Sunday, 12 December 2004

Post PC?

my Guardian column for the 2005 BETT show

Recently I was lucky enough to be visiting the Sahara Desert. Just my luck it coincided with the moment when the one day a year's rain fell! But the rain didn't dampen the enthusiasm I saw all around me for learning and for new technology. Less than 10% of the world's population have ever seen the Internet but there's more to new technology than the Internet. Standing in an apparently very poor village, no networks or computers at all, two things stood out like beacons: firstly, as I tried inconspicuously to check my mobile phone for a new message (the cell never dropped, even amongst the dunes), an villager nearby pointed at my tiny K700i and said excitedly "nouvelle Sony", which was precisely what it was and we spent a little time exploring the features together. He loved the video and the MP3 ring-tones. We took a few pictures. Tunisia is a very phone aware place, like many developing nations. My 4x4 driver stayed in touch with his extended family on his mobile throughout our trek, TXTing as he drove. Tunisia also has a huge infrastructure of motorised satellite dishes, visible on even the most basic of houses. During last summer I spent time exploring the future of broadcasting and it confirmed my view that the additional functionality of the box that was formally your TV, with the addition of some great new tools for selection, annotation and contribution, promises a whole new potential for broadcasting and TV. And of course it is abundantly clear that, in today's peer to peer world of interleaved communities and personalisation, phones and "new" television (eTV?) have probably more to offer learners than even computers. The second feature that stood out in Tunisia, as it does in many emerging nations globally, was their absolute faith, and investment, in education. Everywhere there I met with optimism, humility and new schools. New schools, new paint, new investment, new future. The school leaving age is raised, university participation rates are climbing and learning is about aspiration, national and individual.

Rushing back home to Europe, and straight to the OnLine Educa conference in Berlin, it was hard not to be hit by the contrast between the European "learning industry" seeking to "deliver solutions" and the bottom up, people powered, wireless world that was Tunisia. The conference was full of friendly, well intentioned folk, many good friends, delivering some interesting papers, but the many ambitious commercial stands there spoke rather dismally, and too often, of "portals", "managed solutions", "content", "delivery" and so on. It was clear that a world where people are embracing the opportunity to do things themselves, to be creative and to exchange their ingenuity with others, within communities, was simply not on their radar at all. The Berlin stands reminded me too often of e-commerce stands I saw just before the bubble of the dot com revolution burst at the end of the last millennium. Readers might make some assumptions at this point.

Whilst in Berlin, I was faced with remotely opening a conference in Woolongong, Australia, during our night. Luckily OnLine Educa had a wireless network running. I had plenty of laptop battery life and my trusty i-Sight camera, so after midnight I wandered around the deserted stands getting connected to Australia. As I did so I was aware of a small gang of German night security guards following me, fascinated. I called them over and we spent a few happy moments playing and chatting to the conference hosts in Australia. As we sat having fun, 18,000 miles apart, I stopped being depressed about the lack of vision of the Berlin stands. It doesn't matter what the marketing people try to tell us, the future of all this will be about people, it will be about communities, it will be peer to peer, it will be phone-savvy and dish-connected, and above all else it will be enormously enjoyable.

It's just that some of the ambitious emerging countries might realise this first, might avoid the marketing hype and the "solutions" they are offered, might learn from our mistakes and hesitations, and might just get there ahead of us.

© Stephen Heppell 2005

Monday, 6 September 2004

Building learning

This was my Guardian column for Autumn 2004 and predated the current buzz of building schools for the future here in the UK. As usual, I'm still happy with what I put.

Recently I visited Grey Court School in Richmond upon Thames, again. Amongst the trees in the school's grounds and glowing like a great white alien spaceship, glistening in the late afternoon light, was one of the two extraordinary DfES "Classrooms of the Future" that I have been lucky enough to be a little involved with creating. The minute you see them you start to think that learning inside might be exciting, fresh and very different. It will be. A huge gang of people - from the architects, Future Systems, through to the pupils from the three schools in the project, have been involved pushing out the boundaries of what a classroom of tomorrow might look like. The classrooms are nearly finished and last minute touches are being made to the technology inside: mobile phones, smart walls, projectors, coloured lights, a really complex aural environment and much more. It all makes for a very agile, creative, fun, learning space. Not that the technology is intrusive; the guiding principle was simple: anything and everything should work as part of the whole environment, but learning should be central. Already the schools have been changed by the imminent arrival of these new classrooms. Teachers and pupils debated what learning could be like once some barriers were designed away. In terms of the change process the classrooms have been a brilliant investment.

