Tuesday, 12 December 2006

another year in this century of learning

This was my Guardian column for the 2007 BETT Show in London's Olympia. The paper is given away to the tens of thousands of visitors, so the piece is quite short (= less paper to print and give away!)

It's the beginning of another year in this century of learning. In hardware terms, this will be a remarkably innovative year, but where will innovation in learning come from?. January means the annual BETT Exhibition showcasing global learning technology at London's Olympia. I remember the first BETT, chock full of new ideas and practices - a cornucopia of innovation even in those pre-Internet, pre-CD days!. It was full of hobbyist innovators: teachers, students, each with tiny stands - a wallpaper table, a backcloth, their mum's spotlights. They didn't sell much, but there was a spirit of debate, sharing and inventing everywhere. In those far-off days people dreamt of whopping storage to replace unreliable floppy discs; of boundless memory and high resolution displays; of connectivity that would work for free right around the world; of cheap TV quality cameras; of pocketable wireless networkable devices; of a world where information was so plentiful that encyclopaedias sat unwanted in remainder buckets outside bookshops. Today, we have it all. Back then the tough question was "can we make the technology do anything useful at all? And those innovative teachers and tiny companies showed emphatically that we jolly well could. In 2007, the much tougher challenge is simply "technology will let us do anything we want, what do we really want to do?"

Today, the hobbyist innovators have largely gone. So in 2007, where might we look for real innovation? Not to universities, with their moribund hierarchical layers of pro-vice chancellor on pro-vice chancellor, aping the collapsed industries of 1970s Britain; not to the now huge corporations paralysed, in the main, by the feared impact of any radical steps on their stock valuation; not to government agencies tied to a host of performance criteria that reflect past rather than future practice, in fact not to anything very big at all. It is no surprise that most of the really exciting innovations in technology have come in recent years from tiny groups. From Google to Skype to YouTube, small has proved to be ingenious.

What we need with real urgency is to set free tiny radical groups to innovate in learning. We need micro-schools researching new pedagogies, families exploring inclusion, clusters of teacher and students leaping ahead with new assessments, a few parents revolutionising the timing of the school day, rural communities developing genuinely 21st century learning spaces. Freedom, space and expectation allowed tiny technology companies to change the world. Now we need that same freedom, space and expectation to transform learning too. At BETT this year I am proud to be hosting four schools whose children will be using ICT to grill visitors for their vision of future schooling. Having already spoken to some of the children I know that many innovations in tomorrow's learning will come directly from them and from their extraordinary, ingenious young teachers. But please, please, please will someone allow them the freedom and space to save education?

2006 © Prof Stephen Heppell

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

So this is Christmas...

I wrote this for my Guardian Column for Christmas 2006

I was visiting a prison in the Caribbean earlier this week, to chat to prisoners about using ICT to improve their learning opportunities. It was an unexpectedly optimistic place; prisoners almost universally had a sense of their own unfulfilled promise but even the oldest prisoner that I spoke to felt it wasn't too late. It does seem foolish that all around the world we spent tens of thousands on each prisoner annually, have them in our care 24/7, and yet still they leave prison unable in many cases to read or write. That's our failure not theirs. Technology should have made a difference long ago; we know exactly what is needed but, just as with some schools, so much learning technology there - like the Internet - seems to be just banned thoughtlessly rather than provided appropriately. Prison is no place to aspire to, but one prisoner reluctantly concluded that his rapid progress through a correspondence based law qualification course was helped by the lack of distractions inside! Don't tell the minister Alan Johnson; his alarmingly backward decisions on coursework have already sentenced children to more solitary time in classrooms, disconnected from Google, under formal supervision, safely away from the danger of working with their parents or each other. Turning the key on the classroom door could be his next logical step!

