April 15, 2010

[ #bectax ]: It's less about our thoughts being listened to, more about making sure our actions are heard.

BectaX Speed networking
Over the past four years it has become de rigeur for any educational conference to wheel in unsuspecting students for a day out with the 'groan ups', have them present their highly-rehearsed and impressive version of what they've been "doing" in class (occasionally they can even tell us what they learnt), and then wheel them away again with a nice lunch in the their tummies.

At BectaX's (Becta Exchange) event at the end of March we didn't wheel any students in the room (apart from one very welcome one, on "holiday", with a working dad-cum-babysitter ;-). The main criticism of the event thus far has nearly solely been on a perceived lack of 'listening' to young people.

But I reckon we're listening to their voices more intently and memorably than any "learner voice" event I've ever attended. It's just that we - teachers and students together - have never really been very good at it, or doing anything much with what we find out from each other.

Having student's voices recorded, online and for some period of time, allows us to digest, reflect and follow up in a way that show and tells just do not afford. This is a task we're in the middle of doing in a quick and dirty way. Over the coming months we'll glean more detail, I hope, and hope that Becta might act on some of the gems hidden in there.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having learners in situe at an event?

Having real live learners at an event allows a small number of the attendees present to communicate with them at breaks, intervals and question and answer sessions. Having them on Twitter allows the adults in the room to have a conversation at any time, on any subject, if the adults and the learners want to. We blow apart the constraints of the physical and open up the infinity of online conversation. Better still, we keep that conversation or that virtual talk and can come back to the bits we didn't see, hear or pay attention to the first time around.

There is one huge advantage of having students visible in the front row, and that is that anyone delivering a talk or talking on a panel is constantly reminded of the audience whom they are addressing - a few points along the way, myself included, we either forgot about this or found it too hard to take truly complex issues and "do a Newsround" on it, kiddifying the language so that it can be understood by all.

That said, BectaX was about the panel sessions and keynote speaker least of all - it was all about the attendees, virtual and physical, and their backchannel. That's why we invited the people we did; that's why there was such a huge online debate as well as the face-to-face debate. If some of the physical sessions were best received in the hall and not at all engaging down a video link, that's not too much of a loss, frankly, particularly when the backchannel itself was where the action took place.

Why did people feel they weren't hearing learner voice (or being heard)?

This is where, if you're in the same room as the people you're talking with, I'm sure one has the distinct impression that everyone is listening intently. You'd be right. Where you're virtually communicating, through Twitter, there's no guarantee, no intent gaze from the audience, no smiles or nods. It's much harder to see a room full of people listening to you without these cues.

Most people communicating on the backchannels at BectaX were not receiving overt cues that people were listening to them. They might see their thoughts retweeted or perhaps rephrased further down the line. It was relatively rare to see a back-and-forth conversation between anyone.

BectaX Twitterfall
Perhaps, then, when we're dealing with online "listening" skills with learners and with adults in an intense one-day conversation mode. Perhaps we need some kind of way of showing that "virtual hearing and listening", and thumbs up, thumbs down isn't going to cut it. We tried to show 'listening' in a kind of "thumbs up" way by prompting schools to retweet the comments of other schools; doing this made the original comment show on a large map in the main hall which itself made conference attendees take note, laugh, prompt change on the panel (above). But it was a first step, rather than the ideal final means through which we have our attention grabbed by what virtual attendees are saying.

Dave Stacey again has some useful ideas about we could 'listen' and engage more intently:

"...for us the biggest improvement for any future event based on this model (and I really hope there are) would be other ways of integrating the conference and the schools – perhaps by the kind of voting that we tried to throw together, or perhaps by developing some kind of Etherpad style page on particular issues that would allow the schools to pull together their viewpoint."

Doing his kind of live, online survey or voting and having an in situe "Twitter panel moderator" somehow summarise the results of online action is a must for future events, and something I've done in the past for Online Information Conference, for example. It needs one person in situe at the conference doing nothing but virtual moderation to get the mental bandwidth that can make sense of big issues and condense them down for conference attendees both there in person and online.

What this comes down to, though, is how individuals, not some kind of amorphous abstract 'conference' or 'event', use the tools at our disposal to engage with learners. Whose job was it to 'listen' to learners during that one day conference and the subsequent weeks and months ahead? The conference organisers? Becta? Teachers? Learners themselves? It's certainly all of us, but there's a lot to be said for teachers and learners working out how to listen to each other in the longer term - I'm firmly from the school of thought that it is at least equally the responsibility of teachers, learners and parents to push things the way they want to see them going, as it is for policy units and politicians.

During the day we made a significant effort to keep the content, activity and long line of conversation that we had hoped to set out on at the beginning of the day while also changing, adding to proceedings to highlight more of the learner voice, especially for those not engaging both in person and with a laptop or blackberry backchannel. I think these suggestions are totally right on many levels, and that's why we made the changes we did.

BectaX Kids
What are the advantages of keeping the students in their own place of learning?

I also think that, in the age of "wheel in the students to share their story" we increasingly see at education conferences, we're overlooking the power and potential of not 'hearing' students literally, but rather hearing them digitally and delayed, leaving them thinking time on their own patch and then hearing back a self-curated, and slightly delayed version.

Why do students need this time to reflect? Because most people, kids or adults, need that time.

Many people at the BectaX event were kind enough to thank me for my live curation of tweets coming in at 275-per-hour, the live conversation of digital media industry leaders and educators, the questions from the audience in-house and online, and the messages coming live from 14 schools around the country at about 10 per minute.

