October 18, 2010

[ #ediff ]: I'm neither right nor wrong: Technology Futures in Scotland, a braindump

Our group's brainstorm of Glow from a student perspective
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:

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?

Tinkering School 2010 Seniors - Village Building from gever tulley on Vimeo.

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.


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#3 Safe is vital. A walled garden is somewhere it is safe to fail. Students are at liberty to take risks off school premises but there is clearly a duty of care otherwise. National is not relevant and neither is 11 when you review document stores and half-empty forums; clearly there must be storage and a forum is only as good as its members.

There are different agendas and Moodle (or other IT) might be the best tool for X but its disadvantages are Y. Let's make the best of what we have.

Sounds like an argument for this current iteration of GLOW to be the last (at least in its present format) to me- but what can we salvage from the investment which is well over the £100 million mark now I wonder?

It seems to me that after the initial promise, things have indeed moved on to a stage where all the collaborative tools we now take for granted, and the new ones which are being added every day are the disruptive technologies to the national intranet. It also appears that LTS have adopted an approach which panders to the education hierarchy who will not take the leap of faith and trust our learners to access the whole web, and furthermore, educators to guide them on safe usage. An approach which allows the powers that be to say...it's GLOW (which is perceived to be safe) or nothing (which is the default position adopted by the majority of Scottish teachers who don't or won't use GLOW).

The prevailing political wind appears to be a consensus that GLOW has failed to deliver. There's somewhat of a lack of consensus on what, if anything can be done about it. What does stand out to me is that any so-called national intranet (and I would contend that GLOW is only national in name and certainly not in practice) does not need a state funded quango to run it - the private sector is much better equipped (in terms of attitude and finance) to do this, on a leaner, fitter opt-in scale working hand in hand with the free international collaborative tools we all know and love. I suspect that the national intranet would certainly wither on the vine in a straightforward competition comparison.

It's interesting that you outline the stats you want GLOW to tell you - I feel the same, and I asked for certain similar data from the much trumpeted ‘new listening regime' earlier this year and last. I eventually had to use freedom of information requests and appeals to get the limited amount of information I wanted from LTS....

One final point to ponder. It would certainly be interesting to ponder just what effects the £100 million or so spent on GLOW would have had if it had been used for training local authority decision makers and teachers in collaborative web tools and professional/ social networking.

If we had spent the £100m from Glow on training teachers in the use of collaborative web tools, they would have been well-trained (maybe) in the use of those technologies, but would have had no infrastructure upon which to use them. Do you know what proportion of the money spent on Glow/SSDN was spent on building out the core network upon which almost every local authority now relies (and for much more than just education). And this includes Scottish schools' main gateway to the internet via the JANET network.

And the proportion of the much smaller budget for procuring and implementing the learning platform itself spent on actual technology (data centre, application integration, authentication, etc etc)? Try less than 20% of the ridiculous figure quoted.

Some people really need to discard their prejudices and argue from factual information instead of nonsense such as the above.

John's right, in that the lion's share was spent on infrastructure, something which still requires ongoing investment to both keep apace with the demands we're putting it under and, in some cases, just to get it from the Local Authority HQ to the schools at a local level.

I remember high speed internet when it arrived in Musselburgh. About a week later it felt rather slow as 1000 students and their teachers pummeled it with enthusiastic glee!

The vast majority of this pummeling, though, is not through the learning platform which, like or not, is what most people think of when they think of Glow. The shop window, rather than perhaps all the supply pipe and support that makes up the shop workings behind, is what most people think of as the main 'sell' of Glow in 2010.

It's an interesting point, though, John: I've suggested it really isn't as easy as a Google search to find out what the facts about Glow usage and Glow spending are, in order to make some great suggestions as to where it might head in the future. Where does that figures of less than 20% come from? Where does Jay's £100m come from? They all seem a but like guesswork compared to the only (vague) numbers I know.

Glow is incredibly opaque compared even to some privately owned startups. Your dream of transparency has, it could be argued, failed to live up to its own hopes.

It would be nice, John, to hear your views on what I've posted in the blog post - unless you feel that this is 'nonsense', too.

...and some people need to stop behaving as if they are the emperor with the invisible clothes John, take off the rose-coloured glasses and look at the situation with the benefit of some real long-term classroom experience of trying to make this medium work.

I didn't work on the infrastructure stage of the GLOW preparation. I didn't design the spec. I didn't commission the work. My prejudice, if thats what it is, comes from trying to use GLOW, measuring effects on learning quantitatively, and looking at cost-effectiveness, as you well know. My conclusions were very clearly stated at a conference last year, as well as initially some two years ago by the GTCS.

Of course I completely understand, John, why you are prejudiced towards a perceived success which I'm afraid, just doesn't exist. I, on the other hand, formed my 'prejudice' from using GLOW in my classroom and others, for two solid years, day in and day out.