I spoke to one Caribbean lad about how he had ended up out of school and into trouble. He reflected back on what had been a pretty torrid school career. Constant trouble with his interpretation of uniform quickly deteriorated into a permanent run-in with teachers that finally escalated to exclusion and the rest, as they say, is history. As chair of trustees of The Inclusion Trust, with its flagship project Notschool.net, this is familiar territory. I'm clear that 21st century learning should not want uniform kids, we should value ingenuity above mindless acquiescence surely?. One of the biggest impacts of ICT in our learning lives has been the excuse it has given us to think again about much that we once just assumed should be the components of our learning organisations, like uniforms, year groups or corridors. ICT in the workplace has meant that employers are newly looking for collaborative, reflective, ingenious, team learners who can research, critique and communicate. Those same attributes make good parents and citizens too, and clearly some of the old vocabulary of learning needs to be re-examined to reflect the 21st century. In Notschool vocabulary matters enormously - every child there is known as a "researcher" because that is what they are, helping as they do to define their project. But the word also builds their self esteem and thus I've become something of a vocabulary fundamentalist!. For example, I am anxious that we don't confuse "standards" with "standardisation"; I don't want simply "flexible" spaces for learning (which usually means a folding room divider), instead I want the sophistication of "agile" space design; ICT has embraced "personalisation" really well. It is an easy concept to fulfil through technology, yet too often I hear a confusion between the sterile old concept of "individualised learning" and the sophistication of "personalisation". Personalised learning of course takes proper account of learning styles, of the varied roles needed for collaboration to be effective, of different intelligences and emotions. But it doesn't have to mean working alone.

Vocabulary really matters in getting the details right. In the Cayman Isles we are now talking about the whole country as a Campus Cayman. The words clearly signal a commitment to putting learning at the heart of policy and the economy, from tourism and finance through to culture and citizenship. Words matter, getting the right words can make a big difference; the Caribbean prisoners knew it, the Notschool researchers knew it. Now all we need to do is think of a new word for coursework that the UK's foolish education minister Alan Johnson won't ban. How about "research?"

© Prof Stephen Heppell - November 2006

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Can ICT win the World Cup for England?

I am often described as the person to blame for adding the "C" into the middle of IT. It's very likely true and it rather ruined a lot of cute posters in the style of "Let's get down to IT" and similar. But I stand by the change. Information and Technology were simply not enough for learning in the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The "C" allowed everyone to focus a little better on Communication, and on the way that new technology was transforming it, as we have now seen everywhere from SMS and MSN to podcasting and blogs. Rather encouragingly others have now taken up the torch and are valuing community, collaboration and creativity as "C" words too. As we look at ICT in the 21st century it is clear that shared community spaces and inter-group communications are a massive part of what excites young people as we have seen with mySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Bebo and the like. YouTube is not just a place where 15 million people go to watch video, it's a place where huge numbers go to contribute and share too. Check out the BTEC final assessments posted there for example. Content isn't king any more, but community might just be sovereign. This is no surprise is it?

Yet UK education has a long history of valuing individual endeavour. Collaboration and communication - whether with parents over coursework, or with peers sharing homework assignments - is all too often classed as "cheating". The annual ritual of exam grades being opened on TV focuses on individuals. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this obsession with the individual, our UK star performers are very rarely team players. Our star sportspersons, from Ellen MacArthur via Nigel Mansell back to Seb Coe, are typically individual stars. This jars with the 21st century. Our Prime Minister is nowadays criticised for being too "presidential" and not "collegiate" enough. Our football team, as we saw earlier this year, is rich with individual talent, but they don't seem to be able to come together as a team in the big events. We blamed their coach because the team failed to gel together. We should have blamed the curriculum.

ICT drives a coach and horses through the cult of individuality. And this sets up some interesting tensions. We have seen ICT being harnessed to drive individual's test scores upwards; the rich potential of the computer wasted on what has become appropriately branded as "drill and kill" as we chase the enhancement of individual scores. Oddly, having taking so much social activity out of the curriculum we then seem to demonise children for their anti-social behaviour. ASBOs? We should have slapped one on the curriculum.

But don't despair. Despite all this, we have still seen some stunning collaborations, between and within schools, across groups of engaged motivated learners, increasingly across national boundaries, powered by the extraordinary technology that the 21st century has given us. Personalisation gives us the opportunity to build on that technology to vary and version learning to the particular learning needs, cultures and contexts of our ambitious learners. Their needs include the need to work together, their cultures value community. Personalisation does NOT mean individualisation. Forward looking schools are already clear about that.

