Meet Boris Kelly
Interview by Christer Windeløv-Lidzelius
Hi Boris. Lovely to have this chance to talk with you. Could you please start by tell us about yourself, who you are and what you do?
Well, Linkedin tells me that I am a creative entrepreneur, leader, learning designer and facilitator working at the conjunction of technology, the future of work and lifelong learning. My purpose is to contribute to emerging global futures in education and society, more broadly, through creative collaboration and co-creation. I’m also a grandfather(!) in a rapidly growing family, a musician, writer, co-founder of a vocational college in Australia and an associate of Kaospilot.
You been quite engaged with our work at Kaospilot, can you talk to us about that?
My work with Kaospilot started in Singapore in 2017 when I participated in the ACDFLS (Designing and Facilitating Learning Spaces) three-day program with the wonderful Tora Sefeldt. The following year I worked with the Kaospilot to bring ACDFLS to Australia for the first time. These were life-changing events for me because the connection to Kaospilot, especially through Simon Kavanagh, yourself and Ramon Marmolejos served to validate and expand my own feelings, thoughts and work as an educator. I felt I had found a community of practice that encouraged and supported me to reach into my personal stretch zone and do my best work. I went on to work with Simon Kavanagh in Barcelona and later visited Kaospilot in Aarhus. By this time I had become an international associate of the school and was supporting Ramon in facilitating Kaospilot programs in Australia. That work continues today. I simply cannot overstate the importance of my work with Kaospilot and the impact Simon, in particular, has had on my practice. I believe the world needs Kaospilot at this moment and I feel very privileged to be a small part of this important work.
In the past you have started and run an event management company for more than 10 years and been involved in performing arts for more than 10 years; can you talk to us about that and how that led up to your current work?
I’d like to step further back in time to respond to this question 🙂 When I was 18, in my undergraduate years, I took a course in alternative education theories and methods. The course had a profound impact on my thinking because as a working class kid from the western suburbs of Sydney I had no idea of the work of AS Neill, Dewey, Goodman, Illich, Freire etc. So, I had a kind of naïve epiphany in which I suddenly saw my entire education in the public school system as having been primarily a process of socialisation in which the focus was not learning but control. The experience had systematically removed my natural curiosity and replaced it with compliance. So I took a year off university, where I was studying media and communication, to work as a teacher’s assistant in one of Sydney’s most prominent experimental schools. That period in my life radically altered my perception and understanding of education. In later years, my own children attended Waldorf schools.
To return to your question, yes I did work in performance for many years as a producer of multimedia, highly experimental works grounded in collaborative practice. My partner in crime was the extraordinary Monica Barone. We were influenced by the work of Brecht, Grotowski, Kantor, Suzuki, Foreman, Chaikin, La Page, Bausch, the Wooster Group and others who were practitioners who questioned the primacy of a literary approach to performance. We were making collaborative works using audio, video, music, dance, acting and text to engage with social, cultural and political questions.
In reality, the move from performance to events is not as unlikely as it may seem. After all, events involve real people in real time and often required many of the processes, technologies, methods and systems used in live performance. I was often invited to assist in the production of events for organisations and, by chance, I became involved for a time in events to support the advocacy of indigenous causes in Australia. This was a great privilege for me. I had the opportunity to work with leading writers, musicians, intellectuals and politicians in the interests of some very important moments in Australia’s history. I formed an events company after the Sydney Olympic Games and went on to spend many years working in business events. During that time I began teaching event management in the tertiary education sector and, ultimately, started my own college in 2012 with my colleague Annie Shillington.
So you see there is a full circle between my early epiphanies and my work as an educator today.
In a well-designed learning experience curiosity is liberated and autonomy developed over time
What is learning experience design and why does it matter you think?
My years in performance and events taught me a lot about experience design and I have brought these lessons to my work in learning experience design. For me, Learning Design is about collaborative story-telling. It’s important that every voice is heard and that the collective journey aligns with the aspirations in each individual story. Each student has their own story which is woven into the larger narrative of the team.
In a well-designed learning experience curiosity is liberated and autonomy developed over time. As Kaospilot’s team-based pedagogy clearly demonstrates, as the complexity of a learning program increases over time, so too should the dependence on the learning facilitator decrease. It’s deceptively simple yet rarely seen. Imagine a world of autonomous, curious individuals with an appetite for learning and the tools to do it over their entire lives. We need to unlearn in order to learn how to learn. That’s the not-so-secret sauce.
Your college is a vocational, and when you speak about vocational training, you talk about it being competency focused; can you expand on that and maybe give an example or two?
Vocational colleges grew rapidly out of the need to provide skilled labour in a post-war industrial economy reliant on manufacturing, construction and resource extraction. In subsequent years, hospitality and other service sectors required different kinds of skills and later, as the economy shifted again, there was a need for skills in administration and management. Today there is high demand for ICT skills. Vocational education is competency-based which means assessment (the holy grail of education) is designed to determine if the student can competently execute specific tasks supported by relevant knowledge. In higher education, we could broadly compare competency-based training to the applied arts and sciences but without the research and referencing. Measurement is strictly based on a Competent or Not Yet Competent outcome. The NYC implies that with sufficient training and repetition a C outcome can be achieved. At face value, this is an eminently sensible system when applied to many occupations. For example, in electrical and manufacturing trades where apprenticeships are the predominant pathway to employment. However, our vocational system has been slow to adapt to changes in the economy, technology and society more broadly. The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed, as novelist William Gibson put it.
Finally, vocational education is the poor cousin of the more prestigious higher education sector. School leavers are funnelled into the university system despite clear evidence that a vocational pathway can lead to excellent outcomes in education and employment and lay the foundation for further study at a higher level. However, at the highest levels of business, the value of vocational education is recognised and the need for deep change broadly acknowledged.
