Tuesday, 6 December 2005

Copyright... copy wrong? BETT edition

I wrote this approaching the BETT show at London's Olympia in 2006. Two years later, in 2009, the president of the USA arrived in London and presented the Queen of England with an iPod, filled with tunes. That was the death of 20th century copyright, right there and then. Meanwhile of course youngsters have called time on the myth of the "studio session" or High Fidelity recording being of value and have focussed their money on live performances instead, so this piece was quite prescient, I'm pleased to say.

Some of the big questions that ICT pose for us in the 21st century revolve around "who owns what?", and "what is original?". It is clear that the whole issue of ownership and copyright is set to hurt education badly worldwide if we don't get our principles clear. 21st century technology is all about helping people to help each other, as I have observed before. Innately, we take a delight in helping. My daughter, currently immersed in her PGCE practice, phoned me delightedly to say that her lesson plan had been adopted by another teacher, who badged it as her own. "I must be on the right track, mustn't I?" she said, delightedly. In education we have always shared and exchanged - from Banda sheets to effective practice. In the 80s in ICT we saw really substantial numbers of teachers swapping ULPs (Useful Little Programmes) that they had developed themselves. Individual celebrity might have been on offer, but funding certainly wasn't.

I frequent Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London and typically pop along to see exceptional performers create something special, late into the night. If you ask me about it I'll usually say "you should have been there". The musicians are famous, and well paid, because of their ability to be ingenious and to delight their audience, differently, with each performance. In the last century the wish to ossify every performance or activity by wrapping it in a complex web of patents and copyrights reached a kind of mania. Recently, this was wonderfully pastiched by a group who claimed to have registered several million combinations of telephone number keypad tones, as "their" unique tunes. Thus, when you phoned a friend, you were breaking copyright by playing their tune!. It is ridiculous, but shows how foolish the whole thing had become. ICT is facing this problem in myriad ways. A radio programme used to be something that was owned, then performed on the air a finite number of times. But with web streaming, podcasting, MP3 storage on phones, Sky+ and more, the place and time when you listen will vary from individual to individual. As a broadcast passes from hardware to hardware the concept of "original" or "authorised" starts to wobble badly. A question that dropped into a forum I belong to showed how confused everyone is by ICT's ability to communicate and replicate: "If," it asked, "on a face-to-face course CLA clearance has been obtained for a reader-pack and the articles cleared for photocopying, can they also be scanned, pdf-ed and uploaded into a password protected VLE? Â Or are you in breach of copyright?". Who knows?!

Fortunately movements like the Creative Commons group are busy implementing good solutions to the impact of ICT on "ownership" and "rights". The BBC's Creative Archive project looks to be able, finally, to wrest that wonderful archive of broadcast material away from the lawyers and make it available for the children and families who paid for it in the first place. Others, like the UK's Teachers' TV, have started with a completely refreshing view that anything they broadcast will be freely available from their website, to stream or save, and can be used in schools, homes, on phones even, as suits the user.

Technology copyright rules, depressingly, are hopelessly biased in favour of developed economies. In the West I can protect my invention of an clever algorithm, but the Arab nation that invented the numbering system it depends on get nothing. So it is easy to see why one nation's piracy is another nation's retaliation against cultural imperialism. ICT in schools progresses by each of us helping, rather than charging, each other. The children understand this perfectly. Type "free essays online" into Google if you doubt it (and you'll get a lot more hits than if you type "buy essay online"). In the end, probably rightly, all we will be able to protect is our individual ability to be ingenious, to solve problems and to perform delightfully.

If in doing so we come to value, once again, the individual contribution of great teachers and exceptional students, and we develop skills to help us choose between them, it doesn't sound to bad, does it?

© Stephen Heppell 2006

Monday, 7 November 2005


this was written as a piece for the Guardian, published in early 2006

Creativity is tough to define, but every teacher knows it when they see it. In the 1950s we sought conformingly uniform children, for the conformingly uniform jobs of late industrial Britain. Any creativity was strictly extra-curricular. But as the mundane tasks have moved overseas, or become tasks for robots, creativity has replaced conformity. Schools have noticed. Children are designing the robots!

Type "creativity" into Google and you find an unsurprising 90 million or so hits. About a third mention schools. Almost every policy paper from progressive (and progressing) countries around the world mentions creativity in learning. Some, like Japan, have whole policy documents dedicated to it. So, how many mentions does the word get in the "Higher Standards, Better Schools for All" White Paper? "Standard" is mentioned 144 times, "fail" appears 53 times. Rather surprisingly, the words "creativity" and "creative" are not mentioned at all, probably uniquely for an education policy paper in the 21st century. Someone has taken their eye off the ball, haven't they?

But where the White Paper has failed spectacularly to notice creativity, our teachers, students and parents are embracing it, armed with some very useful new tools. All around the UK schools are seeing remarkable levels of engagement and effort resulting from a quite specific focus on creative activity. Now that computer connected cameras are so affordable a mass of really imaginative video is pouring from our schools, and has been for some years. The BBC has a TV programme, Blast! dedicated to video work by children for children. In Blackpool they fill a huge seaside cinema with primary children who show each other their short movies on the BIG screen, before voting for their favourites; the quality is remarkable. Annually BAFTA celebrates the breadth and diversity of children's creativity with the annual DfES supported "Be Very Afraid" event which this year included a kinetic "garden" of optic rods representing a student's communications with friends and family, and a primary school adventure spanning mobile txting, books and web-site.

