Tuesday, 26 May 2009

People power?

Written for my Guardian column Spring 2005 this column addresses the democratising power of technology for individuals and groups to help each other. Looking back - spot on!

On the way to a Hong Kong, where I am helping with some ICT futures policy, I was lucky enough to be invited to post-tsunami Thailand. I've written before about the importance of mobile phones in learning lives around the world, but was still surprised to see just how hugely fashionable, and affordable, they are in Bankok.

After school the students, still in their immaculate uniforms, all assemble, in a huge bustling throng, on the floors of the shopping malls dedicated to phones. They chat, they look, they test, but they are really there simply because it's a cool place to be, the way earlier generations in other countries might have hung around milk bars.

Meanwhile, the computer stores in these Bangkok malls have retained their fourtysomething clientelle, but are now something of a child free zone. We would be foolish to ignore this kind of clear signal about the future. Seeing so many pavement stalls dedicated to selling "memorable" phone numbers was a bit of a surprise too!

I ran some family learning events in the retail heart of Bangkok, at a very large ICT facility built for drop in visits, one of several really significant investments in community learning by the Thai government. I had a good gang of parents and children all tasked with building a narrative in images and sounds, but without words. We had great fun and you could immediately see how family learning might move two, or even three, generations forward at once. But the moment the children's faces really lit up was at the end, after they had all shown their narratives to each other, when I simply compressed their work into a 3gp file (good old QuickTime!) and bluetoothed it back onto their phones. The children literally ran around showing their work, on their phones, to all and sundry. It was the first thing they had ever made for their phones, and you could begin to see how one democratising this technology can be as one learner helps and creates things for another.

This democratising power for individuals and groups to help each other potentially meets other needs too. The Tsunami in Thailand left behind many unforgettable stories, both of tragedy and of extraordinary luck. But it has also begun a serious economic debate about "micro-aid". What is it? Many in Europe were immediately moved by the disaster and put coins and notes into buckets to help. At the other end devastated families, schools and hospitals would have liked to put hands into those buckets for the immediate help they needed and this has raised the prospect of families directly aiding families without an NGO or government in between; hence the term "micro-aid".

Of course this is simply not yet possible, the communication links and banking regualtions are too complex. But already we can see that ICT can successfully put many providers together with many consumers. Success stories, from e-bay to skiing holiday bookings, show how well it can work for all. It will be phones not computers though that unlock the door to micro-aid once banks finally get their act together. That may take some time, but when learning is the need, the potential for learners to help each other is already vast and achievable. The need is worldwide and demonstrable.

Charles Clarke was a great advocate of UK schools helping other less well funded institutions globally, and gaining by learning from them too; he was absolutely right. The huge investmenmt by many countries in ICT infrastructure, and the spread of ever more powerful phones to many, has opened a door to this kind of mutual support on a vast scale. Successful online communities of practice always focus on the internal expertise of their members. Schools worldwide, rich and poor, have plenty of expertise to exchange with each other. Lots of excellent partnering projects, many involving UK schools, have hinted that this can work, but to achieve the really massive scale needed is a substantial undertaking.

Taking the philosophy of micro-aid, adding the opportunity of ICT investment, mixing with the ubiquity of phones and stirring in the ineguity of children sounds like a heady recipe. It is just what a troubled world needs though, and could start right now.

Why wait?

© Stephen Heppell 2005

Inclusion excluded.

I suppose the short version of this piece is that, despite paying lip service to the principle, very few folk indeed really a give a *&@^ about the many children who have found themselves, for whatever reason, at the bottom of the social pile. It is all apparently too easy to condemn, and way too hard to bother to help. I beg to differ.

The 90s and the first decade of the 2000s seem to be characterised by a dreadful blame culture: set inappropriate and trite targets, then blame people for missing them, resulting in a catastrophic incrementalism and plateauing of performance accompanied by a disengagement and anomie that is palpable and damaging all round,.

Just maybe, the way that this blame culture has jumped back to bite parliament on the bottom with the 2009 expenses scandal, might see the end of this mess. just maybe. Anyway, I wrote this in 2007 for my Guardian column:

I'm currently busy Horizon Scanning for the DCSF, initially exploring technology futures. Undoubtedly the pace of development is accelerating. My new iPod Touch (I hacked it a bit) is currently fully functioning as web-server in my pocket!. At current rates by 2013 a computer will offer the same computational power as human brain; by 2050 a £500 computer should (apparently) outperform computationally, the entire species! The huge challenge for policy, of course, is whether it can develop enough agility to keep up with the potential that technology brings, particularly to the most disadvantaged. Evidence is not encouraging.

In the quarter century or so that I have been exploring the potential of technology in learning a significant change has occurred and it took one of my trustee colleagues on the Inclusion Trust to point it out to me: Policy has become confused with Practice. Previously, a government was judged by what actually happened in practice. That practice took time to embed, through iterative cycles. Today governments prefer to be judged by their policy. It's easy to write policies, tougher to implement changes in practice. Consequently Policy is rarely Practice.

As an example, the government's "6 day policy" says that where exclusion exceeds five days, schools must provide full time education from day six. But in practice our Notschool.net project, for those many excluded from school by circumstance or behaviour, regularly finds children who have been out of school, without any provision at all, for years. As another example the Computers for Disadvantaged Pupils policy offers welcome funding to help e-enable the disadvantaged, but by only doing so through schools the huge army of 100,000 plus children outside of the school system, most urgently in need of that support, are completely missed out: policy is a mile from practice. The policy of changing GCSE Coursework to being under school based supervision only, at a stroke catastrophically destroyed the progress of the many rebuilding their learning outside of schools. Governments say "problem solved; we have our policy", practitioners say "problem remains; look at the practice". Policy isn't keeping up. And the people it is hurting most are the most vulnerable. Ironically these are just the ones technology should offer the greatest hope to.

Raising the age of compulsory participation in learning to 18, says all the right things as a policy. At the Fabian Education lecture, Schools Secretary Ed Balls spoke powerfully of a policy to keep young people learning - but through the systems and policies that are already failing them: keeping them in the care homes they are already absconding from, in the schools they are already excluded and truanting from, writing the GCSEs that have already failed them. In practice the policy's key phrase for young people is this: "if young people fail to take up these opportunities, there will be a system of enforcement...". If the systems are failing, we'll blame the young people - it's easier than reform.

I find all this desperately frustrating. Technology has time and time again shown a way of doing things better: the wonderful Notschool.net project has demonstrated remarkable success in reengaging 98% of its thousands of excluded children full time, on-line. We know it could do even better - an annual target of 50,000 saved is not unreasonable; we know that bespoke on-line workplaced learning for the many that never reached university works; this potentially offers massively increased participation rates, up to 66%. We know ambitious targets matter and have evidenced what successful practice looks like - why then is policy so far adrift?

As a generation technology has offered us the chance to make the kind of difference to social equity that our great-grandparents made through medicine. I have seen that we can inoculate children against poverty through learning. Yet in a world where having a policy is sufficient, regardless of what is happening in practice, these enormous potentials remain unrealised. The huge challenge that technology brings our generation in this extraordinary new millennium is whether we can change our systems quickly enough to transform practice. The evidence thus far is that we can't. I don't think that is good enough.

© Prof Stephen Heppell 2007