Will You Benefit From a Quantified Self?

I’m not a number. I’m a lot of numbers…

I’m glad Steve Wheeler had a look at what it means (and could mean in the future) to live a more quantified life as I was also considering future issues after the release of the Horizon Report on Higher Education [Full report / Preview summary].

Number Garden (photo by Grafixar)

Life-logging to me is about accessing an ever-increasing amount of data relating to your day to day behaviour.

How far did you run, what was your heart rate, how many words did you write, how many times did you smile, what food did you eat and how quickly did you eat it, how long were you browsing websites for entertainment, how many hours of TV did you watch (including Internet video), when did you get exposure to sunshine, what music did you listen to, who did you spend time with…?

The point is, so much of what you do can be measured. The data can be used for educational purposes, making lifestyle decisions, finding efficiencies in what you do, staying fit, reaching goals, learning languages, and pretty much anything you like.


It’s another opportunity for information overload. The data comes in useful until it becomes an overwhelming issue that needs so much time to organise and understand that you just don’t have the time to make use of it in an effective way.

A big issue could revolve around a single data set, but when you’re faced with many of these in your life, their individual simplicities becomes a mess of difficulties that you’re forever trying to juggle.

Yes, even when everything is apparently done for you. Why? Because we start to rely on the data. And the data gets used to push you in other directions when you least expect it. Perhaps.

How important is it to track absolutely everything you do? When you try to action something or develop a new habit, access to this information will be potentially wonderful. However, would you be able to take things one step at a time? As with any learning, the more focused you can be, the more dedication you can give to the matter at hand. When you’ve got loads of things on the go at once, it’s all jostling for position and giving you a headache.

Baby steps

The more data being amassed about your experiences and behaviours, the more you can take small, manageable steps towards goals, but the less likely you can isolate things while ignoring the rest of what you do.

There are many occasions when ignoring the rest would be preferable, and yet even this rarely attainable desire has its downside. For instance, all the things you do are related to everything else when you least expect it. So ignoring the bigger picture may be just as damaging or confusing in a number of cases.

You can’t win. Quantifying yourself is brilliant and will result in all sorts of developments and discoveries. At the same time, it will cause just as many difficulties and disasters.

Your future

As with so many things, you have to find out what works best for you and make many stumbles along the way. There is no simple answer. What looks crazy to the rest of the world may be perfect for you. And when you’ve completed everything despite everyone else’s protestations, it turns out your choice is no longer crazy and appears to be in fashion.

That’s just one way things can turn out. There are plenty other scenarios. Take your pick.

The quantified self is set to be awesome and awful. It’s bound to be both. And everything in between, of course. We can’t work on extremes alone!

In conclusion, a quantified self is probably not a bad prediction in the Horizon Report. This year’s predictions are all relatively sound in my view. But–as with the rise of MOOCs–how it benefits and impacts the world and individuals is never clear cut. Stuff happens and we deal with it.

So you’d better be prepared for what’s to come. Not because you know what’s going to happen, but because you can make best use of the technologies and developments for your own personal gain. And if you can help others along the way, that’d be fantastic.

All the things

I haven’t mentioned medical health, privacy and a whole host of other issues surrounding intimate data and life-logging. Seriously, read Steve Wheeler’s blog post and the links he provides for a start on that.

And read the Horizon Report too, so you can have an idea of the other things you may see in the coming months and years.

That way, you can look into your future not as a given, but as a guide.

A Star No Starter: Why You Are Worth More Than Your Grades

When you leave school with 7 A* grades at A-level, it’s pretty impressive.

When you fail to get a place at the University of Oxford on those grades, people start talking. That’s what happened to Alastair Herron this year.

Oxford (photo by Max-Design)

Oxford (photo by Max-Design) – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the talking, not enough is known about the full application made. If we did have more information, would the application have fallen at a single point, or at several?

There isn’t a big story here, because Herron received offers from American universities and he has happily accepted a place at Stanford.

Whether you’re still looking for a uni place or you’ve graduated with full honours, there are some key takeaways from this news:

Keep your options open

Herron had offers from other universities that he was intent on going to. Regardless of an offer from Oxford, he had his sights set elsewhere. Interviewed on BBC Radio Belfast, Herron said, “I would never stay at Oxford with offers from America so I am not in any way disappointed”.

Whatever you do, have a number of routes open to you and prioritise. That way, you won’t flounder when one route comes crashing down. Herron took the news with a shrug. He was surprised, but he considered it Oxford’s loss. He already had other options at hand.

Grades are not the whole picture

University (and life) is about much more than exam results. Whatever you end up with, life goes on. Many things you set your sights on can still be achieved, albeit a little later and with further work. There are alternative routes in to some fields too.

When you’re put to the test, you waste your own time if you don’t put in any real effort. And when you do spend the time, don’t feel disheartened if you end up with less than straight As. Herron’s story shows that grades aren’t the whole picture.