Apple did some really useful pioneering work in the early 90s where they paired school children with cinema icons like Ken Russell and music stars like Brian Adams. The results were stunning and since then they have supported a regular showcase for creativity annually at BETT. and much teacher development. With software tools like iStopMotion or FrameThief on the Macintosh or Anasazi Stop Motion Animator, TePee Animator or MonkeyJam on the PC the fun of animation is wonderfully accessible too. To see a group of 12 or more children, each animating their own plasticise character or object, on a complex stage in line with their storyboard, it to witness the power of creativity to engage and delight. And the end products are eye-swivellingly complex to watch. You can see why Apple are majoring on their iLife studio, to make easy movie, photo, DVD, music and web-site integration.

And with the whole BSF agenda challenging our ideas about what creative school might be like, there is no better way to hear the learners' authentic voice than to arm them with the wonderful (and cheap) cross platform "SketchUp" 3D architectural tool - used by professional architects too - to let them model and then "fly through" their own view of future schools. You can also see why Microsoft's web-site lists over 13,769 references to "creativity". This is a major battleground for the big companies and as users we gain from the competition.

So, schools are innovating, the tools are affordable, professional and easy to use, the children are terrifyingly confident and ingenious. Creativity matters. Maybe the next White Paper due soon, on Further Education, will notice? Don't hold your breath.

Saturday, 17 September 2005

Never mind the Unteachables, there are no Unlearnables...

I wrote this for my Guardian Column in Autumn 2005. At this point (2009) little has changed

I'm chair of trustees of a new charity, TheCademy, which, amongst other things, looks after the remarkable Notschool.net project which I have been something of a father too since its inception in the 1990s. The project uses home computers to connect learners into a vibrant learning community with hundreds of mentors and experts all around the world stimulating and leading learning. It is no more expensive than traditional learning in brick and mortar schools and works spectacularly well. The catch is that to get into Notschool you need first to be excluded from school by circumstances or by behaviour. We call our learners "researchers" because this is assuredly NOT school and because we learn so much from them about designing effective learning. For most of our researchers the project is a last chance to build self esteem and progress. They grab it.

At the launch of the new charity some of Notschool's alumnii spoke about how the project had quite literally turned their lives around. They spoke convincingly of the way that a personalised learning agenda, with mentors and peers who valued them as individuals, had unlocked their passion for learning and demolished most of the barriers that had stood in their way. The learner centric curriculum that emerged under their guidance contained a lot of science, maths, narrative, new media and much else that is conventional and important, but it also contained Wrestling, Electronics, very high levels of ICT capability and Chinese rather than French as a modern language. When one of the Notschool alumnii fielded a question about their preference for Chinese, she replied in fluent Chinese; you could hear jaws dropping to the ground all around the launch guests. The young researchers said little about their backgrounds but lots about their passion for learning. Guests had tears in their eyes, but PGCE students present had a host of hard nosed questions: "what advice would you give to a teacher about what NOT to do in conventional school?"

Notschool has been lauded everywhere from Prime Ministerial speeches to White Papers. In the five years that it has been functioning it has moved from a rather maverick project, only allowed to exist because the children it focussed on had been failed by everything else, to a really radical alternative that has so much to offer to conventional learning about the role of respect, families, personalisation and engagement, all hot items in the current education agenda. Perhaps the fact that there is a vigorous Notschool cohort in Bolton, Education Minister Ruth Kelly's constituency, is significant!

But here is the problem: Notschool works, it is cost effective, is incredibly complex, is scaleable and is currently rolling out to even more LEAs. But because it is NOT school it doesn't fit very well into the current DfES structures (who should be responsible for it?), and of course in a world where the money now goes directly to the very schools that our researchers have either fled or been bannished from, getting their money back from schools is not trivial. The new Education White Paper welcomes a new diversity of approaches, with the doors open to a host of new learning institutions. I heartily applaud it. However, what we learn from Notschool is that building the freedom for really radical and effective new solutions to emerge is not easy. My biggest worry is that the new freedoms will lead to a few scandalous and naively simple "high-tech hi schools" run by some of the escapees from the dot-com collapse, rather than the really radical, complex, effective alternatives that we need to evolve.

Notschool shows that all children can learn, and love to learn. Like me you were probably aghast at the recent Unteachables TV series. How anyone can label a child as "Unteachable" and then exclude them is completely beyond my comprehension. Tha is about as damaging as it gets. What Notschool shows us is that, never mind the Unteachables, there are no Unlearnables at all, and we need more variety, with some really fresh thinking, to prove it. I'm just starting a series of TV programmes with old East End teaching colleague Stephen Hoare that will, I hope, show what is possible.

© Stephen Heppell 2005

Monday, 1 August 2005

about Academic Papers

Hmmm. I'm very critical of much academic publishing. At its worst it is lazy, egotistical, vanity publishing. At its best it's usually inadequate.

Pretending that most of what is known, is what is "published" in the correct "refereed journals", is a self serving myth that masks and undervalues so much of what is really known. In ICT in particular the papers are often so far off the mark as to be risible; papers don't simply lag behind exceptional, but effective, practice, they miss it altogether. I sit on enough editorial boards to be allowed to be depressed about this.

Asked by a media interview for my "best ten things in education in the last decade" I was not surprised to realise that 8 of them hadn't been written up in "proper" papers.

This would be alarming if reputation was all that was at stake, but too often funding also depends on this myth that the lazy academic writer is the most worthy of support so that they can write even more about what they might, but so rarely actually will, do.

On the other hand a few papers really do shed light and genuinely introduce new voabulary, new understandings or retrospective reflections of real activity, real research and real success. I wish mine were always that good (!). I haven't given up, I do try to pick relevant, interesting and readable ones, from both journals and book "collections" and i try to contribute those too, where I can.

And just in passing , why is it when really big action research projects reach really sound, demonstrable,, unequivocal conclusions, that people ignore them anyway?... Probably because you don't get published by offering agreement, you get published for "new".

Oh dear.