I have also been involved in a huge research project for CABE and RIBA to determine just exactly what pedagogy in the future might look like, so that we could be sure that the schools we were designing today will continue to be useful tomorrow. The UK will be opening a new school every four days throughout next year, so the work was timely. One of the many conclusions from our research was a simple truth: if students and teachers and parents are involved in the design of schools then, even if the design turns out to be quite mad, the students' performance will improve. And where, like the buildings in Richmond, the design is rather good then their performance simply skyrockets. A tough question is: how can we build schools this fast, but still engage the learners and others in their design? Groups like SchoolWorks or Joinedupdesignforschools have plenty of good answers to thsi question.

So how do we recognise a good school design? It is easy for architects to measure the energy efficiency from double or treble glazing. But can they measure learning efficiency? How can we know how much potential learning has been lost? At the lab we've been helping the Design Council with a project to measure the impact of good design in classrooms, exploring lighting or furniture for example. Like everything else in learning, it turns out to be really complex, of course. Not impossible, just complex. And of course as a number of brave schools around the world are demonstrating, the organisation, pedagogy and curriculum are a fundamental part of that design. Which is why we need to trust teachers and learners as researchers far more than we do.

One last school project: i have been helping a little with the design of the Stepping Stones project school in Surrey. A converted chapel, again rich with unobtrusive technology, has been redesigned to provide a school, and a community, for a small number of children with hemiplegia. That same tiny school, with barely a dozen or so students, is also providing the central hub for similar children all around the UK. it poses real questions about what a school really is and shows quite clearly that one big impact of new technology is to allow tiny schools to be really effective. Today's school is much more "community" than "bricks and mortar" and Tomlinson has helped everyone to see that these communities must overlap and work together too. The school of the future is set to look very different from the schools of today, but if the excited and engaged faces of the lucky children in Richmond or Surrey are anything to go by, that's no bad thing.

© Stephen Heppell 2005

Thursday, 11 March 2004

The Death of TV

my Guardian column Easter 2004

Technology certainly changes things, but sometimes the things that get changed don't notice until it's far too late. Over Easter I enjoyed a one day workshop with children from all over the world, visiting London to be part of the wonderful ChildNet Academy. The children's ages varied from 11 to 18 and they were a lively mixture of nationalities, cultures and capabilities. With colleague Neil from the 'lab I was challenging them to storyboard, film and then edit a 100 second video telling a story of romance between two objects, but with a tragic ending. I'm still chuckling at the ingenuity of what they produced. However, whilst they were completely absorbed in the detailed editing of the videos that they were producing, a BBC camera crew arrived to interview old mate Bill Thompson about Google's new mail service. Bill's daughter Lili happened to be one of the Academy networkers this year and thus he was there too. The children were immersed in a huge bustle of creativity, surrounded by their own cameras, the lab's Powerbooks and various other bits and pieces of increasingly pocketable technology; the BBC crew had a grand camera, the usual sound and lighting kit, and a mission to capture Bill's wise thoughts. The TV crew showed no interest, professional or inquisitive, in the work the children were busy with, despite the chaos of cameras, computers and the cacophony of throbbing soundtracks. The children were busy making their own TV, but significantly they showed absolutely no reciprocal interest in the TV crew's predictable approach. As the TV crew tried to usher children out of the background so that they didn't "spoil" the shot the children simply shunned the TV crew. In that moment the Death of TV was signposted as clearly and as vividly as could be imagined. Technology empowers everyone to contribute and participate and it was abundantly clear that none of these global children, gathered together in Kensington, will tolerate the passive role of couch potato that characterised their parents. This rebuttal of a passive role is causing significant revolutions everywhere. In music the historic role of companies like EMI would be to seek great new bands, mould them a little, then package them up and market them to eager fans. Nowadays those "fans" are downloading music from each other, often illegally, before editing it - perhaps adding a spoof rap from samples of their least favourite politician - before contributing it back to the swapfest of peer to peer file exchange that fills teenagers' lives. Already stock exchanges are asking serious questions about the role of companies like EMI. Why can't the TV companies see that they are next for the tumbrils of new technology?

