Discussions about how attention, finance and effort get spent on educational technology at a national level in any country all too often get drawn into a "We're right, they're wrong" play-off. It's been hard trying to formulate some thoughts after a meeting I was invited to last week by the Scottish Government. In Scotland, on the back of one day, at least, I felt the beginnings of a crack of enlightenment in some frank, sometimes painful discussions about where Scotland's educational technology line of vision might head in the future.
The discussion was conducted under Chatham House Twitter rules, in that the points from the discussion could be made public, but the person from whom they emaninated not. It meant that we were able to call it as it was, challenge and question each other for more detail. It does, though, make blogging about the experience tricky. I've been stung too often in the past from people with agendas, journalists who want to just make stuff up and those who oh-so-wisely but oh-so-naively believe it, by those who hear but do not listen.
There are some good roundups of the content of the day, and some of the discussions:
- Neil Winton
- Andrea Reid
- John Johnston
- Fearghal Kelly
- A steady flow of Twitter responses and ideas on the #ediff tag.
Instead of duplicating those points, I think I'd like to dump some perhaps unrelated thoughts that came up through the afternoon discussion I was part of, looking at learning from a student's perspective and thinking about what that might mean for a national technology for learning strategy.
1. Do we need Big IT doing stuff for us, can we just do it ourselves, or is there a sweet spot somewhere inbetween? With me on the day was Andrea Reid, a Quality Improvement Officer from the south of Scotland, and in her summary of the day she quotes one of her students, summing up a latent tension any centralised or national technology initiatives hold:
I was with a group of P7s and part of their group getting over a high wooden wall, with no footholds ( about 12 feet). It was one of those team efforts where everyone had to get to a platform on the top, and I promptly interfered and gave advice. One boy took himself out of the group and wandered off to the side – completely adamant he wasn’t getting involved. Eventually he came over and said to me – “Look when you stop helping us I’ll get involved.” Point duly taken I backed off and he worked with the others to get everyone over in a really fast time. His leadership and collaboration with the others was outstanding. At feedback later his comment to me was "When you learn to trust us to solve our own problems, you’ll find we can do it and even if we can’t we’ll have tried our best". Clever boy, who had been really hard going in class previously – disengaged and hard work. Big lesson for me…
The assumption that Government knows the problems that need solved and then goes in to sort it all out is one that has blossomed in the last dozen years or so. But, as we hit these times of austerity, it's the lack of cash to go around that's forcing (or allowing us to take advantage of) an attitude of "it's not what your country can do for you, it's what you can do for your country".
Does Government not have to think about how it goes about Big IT, and whether it goes about Big IT projects at all? There were as many of us wanting to see an increased role of an open marketplace as having more investment in the state-run Glow learning platform, in a "where would you put your money" exercise.
2. National technology for learning projects that are about connecting learners, parents and schools seem to have forgotten something: Facebook has all the mechanics required to do this, and the critical mass to make discovery of others easier. Facebook might only be useful for the adults and older students amongst our learners, but where it fails, Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin etc come to fill in the gap. Could we not harness the open market better, rather than trying to compete against them?
3. "Safe" is the (wrong) key word of most national learning technology initiatives. In Scotland, the 'safety' of Glow has been over-stated, and has been used as a crux by some to avoid delving into the issues that Facebook and other social networks and virtual worlds bring in the real world, both for adults and for children.
4. No online service should ever be so unintuitive and hard to use that it requires training to learn how to open it, let alone how to harness it for deeper or more collaborative learning. Design is vital, and has been ignored - is still ignored - in national education technology projects. Get BERG to do it right.
5. The underlying problem for national education technology has nothing to do with technology. We're solving the wrong problem by throwing money at training and code, when the real problem lies in collaboration itself. Collaboration across age, stage and school subject gets more difficult from nursery onwards. Nursery is the fragile balance between schooling, play and life-learning that we should struggle to maintain throughout formal education. Until we get to grips with how to better plan learning, particularly in secondary education, then the vast majority of "collaborative" technology is a wasted effort. We should be looking at how we can have more schools consider their curriculum through the lens of a learning wall, how they can generate truly student-led learning.
