Sunday, 26 April 1998

eLearning (and Ultralab's Law)

I wrote this back at the end of the 90s (and can't remember what journal it was for... I'm hopeless at keeping a record of these things..., posting it to a webpage in early 2000 as well.

It was quite an early use of the eLearning term, (although I had also purchased the domain by then as well...!). Interestingly the page recieved a huge number of hits and I only move it here because the server it is on has been archived and swithced off. Re-reading, it is hard not to be depressed by the lack of progress that has been made, and I'll be reflecting on this going forwards, in a forthcoming podcast.

Anyway... enjoy this and chin up... we WILL get there!

eLearning underpins learning with technology, but that in itself is not new. The information that people learn with, and the conduits through which they communicate that learning, have always been both liberated and, paradoxically, constrained by technology. From the earliest primitive forms of writing through to the coolest pocketable digital media this holds true. On the one hand we are given new opportunity for contribution and expression, on the other hand we bump up against absolute limits to what can and can't be achieved with whatever the current technology is.

Early handwritten manuscripting presented an opportunity for those who could do it, but precluded the mass circulation of textual material. The egalitarian paperback heralded literature for all, but printed stories locked sound and moving image out of storytelling. The Internet appeared in the middle of a multimedia decade, but initially offered only a textual revolution. The mobile phone brought communication ubiquity, but with the barren screens of a basic interface. However 'wired' we might be, sometimes it is hard to see through the short-term technological failings with enough clarity and vision to appreciate the opportunities ahead. Thus even Microsoft failed to spot the potential of the Internet for some considerable time saving itself with a late, but vast, refocussing.

But worse yet, in our learning, commercial and social lives, at each moment in technological time, there are those who see the current state of technology not as a step on an evolving path of progress but as the epitome of progress, a pinnacle of achievement to be preserved and optimised in sacred trust for future generations. Those most closely wedded to the established order inevitably squeal the loudest ñ they have most to lose. The early church, for example, fought to protect hand illumination and scripting ñ and the power it brought them ñ from the coarseness of print, although that print gave us the novel. The print industry fought a rearguard action against the 'ugliness' of desktop publishing, although DTP brought a great critical awareness of the quality of printed material. Schools normally react to technological change by confiscating it to protect the past: ballpoint pens to save our handwriting, calculators to save our arithmetic, digital watches to save our analogue timekeeping, mobile phones to save our... er, well just because they are new.

These rearguard actions are fought with a passion that is all the stronger because there has been little critical awareness of the failings of current technology. For example, despite the evidence of widespread dyslexia, there is little critique of notational forms - text, the music stave, even notation in dance - as being technologically derived.

We prefer to see the learners as deficient rather than critique the medium. This is not to say: 'The past is dead, long live the future,' but to plead for an awareness of what is inadequate in the past, because of the inadequacy of past technologies.

In the commercial world, those fighting to preserve the status quo are eventually overtaken in their own sectors or organisations by 'new entrants without the blinkers of the established order Opportunities are grasped, profits made and the new technology becomes embraced as mainstream. In 1939, the New York Times famously said of the emergent TV technology: 'The trouble with television is that the average American family will never find time for it!' Today, the newspaper advertises on TV as a way to reach those who don't think they have time to read papers.

Sometimes that space between denial and adoption is measured in decades, sometimes in months. What is clear is that between those two phases lies opportunity. It is that space in which real progress is made and where we find the relatively few organisations exploring eLearning - developing the concept in a rapid and arguably quite subversive way.

The ground-breaking anthropologist Margaret Meade suggested that we should 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.' In the space between denial and adoption lies the opportunity for that 'small group of thoughtful, committed people' and it is my contention that in a technologically-advancing world, the most fertile moment for change lies within that space. Therefore, may I introduce with due humility, Ultralab's Law: 'With new technologies, between denial and adoption is the space for innovation and that is where radical progress is made.' On the Internet this moment was found in those early days after the world wide web protocols became public and before the monster mergers like AOL Netscape Time Warner EMI - between 1993 and 2000.

All this is fascinating in the context of learning and education. Education moves slowly. It is conservative in nature because real children and real lives are precious. It consistently und ervalues the ability and ambition of children with the result that, at best, it coasts along, while at worse it regresses. As nations increasingly compete through the ability of their education systems to deliver creative and productive economies, the ability to take best advantage of the innovative space indicated by Ultralab's Law becomes critical. Miss that opportunity and the engine of learning is shunted into a siding - worthy, quantifiable, but stagnant and stultifying.

