teacher education.
I don’t think I was sort of educated enough of being (in English or not being) that I was part of a profession and being proud of being part of the profession, what does it mean to go beyond your classroom, and that’s something that we need to take up as well, start with, you know, the people entering into our profession and taking this more holistic approach. And I think everything so I’m quite optimistic actually, that we can achieve change, like flipping the system, that’s what we call it and putting the teachers at this center of it. And because I’ve already seen so many positive changes within schools themselves in school district, but also even on a national level, like New Zealand started turning back on lots of like, toxic neoliberal reforms just recently, so that’s sort of like gives me a lot of optimism that we can turn this around, but it does need to be a conscious effort. And, and that’s we’re still not at that stage. And that’s what we need to push for.
Will Brehm: 32:21
It seems like you’re also advocating for flipping the narrative of the fourth industrial revolution from either techno pessimism or seeing technology as some utopia to actually saying, Wait a second, humans use technology, and it has to, therefore be a political process as to how we use it to sort of flip the narrative completely.
Jelmer Evers: 32:47
Yeah, exactly. And it’s, you know, I’m not a Luddite. I love work, I actually came into, like, education, innovation. I think, like most teachers, through educational technology, that’s a starting point for new apps and new things that you want to try out and actually see, that’s working. And so their technology in itself is not bad. But if you look at sort also how the fourth industrial revolution is portrayed, and what kind of people are pushing it, and then definitely, we’re on the wrong track, I think. And although they talk about changing institutions, I don’t think I don’t see a lot of that happening at the moment. And you can also see, and that’s where the teacher strikes in the United States are so instructive. If you start to go for like more 20 century 19th century activism, and like, go back to what unions and activists did in the emancipate themselves in the second half of the 19th century. If you combine that with new technology, you have a really, really powerful for us.
So I think most people are not against the web. So we were Skyping at the moment, you’re in Japan, and I am here in Brussels. So it would be foolish to discount it. But people really like that sort of like, if you either in this camp or in that camp. But if you that’ll makes it really easy to discount the criticisms are they just against technology, we’re not, but we want to use it. And so that everybody can profit from it, or maybe profit not the right word, but help us create a better world and help our students create a better world. And that’s what it should be about. And most of the systems that are being created and are being funded and lobbied for at the moment are going in the wrong direction including international organizations and big corporations etc.
So if we state that technology is neutral, we can use either for good or for bad, then we are on the right track. But it also needs to be embedded in sort of re-evaluation of the public goods. So if you’ve looked at sort of like, I think if you look at, for example, in economics, that narrative is gaining momentum in ways which I haven’t seen, like in the 70s or 60s, I think when change was dominant. So with Piketty and Dani Rodrik and all these people like really advocating for reassessing how we look at society and economics and politics, etc. So that’s already happening as well. And we need to tap into that, I think, in education, and what like what we flip the system here in the Netherlands and also international those kind of narratives and Pasi Sahlberg and Carol Campbell in Canada and there’s so many people doing the right thing. And systems are also start doing the right thing.
So it’s not that hard to find good examples. It’s just to make more people aware of it and actually start fighting for them. And that there is an alternative out there and it is already working. And that’s, I think, what we if we can, if we can put that into people’s minds, then you can create a really powerful counter movement and a new alternative.
Will Brehm: 35:58
Well, Jelmer Evers, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, and it really was a pleasure to talk today.
Jelmer Evers: 36:03
Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed it. So I love to think about it again. Thank you!