This all terrifies the exam-paper fundamentalists who, as we are beginning to see, chant their mantras and attack the evolving alternatives with a reactionary zeal. "Death to coursework" they cry, brandishing their shredders. But of course, it's already the 21st century and we can't turn off progress. Children have embraced the "C" words to build active communities of learners, to swap and exchange insights, to collaborate, communicate, create and challenge. They will neither tolerate having to power down to come to school, nor being locked back into the anti-social world of individualism. Together, our children have seized on the learning opportunities presented by ICT. It's time that the curriculum did the same, before those same children simply take their learning elsewhere.

© Stephen Heppell 2006

Thursday, 20 July 2006

5 ideas that work

this was my Guardian Column for Summer 2006

One of the joys of having working globally is that I constantly stumble across good ideas, that really work. These are rarely found in universities or central policy units but almost always in schools and many readers will know my passion to see schools much more closely identified as the engine at the heart of educational research and change. So, here are five of the simple but effective things that have impressed me already this year. Try any of them, they work:

(1) Big desktop computers might be robust and very cheap these days, but they pose an interesting dilemma. Teachers can either see the faces of their students, or see what is on the students' screens, but not both at the same time. One very simple solution in the old style computer suite needs a quick trip to Ikea and the purchase of some very cheap non-glass mirrors. Hang them all around the room and, hey presto, screens AND faces can all be seen. Perfect.

(2) While we are in the old computer suite, I surveyed them once and found, amazingly, that some 75% of the material on the walls was to tell children what they must NOT do. Hardly inspiring decor of a learning revolution. Like many others, you might care to review yours too.

(3) As secondary schools move to much longer timetable blocks - 100 minutes is increasingly the minimum - they find that a daily assembly gets in the way, often starting the day badly. Instead, schools are harnessing their student media teams to produce a weekly on-line broadcast. If you have information to put over, a netball victory to celebrate, or an event to advertise, make an appointment and become part of the weekly broadcast. An encouraging number of parents watch on-line too. You know the job will be done well; viewing compulsion is never needed. Everyone is excited to see the next "episode" and a huge amount of time is saved. You get to SEE the netball victory too.

(4) At the last local election barely one in three voted. There is something about representative democracy that doesn't work in the 21st century. But viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, or Big Brother txt votes their in millions. With Pupil Voice a topic in most staffrooms txting offers a way to move on from frumpy Schools' Councils. Why have representative pupils when they can all have their own voice? Try this: buy a £5 pay-as-you-go SIM card. Put it into an old Bluetooth phone. Give the new number to students and they can txt their thoughts to it 24/7. Free software allows you store or display their feedback onto a server (I use the free Cocoa UltraSMS). Because the phone only receives txts it won't cost the school a penny. The last evening student event I was involved in ran the TXT service for feedback and averaged better than one txt every half minute. Now that IS pupil voice!

(5) Asking students for views on the design of their schools, one of them told me "the trouble is, people round here don't know how good we are". That's a design problem of course, but one that is easily solved with another practical idea. Arm one child per week with a digital camera. Their task is to capture the ten "coolest" things happening in school that week. They get two weeks notice of this task, so have to plan and ask around a bit first. Then, at night (this is best in the winter, but nights are drawing in now aren't they?) swivel a ceiling projector to focus on a big outside window and beam a nightly slideshow of these cool images. It's a wonderful PR exercise, but also helps students to properly understand all that is happening in school.

None of the schools running these excellent ideas got written up in journals or books. Research today is about detective work; looking for the best ideas in unexpected places. I've found schools around the world to be just jumping with good ideas. If you have more, and I know you have, mail me.

© Stephen Heppell 2006

Thursday, 16 February 2006

Higher Education a Triumph. Hmm.

I wrote this for the Times Higher Education Supplement at the end of 2006. To be honest, I don't know what to do about most universities - they seem to have sooooo lost direction. There are heaps of good people inside them, but they are lions led by donkeys in many cases, sadly. In the Uk I find Bournemouth to be an exception - few meetings and many conversations make for an agile institution, generally. I've tried (and am still trying) to help, this piece is just part of that effort...

The article signalled some of my concerns, making some fun comparisons between HE in the UK today and the now failed UK motorcycle industry back in the last century.

I was astonished by the level of warm support that this all triggered - my mailbox was awash with VERY supportive correspondents - from current lecturers and students to now-retired vice chancellors. Interestingly they all said "yes, yes, yes!".