Your situation wouldn’t necessarily be different with 100% in everything. You can’t read the future and it’s not worth playing ‘What if…?’ when you haven’t a clue how things would have turned out. Focus on here and now, not on an alternative reality.

Success doesn’t rely on one particular thing

It’s easy to fixate on a small part of the picture and building it up more than it needs. Spend enough time and effort on something and it’s not surprising that you can do great things in that area.

However, you need to demonstrate many qualities as a person. Personal traits, interests outside academia, social activities, and all sorts of elements comprise your unique makeup.

By all means boast a thousand A* A-levels, but be prepared to offer more than one sole quality.

Unless, of course, that quality is the solution to a huge problem or the answer to a long-standing question that has baffled generations of people. When you hold the key to something special, that’s great. Just be warned, this is rare. And even when you do hold the key, you may not realise it. In other words, don’t go searching for it blindly.

No regrets

When something doesn’t work out, however big or small, try not to dwell on it too much. My A-level adventure could have been much better if I had been mentored better and given more solid information, advice and guidance in certain places.

I didn’t let that bother me. For all the facepalm moments that I know could have been far better for me in hindsight, I’ve had many wonderful experiences that have taken me to places I wanted to be anyway.

If I regretted my actions and, once again, played the ‘What if…?’ game in my mind, I could have spent forever thinking I had missed my one and only chance.

There are other chances. It’s okay to kick yourself, or throw your head to the air and wish you’d spotted things sooner, but move on as soon as you can. Instead of regretting what has passed, concentrate on what could be. Seek out new ways to get to where you would like to be and use your new insights to help get you there this time.

Whatever the future holds, you can’t see it until it’s happened. And then it’s the past. Attempt to secure the best future for you, but don’t hold on to it if it doesn’t work out. Look forward, look for alternatives, and look out world…You’re on a mission!

We will never know precisely why a university turns a straight-A student down. That’s why it’s not worth focusing on.

You are worth more than your grades. You are better than that.

HE Policy: Short-term Futures and the Importance of Watching Everyone

The future of higher education is always just around the corner.

In reality, some concepts have hardly changed in hundreds of years, while others come and go so quickly they could be mistaken for a myth.

As things stand in 2013, institutions need to be ready to keep their current ground as well as prepare for growing trends in the short- to mid-term future. Long-term is a given, although my main reason to not mention it is because stakes are strangely higher in the short-term at the moment. As David Kernohan recently mentioned, “Institutional management has become an increasingly short-term enterprise”.

Whether you look at universities as competing elements or a bunch of diverse individuals, it would be wise to pay attention to what each institution is up to. A Russell Group member shouldn’t rest on its laurels, despite the perceptions of relative safety within such company. They should look further afield and pay attention to decisions made by new universities, private providers, and overseas players. Everything and everyone should be watched with interest.

Watching you, watching me, watching everyone. (Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Watching you, watching me, watching everyone. (Kalexanderson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

That’s just an example. No matter where your university hangs on the tree of esteem, it’ll be worth checking out the strategic moves of others across a wide area. Perhaps you complain that private providers are only in it for the money, but if their surprise move successfully captures an active audience it’ll be up to everyone else to catch up. For some, it may be too late to catch up:

“…as many as 20 to 30 current…institutions could become unviable if student demand continues to fall.” [THE]

The quote above refers to concerns from HE leaders interviewed by PA Consulting Group. It looks like everyone is vying for as much audience as possible. The report found the biggest major concerns were of a decline in postgraduate student demand and further reductions in funding. The biggest moderate concern was an inability to grow alternative sources of profitable revenues. Hence the continuing need for healthy numbers of bums on seats.

This may annoy some readers. “Students should not be seen as pound signs.” “Using admissions as a way to tempt people and dump them with little to speak of later is a disgrace.”

And there is a fine line. Institutions clearly need to highlight unique selling points to get a steady stream of keen applications. However, as Janet Graham, director of the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme, says in today’s Times Higher Education:

“…some approaches, while appearing to give institutions an edge, potentially push the boundaries of acceptable practice and fair admissions – to the detriment of the sector and the confusion of applicants.
“This carries a long-term cost, as it could harm institutions’ reputations among prospective students, parents, schools, colleges and the public. Short-term fixes must be thought through.”

In essence, a short-term view still requires a long-term attitude. All the more reason to keep track of new developments within a wide scope and at an early stage, so you can catch a glimpse of what’s playing out with time to breathe. Ish.

You may not wish to emulate particular success stories, partially in view of Janet Graham’s point above. However, you should build an understanding of what processes are working, whether they are relevant to your institution, and how you might be able to incorporate something similar into your plans.

Anything that seems dangerous or unacceptable may still contain useful fodder for your own future actions. You may be able to use it in a more reasonable way to make the point.