As if to confirm the distance that all this has travelled in my lifetime, two colleagues in the lab, Tim and Jonathan, busied themselves over Easter helping the BBC with a celebration of the 40th anniversary of pirate radio in the North Sea. BBC Essex manned a lightship off Harwich, as a tribute to the far-off days of Radio Caroline. Tim and Jonathan set up a texting service direct to lightship, and mounted webcams to watch the studio and the seascape via the Internet. But as tens of thousands of aging baby boomer's TXTed the ship and watched the studio live, marvelling at the power of these new changing technologies and the Peter Pan looks of the venerable DJs, Essex children were ignoring this passive old world and learning about a creative new one from each other. Rock and roll was always based on youth challenging establishment, but this time around the youngsters have rather better tools, including video, than a very big radio mast on a rusty ship.

Back in the 1990s I made a Horizon TV programme entitled "The Death of TV". In Kensington and Harwich this Easter that moment might finally have dawned, but much more importantly for learning everywhere it felt to me like two more large steps towards the rebirth of creativity. And if a creative, active generation are rejecting packaged pop and passive TV, how long will it be before they demand a voice and a role in shaping their curriculum too? Not long I hope.

© Stephen Heppell 2004

Monday, 16 February 2004

Back and Forth

I think this was probably my first Guardian Column for Richard Doughty's Guardian supplement - the columns went on for half a decade, written as I travelled back and forth around the ICT learning world.

Sometimes the most profound of thoughts strike you in the least likely of places. Speaking to a group of headteachers and ICT leaders in Tasmania's "Axeman's Hall of Fame" (chopping logs is a national sport in Australia, indeed everything is..), I'd shared some wonderfully creative school work from Europe with them and enjoyed hearing in exchange of the freedom that their remarkable Essential Learnings curriculum offered to teachers. At the close, after world champ axeman Dave Foster had hacked his awesome way through a whopping demonstration log, one of the ICT leaders said simply that it would be nice if more creative classroom ideas were swapped around the world, before those who would harness ICT to "deliver" productivity got the upper hand and all our hopes and dreams for learning were lost.

She was right of course; there are some remarkably imaginative teachers and creative children in many schools worldwide; simply exchanging the innovative ways in which they harness ICT should not be beyond the capability of a technology that, for example, exchanged 200 million text messages in the UK on Christmas day alone. Travelling on to New Zealand's Learn @ School conference in steamy Rotorua these peer to peer exchanges of practice dominated the timetabled conference sessions and the bars late into the night; there were even people there from Norway! Seeing one bleary eyed delegate arriving I commented ungallantly that she'd clearly had a pretty hectic previous evening. "We didn't stop talking until 3 am", she ventured, "but I learned so much I'm hoping to do it again tonight".

Arriving back in London for the DfES sponsored BAFTA celebration of students' digital creativity I saw yet another example of this polination of ideas. The confidence with which primary children and undergraduates alike explained their creative processes to the press, to BAFTA members and to officials from both the DfES and DCMS was information and humbling. The way that the youngest were soaking up ideas from the undergraduates who in turn were decently impressed by the school students' work was also genuininely exciting to watch if, like me, you believe in mixed age learning. Their work was challenging in many ways: what should progression look like for youngsters already this far ahead with their use of technology? How can current timetables or assessments encompass this quality of work? Can universities widen their access to embrace many more of these creative students and not just set them essays when they arrive? Tough questions, but at least all round the world some teachers and children are actively debating, long into the night, face to face, the future of learning. I just hope someone is listening...

Since the mid 1990s my lab has been toiling away with projects that use mobile phones in learning, indeed in m-learning. From swapping health advice by cellphone between third world villages for the World Health Organisation back in 1997 to our current rather high profile QCA funded eVIVA blue sky look at assessment, with its phone based viva, it is clear that the cellphone is set to make a substantial contribution to the way that we learn. Already in processing power phones are several magnitudes more powerful than the early computers with which we did so much. Yet back in the late 1970s, we had no sooner got our hands on the new "micro" computers than substantial projects had sprung up all over the world to explore ways to harness their use in learning. But with mobile phones these kinds of projects are still few and far between. One reason may be the real difficulty in actually authoring anything at all to function on a phone. The micros in school revolution was largely built on the backs of a few hero innovators who produced remarkable software with simple tools. Those simple tools do not exist for cellphones, yet it seems blindingly obvious that the first mobile phone operator to provide them for teachers and children will start a revolution of learning technology that will reap rich rewards in their future market share.

Which one will be the first to wake up? Orange are showing the first signs of stirring, but the race has barely begun.

© Stephen Heppell 2004