It's a head-spinning job, and one I love to do. But it's not for everyone, and is something you learn from doing it very often, day-to-day. And, as I experienced for five minutes or so at the end of the day, you feel very much "out there", "in the nude" almost when you lose track of the multiple conversations going on.

Most of us, especially some of the younger kids with whom we were engaging, find it tricky to manage these multiple conversations, particularly when the subject matter is so dense and complex. It's one thing to be on MSN chatting about the telly while doing one's homework and playing a game, but it's quite another with the more complex mix of issues, people known and unknown to us, people of different ages and industries and biases as us, who we were attempting to bind at BectaX. We all need time to think and reflect - to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

A national conference having an effect in a school's own environment

At BectaX there were discussions we were not hearing in the auditorium or online, discussions taking place in classrooms across the country before digital scribes communicated their thoughts to the world. Dave Stacey points to the fact the conversations in his classroom quickly turned to what the implications of the panel discussions at the London conference might be for their own practice in school:

"One of the real successes for us was some of the school specific conversations that spun out from the event. In particular we got some great ideas from the students about how we should be teaching e-safety (it should be much more embedded in our PSE programme) and some interesting feedback on some ideas for future developments. So much so, we’re planning on keeping this group of students together as an advisory board to the ICT strategy group. It was also great to see so many members of the school management team pop in throughout the day. It showed off our students in the very best light, and showed how important to the school the whole issues of technology in schools is."

There was, in effect, real learning going on, not just learners who had learnt-by-rote their heart-warming spiel and were now presenting their pre-crafted view of the past learning to a group of admiring educators and teary-eyed romantics from the media industry. We were hearing stuff that was rough around the edges, genuinely revealing some truths around what students think of their learning and technology's role in it.

So, while we only managed to overcome technical, time and scope-based challenges of literally seeing and hearing from the schools with Cramlington Learning Village at the end of the day, and I would love to have seen more of that, this event needed the headspace and mental bandwidth that having kids in a different room afforded.

Virtual means we have a fairer spread of geography

Having this virtual arrangement also allowed more schools from more geographical locations to take part than we would have managed otherwise - when you wheel in students for London-based conferences, then all too often they're from the South East of England or London itself. It's hardly representative of the range of issues seen in rural, suburban, Welsh, Scottish or island schooling. That said, I'm not sure we used that geography as much to our advantage as we could have done - another one for the little black book of improvements. Indeed, we could have saved time, money and energy of even more active educator and media participants in the same way.

BectaX Workshopping
Does all this listening lead to action?

I'm a bigger fan of action than talking, and the lasting thought I tried to leave attendees at the event with was that Becta, tied by its election bolt down on any action being taken, needed the people in the room to take forward the principles and actions that they thought needed tried out and built up. The workshop sessions set the tone for this action, and already

  • Kristian has pulled the stops out in terms of engaging with the industry on making one of those workshopped ideas come to fruition.
  • David Muir has started soliciting ideas for what Initial Teacher Education needs to start doing to prepare its students better, with a view to changing practice and policy perhaps in his own institution.
  • Bev Humphrey sees herself as a small tug boat pulling that tanker down the river with her small actions as a librarian.
  • Doug hopes, but doesn't say how, that he'll be able to contribute something to changing policy in his own way (you have the force, Doug, just tell us what you're going to do with it ;-).
  • Dave Stacey and his students have shown what one spread of young people expect out of their school networks and policies: valuable inspiration for a larger national survey, perhaps, to see if the same is true nationally, and how it differs across age groups.
  • Clumie thinks that academia will have to start fundamentally changing its theoretical understanding of how we learn (and teach) when we take on board the opportunities new media affords us.
  • Dai says what the first panel easily concluded: there is a desire amongst many educators for a national steer on filtering that re-professionalises the teacher as someone who can be informed and trusted in terms of accessing the net. There is an equal desire amongst head teachers and others for more training on the balance of this freedom of use, consequences of error and how to handle media literacy.
  • Nicola McNee, superb librarian and inspiration on the day, agrees and wants to see filtering more nuanced, more intelligent and more malleable by educators, not IT technicians and non-educators - she wants a form of risk assessment framework to be provided to act as a basis of the discussions required to lead to that. Chris Harte, whose Cramlington students took part all day in the discussions, shares similar visions.
  • Tom Barrett outlines some practical suggestions anyone can take forward in their own school in order to "whisper change".
  • Mr Stucke sees some success in helping the media industry understand a little better why their products may well be blocked and filtered - for no apparent reason.

I think that next time, if there is a next time for this event, we need both physical, video/audio and entirely virtual, asynchronous communication, not one or t'other. But what I wouldn't want to see is a discontinuation of having students listen in on a discussion, talk about it in their own groups around the country and join in the discussion on an equal footing with the adults in the room. Likewise, though, in the ongoing BectaX conversation I think we need more than just Twitter. We need spaces like our blogs where we can let out more complex, messy, unfinished ideas and work with others to see them through. As Dean said this morning, sometimes 140 characters just doesn't cut it.

I'm left with the conclusion that no matter how hard politicians, policy units, schools and other institutions want to try to "listen" to constituents, citizens, workers and learners, the ball is really quite firmly in the court of the constituents, citizens, workers and learners to take action into their own hands. I want to see how this wordmap on Wordle changes over the next three, six, nine, twelve months.

It's not about your thoughts being listened to so much as making sure your actions are heard.


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Interesting conclusion. It kind of ties in with something I've been saying - have a look at this: http://mrportman.co.uk/a-fresh-approach-to-ict-decision-making-in-this-country/

Good article I totally agree with the premise of keeping students in there environment and there own place of learning

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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