History confirms that, without exception, any industry with this level of dissatisfaction across employees and customers has very little time left. Perhaps we should all turn our attention to what we build instead.

My two-pennyworth is that whatever we build to supercede them ought to do a much better job on inclusion and access... and quality. I can't see why we can't achieve at least 66% participation rate for example. Anyway, here's the piece. Overseas readers will be helped to know that a famous UK motorcycle brand, that all but vanished, was the Triumph (hence the tile).

The UK has a knack of losing wonderful assets. No sooner do we have something world leading, than we begin a gentle journey of complacency and poor vision that too often misses key trends and leaves us sidelined. We invented skiing and football, but struggle nowadays to compete. Our sports car industry was once the toast of the world; now just crumbs remain. In 1908 we topped the Olympic medal table, in 2004 we placed 10th. As we move towards the end of the 21st century's first decade it is alarming to find higher education exhibiting all the misplaced confidence and poor vision of these illustrious previous failures.

Contexts, cultures and conditions change. Sadly, numbers are dropping fast: in 1971 we had 14.2 million under 16 year olds, by 2033 we have less than 9 million in a growing population. Chidren are scarce in the UK and in schools the policy mantra is, quite rightly, that "every child matters". One response of course is to look overseas for university students rather than boosting partcipation rates at home. Last year, the British Council anticipated that demand for higher education places from overseas students could spiral over the next 15 years from around 270,000 to more than 800,000 by 2020. By looking outside Europe income from overseas fees is expected to increase from £1,125m in 2003/04 to £1,621m in 2007/08 with considerable growth beyond. But ominously the growth of overseas students in Chinese universities grew by 43% between 2003 qnd 2004 and China expects to rapidly become a net importer of students.

There is time, just, for a fresh look at UK higher education today. The 21st century is emphatically not the 20th century; then most of our economic success stories might be characterised as "building big things that did things for people", from a national railway network to the National Curriculum. Content was king, education was delivered, wisdom was received. Encyclopedia were sold door to door and knowledge was valued. It was all one way. But in the 21st century all the success stories, from Google and YouTube to the huge growth in our voluntary sector, can be characterised as "helping people to help each other". In economic terms knowledge has become a free good; encyclopedia are remaindered. In this symmetrical world of peer to peer endeavour, companies are discovering the power of agile, collegiate structures with organic project teams. They embrace collaboration and communication above all else. At precisely the same time, our universities appear to be rushing headlong backwards into the 20th century inventing 1970s hierarchies of pro-vice chancellor upon pro-vice chancellor, personal accountability and stultifying accounting procedures.

Meanwhile our schools are producing a newly broad portfolio of potential success: children are podcasting, YouTubing, blogging, performing and animating their way through their learning together. A seductive wave of effective and gender flat performance based science teaching is storming through from Eastern Europe, while project based work is evidencing remarkable ambition and achievment both earlier and faster. These and other global trends like personalisation are pushing the old "delivery" model of learning, with its one-size-fits-all, aside. The result is a generation of ambitious learners worldwide, running way ahead of their criterion referencing; confident, ambitious, achieving and diverse. Faced with this onslaught, universities already look like structurally declining industries. Standards have been confused with standardisation, quality control has been confused with quality assurance. If 21st century learners have a fault, it is their impatience. All round the world they love the progress they can make and are ambitious to do better yet. They will not "power down" to come to school, nor to university.

Currently many universities simplistically look only for productivity gains from technology. Their basic web applications with rudimentary chat forums and pdf notes are emphatically NOT learning, they are delivery. They are a million miles from the complex peer to peer environments with their rich granularity of discourse and temporal sophistication that characterise the world our learners inhabit. If HE is to survive in the UK it will need to radically alter its cost base, to properly embrace inclusion, to vow never to waste another learner, and to be ambitious for improving standards. Really significant assumptions need to be tested (we may not need campuses, but we will need a sense of collegiality). 6% of every university's turnover should be devoted to learning research. Learning is what they all do and they need to do it much better to survive. The now collapsed British mororcycle industry didn't think it needed to research the emergent needs of its new customers. If I say that in 2006 the UK university sector looks like a Triumph, you'll know exactly what I mean.

© Prof Stephen Heppell 2006

Wednesday, 25 January 2006

ICT's big questions

This was my Guardian Column for early 2006

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