Ewan, the £100 million comes from the £57 million cost we all heard about at the various seminars and SLF's in the past. Add to this the annual GLOW grant to LA's and the costs of the LTS (and I have the figures for previous years following more FOI requests) and LA teams over the past four years and continuing. Then there's the costs to individual schools for training, cover staff, etc. Perhaps John, understandably, is a wee bit out of touch with the actual costs of these things at the moment, but I'd suggest that Johns 20% of the total is the real nonsense in this conversation...

Opaque is an interesting word to use...I'd suggest that the Cardinals conclave has more openness.

I work for an LA in a Glow Team and also as a Primary Practitioner. Prior to teaching I worked as a Software Engineer for 6 years.

With respect to #1 & #2, I think regardless of the technology of choice, this is superseded by the technological awareness of practitioners. I don't state parents or learners here as I would guess that it is usually teachers that facilitate learning, collaboration and sharing.

With respect to #3, I think there are learning points from using Facebook, Twitter when they are hacked or whatever though I'm not sure how schools would stand with respect to liability.

#4. Yeah, I'm not arguing with this, but I use the tools that are available to me. Again, I think that even with the most intuitively designed interface, the challenge is still going to be getting the practitioners using technology to facilitate effective teaching and learning.

#5. Good point.

#6. Could it be that practitioners aren't sharing because they aren't technologically aware of weblogs, Twitter etc.? I'm becoming a stuck record here. I also, as yet, don’t have an educational weblog though I’m working on this.

#7. Using the same principle as #8, what are the figures here?

#8. I agree that we need to analyse, interpret and use the data. Knowing which schools/LAs are making headway and their practices would be useful. Cookbooks are a good way to share ideas though if they had related usage/uptake figures then that might give an idea of how effective they are.

#9. First the worst, second the best, third the one with the hairy chest. I do apologise, it’s late and it’s not term time. I agree, first is of no consequence if it’s not used.

#10. We need somewhere to keep our content and it's nice to have a place to access world class content (as long as it makes it through the filters;). As a Primary practitioner I made a Glow page for our Egyptians topic, which included a page viewer web part that displayed the British Museum’s excellent content (http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/menu.html), I then placed a bit of text on the page with instructions for a related task, and then a discussion for feedback. The Glow page tied this altogether nicely, and saved pupils getting lost going to Google and typing in ancient Egyptians. Are these missed opportunities for teaching the following of instructions, spelling or even typing? Possibly, but I do teach these things in class too, in planned lessons and incidentally, however I would rather focus my learning intentions and success criteria with planned lessons.

#11. To try to answer your two questions:
Give each child the opportunity to record their learning and share it.

With respect to document stores and half-empty forums, I believe it depends upon how they are being used.

Here’s an example:
A pedagogy I used last session, which I would also recommend, for teaching extended writing was Storytelling into Writing (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bumper-Book-Storytelling-into-Writing/dp/0955300819), where, in a nutshell, the pupils learn a story off by heart by aural retelling, and then at some point write the story. The idea is that it allows the children to write a story without getting stuck on plot or getting tied in knots, and allows the practitioner to focus on the writing – using connectives etc.. The story can then be developed further by changing one or more aspects of character, setting or plot. I found this method effective and the whole process develops many literacy skills co-operatively. Whilst learning the story I taught the children how to record themselves and save the result as an mp3, which with respect to hardware and software costs is cheap. I then taught the class how to upload the mp3 to a document store on a Glow page. I then showed them that they could listen to other pupil’s stories and leave comments on a discussion on the same Glow page. Yes, I could have delivered this over the school network with a network folder and shared word doc, though the children wouldn’t have been able to access this at home, which many of them did without any direction. I was then able to listen to every child’s story at my own leisure. It was also a great record of the children’s work with no extra effort. This could be developed further in many different ways.

Reading the above I would take it as 50=50 but what about the silent majority who have come along way courtesy of Glow (and others). I would add hold your horses before you propose (strongly in some cases) that the only real game in town is dumped in favour of ....

If there is a "silent majority" then I'd argue that Glow, or any other intervention on other platforms, hasn't achieved what it could and should do, which is a large, vocal learning community with whom we can all connect, openly and freely. That's what happens when teachers or students blog, for example - this just came to me last night:

Glow and social media have one goal in common - they're about getting people to share practice, share ideas and connect with each other on more significant, wide projects. If a large majority of people are 'silent' then we've failed on all accounts.

Finally - I'm not suggesting dumping Glow, rather that it needs some serious overhauling, redesigning and rethinking around its REAL end-users - children. I am certainly suggesting, though, that Glow is NOT "the only real game in town".

San Juan College spent more than 20,000 and the fight against a public records request until a district judge ordered the college to meet her.
National Education Day http://apusa.us/national-education-day-4691/

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About Ewan

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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