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