On the other hand, the resolute pursuit of change for the wrong reasons can rush the system so far down the wrong track that there is no opportunity to return, as those few US universities built entirely on the 60's technology of multiple choice questions - cheap but reductionist - are finding. The problem is, of course, that the (appropriate) conservatism of education reacts so slowly to the opportunity of new technology that the Ultralab's Law moment can easily slip by and opportunity is lost as we confiscate rather than innovate. In a world economy, this loss may prove fatal.

At Ultralab we have a number of illustrative projects developed within that fertile moment of innovative opportunity. From 1993, with Nortel, we ran - and are still running - Learning in the New Millennium (LiNM). It allowed us to link primary and secondary school students together with scientists and engineers in Nortel's laboratories in an ambitious on-line community. In the earliest days of the worldwide web, children had the freedom to innovate with their learning and they found that, unsurprisingly, young and old worked well together, that individual identity mattered, that the teacher's role remained pivotal and much more besides. This one project had a greater impact on policy and practice than any other, because it began at the most fertile moment for innovation.

Shortly after LiNM began, we embarked on School OnLine (SoL) with the support of the Department of Trade Industry and a host of companies from the digital electronics sector: BT, Intel, Motorola, Nortel, Digital, Apple, IBM, RM, Mitsubishi, Acorn, EDS and many others. The project was built on database technology. Pages were generated by a combination of context and identity. Once it was clear who you were and what you wanted to do, the pages were 'bespoked' for you.

At one early stage we were criticised by one education quango because the database-driven model was 'not standard' and 'not how you are supposed to do it'. The forces of darkness were trying to clamp down on innovation, but it was too late, the project had demonstrated considerable success and won a number of awards, moving policy and practice forward as it did so. In particular we held confidential briefings for the project sponsors and it is clear, with hindsight, that those who attended have flourished since, whilst those who didn't have gone to the wall. This is not to suggest a causality, but that those companies open to new ideas and suggestion are most likely to be the survivors in a game built on the certainty of uncertainty.

A particular strength of the SoL project was the emerging evidence that to trust members in a virtual community, it helps not only see what they say about themselves, but also to observe what the various tasks and activities they are engaged in illustrate about their interests and predispositions. This was something we went on to embed firmly in our University for Industry pilot with Josh Hillman at the Institute for Public Policy Research the following year.

By 1997, it was clear that if we trusted students and expressed that trust by giving them great software tools, then we could be very ambitious indeed for what they might achieve. With Tesco and others we built Tesco SchoolNet 2000 (TSN2K) featuring a vast server filled, as we euphemistically suggested at the press launch, 'with opportunity' and fuelled by an absolute faith in the creative ability of UK pupils.

Again the siren voices of established interests suggested that we should do better to fill the server with 'content' and worried about the quality of work that children might produce. Their top-down delivery view of learning had little basis in theory or common sense and showed no understanding of the vast swathes of content already spread across the Internet. We ignored it and Tesco's faith never wavered to its considerable credit.

Of course, children produced stunning work. Given the task to research their own communities, they poured across the UK with laptops and notepads. Asked to write 'after the style of' their favourite author, they produced ñ often at 9 or 10 ñ work of the highest quality, delighting those authors as they did so. TSN2K has gone on to feature in the Millennium Dome and to be accredited in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest Internet learning project.

The clear lessons from all these eLearning projects have informed some of Ultralab's current projects, including, a virtual school for those many children not formally at school for various reasons, often beyond their control, and Talking Heads, an online community of new UK headteachers. Both projects have full Department for Education and Employment support and funding, and use the set of online learning community tools we developed with Oracle which became the project.

The maverick projects from the early days of the web had illustrated their worth and created opportunities for mainstream projects firmly within existing educational policy structures. The moment had been seized effectively, learning had become a little more delightful. But Ultralab is still a small research centre. What is needed is the ability of the whole educational sector to recognise the space between denial and adoption so that the whole sector can seize the moment safely and to continue to seize it as technology moves on.

First, if national educational policy is to move forward with confidence rather than hope, we need better meters of progress. Our bedrock of UK quantification, criterion referencing, has itself been a significant drag on progress. Naturally, it is seductive to define criteria and then observe education's ability to deliver progress, but this assumes no underlying technological progress. For example, we observe children's creative writing, set criteria, arm them with better tools ñ word processing, for example ñ and then are pleased by a small, say 5 per cent, increase in their performance. But, as we have observed over the past decade or two, word processors unleash substantial gains in productivity and creativity so that we should anticipate a substantial increase in performance, by 25, 50, or even 100 per cent. Thus our 5 per cent criterion referenced progress is in fact hugely underambitious. The consequence is children coasting, unstretched and disengaged.