Plus, you can see where trends are starting to emerge. A small pool of providers may make a move toward something unusual, for instance. That’s a cue to assess what is going on and evaluate why the sudden interest is there. Always be on the lookout for clues. What looks strange today might be pretty standard tomorrow.

There is only so much you can do through surveys and studies and action groups. You won’t be first in everything. But when you’re not first, you should at least be aware so you can make well reasoned decisions to be close behind with a solid plan, rather than lag at the back in a frenzied attempt to mop up whatever is left.

Awareness also allows the confidence to dismiss some moves outright. Though mistakes are equally possible from this direction, none of us have a magical crystal ball lying around to get it right every time. Keeping careful watch and consideration is a reasonable alternative.

Question why new decisions have been made. Consider undisclosed background reasons behind why that direction is being taken. Could it work for you? Does it make sense? Is it reasonable? What’s missing? How can you find out more?

The short-term is where it’s at right now. That doesn’t mean the need for brash decisions. On the contrary, it often requires more consideration than ever.

Higher Ed and Continuing to Look Into the Future(s)

Is X the future of higher education?

No. No it’s not.

Whatever you choose X to be, it isn’t the future of HE.

Why? Because the answer is so singular. Higher education already appears in different guises. Nobody can say that HE is simple to define, because it means so much. The concept covers so much ground.

Similarities...Differences...All Directions... (photo by solidether)

Similarities…Differences…All Directions… (photo by solidether)

New websites that make learning available to a massive audience are great. There have been so many advances in recent months and I’ve loved taking a look at sites like Coursera and Udacity with their new approaches of bringing courses to an online population. It’s telling that many universities have been placing academic material on the Internet for years now. With MIT and Harvard starting edX, large institutions are attempting to see the future of education and tap into what’s possible.

But none of this is *the* future. These services are playing a small part in the current landscape. They are experimenting.

In the future, they may play a bigger part, with more on offer and more official recognition in one way or another. No matter how successful these services and institutions become, they won’t be the singular future.

Other questions are far more useful. Questions like:

  • “How important are these movements?”;
  • “What improvements could these services bring to the world (locally, nationally, internationally…)?”;
  • “Will new initiatives manage to open up learning to more people and with greater relevance?”;
  • “Can any of this help provide a more equal chance of getting the necessary help to the people who want it?”;
  • “Can these services identify and assist those people who don’t realise how beneficial this learning could be for them?”;
  • “Do these initiatives offer anything to enhance, alter, or perhaps even fundamentally change more traditional offerings?”;
  • “What, if anything, can traditional methods and services learn from new, disruptive technologies, in order to remain equally important and relevant?”

These are just some questions off the top of my head. They won’t have single answers. They’re not meant to.

The question “Is X the future of higher education?” is merely a starting point to allow other questions such as these to be asked.

A CNN piece that asks if Udacity is the future of higher education ends with a beginning:

“I asked [Sebastian] Thrun [founder of Udacity] whether his enterprise and others like it will be the end of higher education as we know it — exclusive enclaves for a limited number of students at high tuitions? ‘I think it’s the beginning of higher education,’ Thrun replied. ‘It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.’
“Much of traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence. But to my knowledge, with one class alone, Thrun has provided a level of diversity, opportunity and academic rigor not seen before. People from any country, any background and any income level can receive an elite education at virtually no cost. We have been talking about equal educational opportunity for years. What is going on here may be its true advent.”

Higher education has been necessarily disruptive since its inception. The word ‘higher’ is a clue. ‘Higher’ shouldn’t mean ‘exclusive’ or ‘elitist’. The term ‘higher’ should be seen as looking beyond the fundamentals. Perhaps even looking beyond the furthest point currently studied (PhD folks, I’m looking at you especially here!).

HE for everyone is fantastic, so long as everyone wants it and will genuinely benefit from it. Nobody can guarantee that someone will benefit, which further highlights the lack of one, single answer. Neither can everyone agree what ‘benefit’ implies, because we want different things and see things from many perspectives.

No matter how higher education develops, equal educational opportunity is in the sights of many. No single offering can solve the problem of inequality. If we take the conclusion of the CNN piece as a major driving force behind the desire to change the future of HE, the next question should not be “Is X the future of higher education?”

A better question would be: “Can X help bring greater equality in future educational provision and, if so, how?”

I don’t think Udacity has cracked that yet. But that shouldn’t stop them searching. It’s early days. As usual, questions are followed with more questions, followed by yet more questions. It’s non-stop. Just as you’d expect!

Possible answers are great. I’m happy that so many startups and established institutions want to provide them.

But I don’t see this as the start, or a ‘true advent’. I see this as a continuation.

Keep asking questions. Keep seeking answers. It’s important to keep going, even if no absolute and single solution is found. If everything was so simple, we would never need to be challenged again.

When that time comes, X really will be the future of higher education. And it will eat itself in the process. Omnomnom.