Tuesday, 1 November 2011

letter to Queensland

I wrote this at the request of Queensland's Courier-Mail - they duly published it, with much else on learning spaces too.


Having just enjoyed a remarkable day of conversation and creative energy at the State Library of Queensland, focussed on your future learning, I reflected overnight on the remarkable potential that you have to change your own destiny statewide, and the world's too. That doesn't happen very often.

The coincidence of several unique moments has thrown up a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Queensland, as I know many of you have already reflected:

Firstly, next year is the 100 year anniversary of secondary education in Queensland, a chance to be proud of the progress in that first 100 years, but also to look forward to the potential of the next.

Secondly, you have some exceptional young teachers: they entered the profession in times of full employment - with your healthy state economy they could have done anything they wished, but they still chose to teach. Alongside them stand a near-retired group of wise old owls (if I can so characterise them!) approaching retirement but with a robust track record of making change happen, and of coping with change; their careers have been necessarily agile. The combination of these two groups, working alongside each other will only be with us for another decade - they are a remarkable asset going forwards.

Thirdly, you face significant changes in the Australian National Curriculum (ACARA), with an increasingly standardised set of tests. This tested new approach won't last of course - the research evidence is damning about high stakes testing - but it does provide yet another reason to review existing practice today. 2012 will be very different to 2002, or even 2022.

Fourthly, the transition of Year Seven into Secondary School is a substantial change - and in a world where playful learning is finally seen to be effective and appropriate, a key challenge will be to retain the playful, autonomous learning from the early years into the secondary years and beyond.

All this offers clear enough opportunities - and good reasons - to explore alternative ways to teach and learn, but there are further drivers of change too: the new technologies in your students' pockets and hands; the plea from employers for new employees that are comfortable with ambiguity, are team players, have ingenuity; the 24/7 connectivity of our world; tightening finances... and more. This perfect storm of progress is inevitably sweeping away the old factory schools of the last century, but it also provides a unique opportunity to shape what comes next. All around the world teachers and schools are discovering, researching and sharing the new approaches that make learning more engaging and extraordinarily effective. Some of what they have discovered is counter intuitive, not all of it will suit yourselves, but it is now so easy to reach out to borrow from their tested ingredients to assemble a Queensland recipe that is as world class, and as noticed, as your state library. Inevitably, your future world class learning will look as different as your new library did.

None of this needs to be expensive though. New approches by and large can be very affordable - are often actually cheaper - and do need to be. It is my simple belief that a world riven by strife can be healed with better learning. Like many of you, I've seen children inoculated against poverty with learning, seen how children who learn together emerge with understanding ahead of hatred. The model you evolve from your unique opportunities will need to be affordable so that others less fortunate might follow your lead. Change, but change cheaply.

The hardest thing to do, with change, is to begin. Circumstances had already begun that change for you. My note here is simply to confirm what many of you are already saying - that here is a unique chance to make the world sit up and take notice, and to mend that world a little too.

Professor Stephen Heppell
Bournemouth University, England
Universidad Camilo José Cela, Madrid.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Because we can, surely we should?

I wrote this for CEMP's Media Education Manifesto - a really interesting collection of views and reflections - and am quite pleased with it. The Manifesto is turning into an MIT Press book, which is interesting, given what the contributions mostly say (!). Anyway , here is what I said:

Sometimes, as we struggle for resources and for progress in a parsimonious, post banking-debacle economy, with our cross-platform screens filled by conflict and disengagement, it is all too easy to forget that learning has the potential to do so much that might mend a broken world. And the world is really very broken. The World Bank’s data is bleak: more than a billion people unable to read a book or sign their names, great swathes of Africa with literacy rates below 50%, gender parity indices showing girls missing out too often in too many places. Around 50 million children excluded from education because they live in war zones. We see completely collapsed economies in Somalia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In Liberia 75% of the population is under 25 and 75% of them are apparently in gun toting militias. More than half the armed conflicts worldwide use children under 15 as fighters. The data isn’t just bleak, it is relentless. Every day children are hurting.