You and me had a call during the pandemic when we exchanged experiences and views on what was going on, challenges, opportunities and where it may lead: What would be your perspective on those questions now?
It’s interesting that you say “during the pandemic” which might suggest it has passed:) Strangely perhaps, I feel fortunate to be living in the age of a global pandemic, as challenging and tragic as it is. Pandemics are accelerators of change and drivers of innovation and yet we tend to move on from them very quickly as compared to major wars. It’s strange because pandemics often take more lives than wars and yet history neglects their significance. Science journalist Laura Spinney has a terrific book called Pale Rider which documents how the 1918 pandemic changed the world. We are seeing a similar trend now across various sectors of society, culture and the economies. An obvious example is the changing nature of work and the subsequent shift in the way orgsanisations are managed. In Australia, we have also seen related changes emerging in commercial real estate as a result of a decrease in demand for office space, for example. We also see people relocating to live in regional areas because of an increased capacity and desirability of working from home. Businesses see challenges and opportunities as operating costs may decrease but productivity may decline if the workforce is not effectively supported and coordinated. It’s as if the trends that were emerging prior to the pandemic – for example, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution – have accelerated due to the impact of the pandemic. The effect on education has been profound. Out of desperation, the trend to adopt EdTech solutions has been greatly accelerated, with mixed results it must be said.
Can you talk to us about from your experiences what is important when designing LX for online qualifications?
This is an extremely interesting area for me because I strongly believe as an LX designer that I must strike the sweet balance between digital and analogue experience. Of course, in blended learning scenarios where face-to-face experience is supported by digital resources and systems we can find balance if the design is good. But what if the experience is predominantly online with little or no face-to-face contact between the cohort? What if the program is asynchronous? How do we find the human touch in this scenario? I am an admirer of Douglas Rushkoff’s term “team human”. I believe we must strive to sustain the human connection within the digital in addition to adjacent to it. When the pandemic hit and on-campus classes were suspended there was a rush to Zoom/Teams in universities and schools as a quick fix. Vast amounts of content were moved to learning management systems and online classes/meetings became the new normal. But something was lost and students and teachers were not universally happy with the experience. In our college, we began experimenting with online delivery several years ago, so we were quite well-positioned to take that experiment to the next phase during the pandemic. I must say that one of my guiding lights in this journey has been the Kaospilot model of learning experience design.
A leader is best when people barely know the leader exists. When the leader’s work is done, the aim fulfilled, people will say: we did it ourselves
What (new) methodologies have been important for your college, why and how have you worked with them?
Simon Kavanagh’s work in documenting the Kaospilot approach is quite revolutionary, in my opinion, because it combines leaner-centred design with team-based pedagogy. Connection is made before content. We meet the students where they are at any point in their learning journey. We ground our practice in action supported by theory. We co-design real world projects and complex hypotheticals. We embrace the opportunity in complexity and thrive in the creativity of negative capacity/capability. By this I mean the capacity to navigate and embrace uncertainty rather than reflexively jumping to conclusions. An artist understands this implicitly because art so often rises from uncertainty. Others might fear uncertainty. At a managerial level, I’ve found Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework very useful in navigating rapid change and formulating decisions. The work of the late Ken Robinson and John Taylor Gatto while not new are very inspiring. Finally, I am a big fan of the Australian company Open Learning which has developed a very robust and flexible online learning platform based around social-constructivist pedagogy. It is refreshing to discover a social learning platform supported by an explicitly stated pedagogical philosophy. It’s very cool and in combination with the Kaospilot methods and the use of learning arches offers a wonderful toolkit for the learning designer.
Speaking to someone like you I am naturally drawn to how you see leadership at a higher education and what is important to you in that respect?
Well Christer, I must confess that I was obsessed by the recent Trump era in US politics precisely because in Trump we saw the antithesis of the type of leadership the world desperately needs right now. Trump embodied everything a leader should not be, in my humble opinion. His presence was a low point in American history and, therefore, the world’s. And yet, his appalling example was a kind of blessing because it highlighted the kind of leadership we do need.
Lao Tzu said something like this: A leader is best when people barely know the leader exists. When the leader’s work is done, the aim fulfilled, people will say: we did it ourselves.
Realistically, I do not expect major changes are imminent in education leadership. Institutions are slow moving trains and there are complex vested interests in play. However, I do see clear evidence of a desire for a different kind of leadership arising in young people and I attribute that in part to a spirit of entrepreneurship combined with a desire for robust social change to address the critical issues we face at this time. I sense this desire every day in our students and it is very inspiring.
At a macro level, I am inspired by the work of Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge and others at MIT. The notion of leading from an emerging future is very appealing as a sophisticated framework for change grounded in common sense.
Any thoughts on the future of education?
At this moment I believe there is some danger in uncritical acceptance of technological “solutions”. I am very wary of the “Googlification” of education (and everything, for that matter). I am coining the term as a rubric for the full scope of technological innovation in education and the impacts, positive and negative, it will have. Who would have thought the introduction of Facebook’s “like” button would have such profoundly negative outcomes? But it has. For me, Facebook is the troll beneath the bridge. Along with Google it has disproportionate power and I am in full agreement with Jaron Lanier and Shoshana Zuboff on this. I am a tech enthusiast but a sceptical one wary of unintended (or perhaps intended) consequences. So, in the rush for the efficiencies of scale offered by EdTech we need to serve the interests of team human first and foremost. A very large proportion of our lives is devoted to institutionalised education. Yet, we see very deep social dysfunction persisting. For example, in Australia we have a chronic problem with domestic violence which points to the way men are socially and culturally constructed. If the primary determinants of experience and behaviour are family, popular culture and school then education, in the broadest sense, can do more to facilitate being the change we want to see in the world.