Criterion referencing forces us to 'do that which we did before', resulting in the most innovative of children's work being pushed into marginal areas of children's learning - often outside of school altogether. In a Formula One race no one is impressed when a car performs better than last year's model, because technology has advanced. What is impressive is beating the other new cars in this year's race. Education, too, is in a global race, and 'better than last year' won't win it.

Second, we need to focus on process ahead of product. As technology marches forward the task for children of delivering product targets ('finished' work) becomes easier and easier, breeding complacency in education. If we are to offer formative advice and to support progression, we need to look at how they complete tasks rather than what they have completed. A good example of this missed opportunity is seen at the crossover from primary to secondary school where, nowadays, records of performance are exchanged, but the processes adopted by confident and often autonomous top juniors are not. The resulting disaffection is immediately apparent from the many, many children for whom the first year of secondary school is a backward step and often a first step away from their love of learning.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, primary school pupils were doing extraordinary things with the programming language Logo. Their problem solving was sophisticated and well documented, but secondary schools saw only the product of this complex work - geometrical pictures of flowers and cubes, for example - and not the underlying process. The result was that these confident and sophisticated little programmers were offered computer painting packages to 'move them on'. They produced better pictures, but could see this missed the point and that their abilities were undervalued and misunderstood. Any model of learning would view this as a disaster.

Again we observe the combination of children's ability to harness emerging technologies and education's inability to value or progress that capability ñ a key contributor to disenchantment, in this case at 11 years old. The irony is that new technologies allow us as never before to capture process, to archive consequent and subsequent drafts. Make no mistake, the refocus from product to process is an assessment revolution of considerable magnitude. We need it urgently.

Third, we need to value creativity above predictability. It is now well understood that standards do not mean standardisation, although in some countries around the world standardisation is misunderstood as progress. In 1996 the Japanese group Keizai Doyukai1 ñ similar in role to our Confederation of British Industry ñ took the cue of their under-performing economy to take a careful look at their education system. Where were they tending and culturing the inspiration that had produced the Walkman and all conquering gam es console? They found that good effort had been expended in testing Japanese school students and in comparing their scores to their peers around the world. Japanese education could be honourably presented as 'world class', but something important was missing. They concluded: 'The post-war education system in Japan sought to eliminate deviations in students and deliver an equal, uniform education throughout the land. This was effective in reaching the goal of catching up industrialised nations. Now however, the nation is in need of highly creative and independent individuals. Fostering individuals with these characteristics will require educational reform starting from the elementary level and taking at least 10 - 20 years to be effective.'

Their new focus on creativity began, characteristically, in that same year. What is interesting in their change of direction is the understanding that, as technology brings us more and more capability, our creative ability will become increasingly valuable. Seizing the Ultralab's Law moment between denial of the impact of a new technology and its widespread adoption requires us to have a clear view of what will continue to have value and need preserving. Of the many things children do at school or at home, the one least likely to be replaced by future technology is creativity.

As we look around the world at the children of those developers and researchers who are closest to the cutting edge, it is perhaps not surprising to find encouragement from parents to explore performing arts or art and design. Those most clearly able to view what is coming next are also best able to see what is worth keeping, so we might do well to note what they do with their own children. This is the beginning of an interesting cycle: technology pioneers see that a substantial part of their wealth and progress lies in an ability to harness and evolve creativity; they emphasise these attributes in their children using the generous resources at their disposal and presumably their children will often follow in their footsteps. For policy, it means we, too, need to embrace the uncertainty of a creative curriculum and build a national dynasty of creativity to power our economic success.

Finally, we need an honest technology audit of our existing education system. What are the elements of organisation and the curriculum that exist as a result of past - and superseded - technologies, and which are of value in their own right? Large schools built on the economies of scale of transport technology, same-age group class structures adopted because of the inadequacy of communication and organisation systems faced with the post-war birth boom, written examinations that grew and displaced oracy because we were unable to capture oral contributions for external moderation, and much much more will need an honest assessment. This process will have to be ongoing, for as long as technology advances. It is very hard to stand back far enough to be objective about such things, but it is necessary if we are going to be able to spot the places where new technologies might offer us the best progress.

eLearning has given us a great excuse to look again at how we manage and evolve our learning. If we establish the habit of continuing to look and time our innovations appropriately, our coasting curriculum might make the progress it needs to seduce learners back with real ambition for their capability. And this will leave us, literally as well as emotionally, on top of the world.

1 As quoted on the Keizai Doyukai website at

© Stephen Heppell 1998