6. National collaborative technology projects assumed that the gatekeepers - parents and teachers - think sharing is a good, worthwhile activity. Sharing is a good thing, and is the lifeblood of great creative ideas (no hyperlink to prove it - there's a ton of literature and evidence out there; start off with my delicious links if you like). But vast swathes of teachers don't think so. If there are still relatively few teachers sharing on weblogs, for example, it has nothing to do with the weblogs or other choice of sharing tool, and everything to do with their perception that spending some time thinking, reflecting, committing to (e)paper and sharing that with as wide an audience as possible is a futile, useless, time-consuming activity that competes with many others of greater perceived importance. It would be worth £35m working out how to crack that one first.
7. National technology projects have largely failed to delight. The reason games-based learning is so popular in the past four years more than any four year period prior to this is down principally to the exponentially improving field of video game narrative, graphic, motion controllers, augmented reality and storyline. The second key ingredient in helping this culture spread is a committed (but tiny) team of individuals who can help empower teachers to weave their own stories around those video games, and in turn inspire learners to do the same. Had the Consolarium team been peddling ZX Spectrum text adventures in 2010 I doubt there would have been the same excitement and tremendous uptake of a new set of contexts for learning.
Great technology and national condoning and pushing of it have combined to delight.
While social networks, virtual worlds and social media have been delighting growing numbers since 2005, national technology projects have tended to not only fail to condone their use for learning, but to distract potential users - publish here, not there, they try to persuade us. "Facebook is used by teachers for their personal lives, not for learning" I've been told. But I don't play video games to learn, either, yet I and many others are happy to harness them for learning in a different context.
8. National technology projects tend to see decisions made on beliefs and passions, not on transparent data. I want Glow's homepage to tell me:
- monthly unique visitors
- segementation of visitor types: teachers, learners, parents, admins, LTS staff etc.
- number of pages served
- dwell time
- number of unsuccessful log-ins
- bounce rate
- percentage of returning visitors each month
- peak user access times
- key pages served
I then would love to see data-driven decisions taken as to whether certain elements of Glow are working or not, and a weekly or monthly trial of new ideas to see if the public bite. If data is made public then we can see the rationale for decisions, rather than seeing them being made on gut insinct, the legacy of the project's history or who has been involved at any one point. I could ask for that information monthly on a Freedom of Information request. Or we could just see the decision-making process as transparently as it should be.
9. In Scotland we tend to be happy with being the first in the world, not the best in the world. Glow was the first national schools intranet. It might be the last, too. The implication is that an intranet is the best medium through which to connect learners, teachers and parents on a learning journey. Why is it? It may not be.
Is there something less compelling about the International School Bangkok's portal of learning that Jeff Utecht has kicked off, connecting to the world, where every student and teacher regularly contributes their learning to each other (and anyone else who wants to listen in) through freely available and free platforms?
Or what about the part automated, part teacher-produced feedback mechanisms of the Indian Mindsparks platform, letting students learn new concepts and reinforce their classroom learning on their own terms?
Or what about the transformative power of a teacher simply sharing to the world, in the form of video, what he and his students have made over a week: a village on stilts anyone?
By limiting ourselves to promoting so heavily what we were the first to produce we limit ourselves away from harnessing the great new platforms and communities that others have forged and which are quietly thriving.
10. In 2005 there was little truly great content on the web. In 2010 we're spoiled for choice. Having great content was one of the things Glow was sold on - successfully - in the early days. Like so many other things, the world changed faster than we could have imagined. TED Talks alone prove the huge value we place on world class content but, unlike much of its education content provider cousins, TED found a business model that allows it to make this learning material free, joining its closer cousins MIT Open Courseware et al. As YouTube seeks out new ways to let us rent or borrow content as and when we need it, what role is there left for a tiny national schools intranet as the curator of 'quality' content? Can one group of curators, however greatly qualified and localised in viewpoint, beat the cream of the world's global curators?
11. We don't want to consume content. We want to learn through experiences whose context is relevant and meaninful to me. Too many have told me about their Glow training sessions with this phrase: "We were told that 'this is how you put up your PowerPoints or class notes for everyone to see." The fact is, this is not the kind of learning we want. If someone feels that their learning can be swiftly and easily uploaded to a site in the form of a PowerPoint or worksheet then something is wrong. How can an online experience back up and augment the real world experiential learning we see in some of our best schools? How can that experience each child experiences differently be represented, shared and developed after the fact? It's certainly not through document stores and half-empty forums.
12. We want a sense of audience - sometimes that's beyond our class, school or country. The biggest challenge with any national platform is going to be that word - national. Our students are already empowered to go international every time.