Traditional educational practice has, perhaps unsurprisingly, made little impact on resolving this hurt. Even in our already developed economies traditional approaches have been characterised by too much disaffection, have too many coasting kids, and have found that a world of managerialism and incrementalism has delivered a disappointing plateau across a range of key variables. If traditional educational practice isn’t working here, it might be a bit ambitious to expect the same model of cells and bells structures, with kill and drill, stand and deliver pedagogies, to work in far more challenging circumstances. Lorry loads of second hand textbooks, or brave charitably funded teachers, or donated chalk boards have not made, cannot make, enough difference, however heroic and welcome those myriad efforts might be. It isn’t that children the world over don’t want to learn. They do, and in many places the indicative graphs are mostly moving in the right directions, but the progress they chart is not urgent enough for the current generation of under ten year olds born and living within the 21st century. Their needs outstrip their opportunities. Every decade of glacial progress, another generation misses out. Eventually, perhaps sooner than expected, their collective patience will be exhausted.

If the old factory model of 20th century learning is not working well enough, we do know that in other sectors new and emerging technologies are capable of demonstrating real alternatives with huge impacts, in particular within new and emerging economies: the Bank Rakyat of Indonesia with its 21 million mobile phone based savers, or the Equity Bank in Kenya with its 3.9 million micro-bankers – one in ten – reinvigorating economies and empowering farmers. The Afridoctor virtual health clinic in Cape Town, offering a “snapdiagnosis” service, where patients can send phone pictures of their ailments to a panel of doctors. Same Language Subtitling (SLS) of Bollywood movies in Gujarat state hugely transforming literacy rates through some form of visual osmosis, and much more elsewhere. ALternative approaches can be remarkably effective.

But what has this to do with Media Education, that bête noire of the new Govian english curriculum? Media Education is uniquely placed to make a contribution far and beyond its humble impact on domestic social processes, on our critical analysis of communication, on our interpretation and analysis of political events, on our scholarship of media. Media Education has the potential to be a disruptive catalyst transporting learning into the 3rd millennium – it could not be more needed that it is now. It has a history steeped in change and has been adept at responding to change. It has narrated and interpreted, embraced and critiqued that substantial change in its short life. It has deconstructed it. It has helped us to see the cues and clues to the next change, even as we make sense of the current ones. We are in a world where substantial change characterises much of our collective experience. There is something about new technology that allows us to exist precariously, Icarus like, flying close too to the margins: deeper oil wells in the ocean, more planes in the air than ever before, tighter margins on banks’ capital. And inevitably at the margins, things go wrong: oil leaks we don’t know how to cap, a volcanic ash cloud shutting down airspace, economic collapse. These unexpected events impact disproportionally on the weakest economically. So, how do we prepare our least prepared for this unstable world? We look to see who has a track record of having coped; media education has coped, and coped well, with the certainty of uncertainty, the constancy of change. We expect to be astonished; that is our life.

Media Education has always been underpinned by evolving technological delivery. The evolution has been chaotic. There has been no equilibrium: the balance of production contribution has swung to include the user; cross media have muddied our definitional waters; we have seen screen sizes shrink to our pockets, grow into iMax, fatten into 3D; we’ve seen markets stutter, shrink, grow exponentially and vanish; seen culture clashes soothed; seen cartels shattered and individuals empowered; seen aggregated social voices raised, amplified and heard. Media Education above all else helps us to be agile in our scholarship; we’ve had to be. It anoints its students with the necessary survival skills for a life in the turbulent creative industries. But it can be so much more than that. If we are to solve the global and local inequality of educational provision within the shrinking resources of a post-crash world our toolkit must necessarily include the ability to make learning fleet of foot, ready for anything, seductive, engaging, agile, full of ingenuity and unashamedly relevant to today’s world. Media Education can be all that.

Furthermore, Media Education has a remarkable track record of engaging the disengaged, mainstreaming the marginalised, accelerating the coasting, embracing the rejected. Our professional lives are filled with powerful anecdotes about access successes. Where the narrow corridors of educational structures and strictures limit, and delimit, what learners might do, or who leaners might be, Media Educators have collectively widened the pathways to success. We bask in the learner journeys we have enabled for our remarkable students. That matters.

Bluntly, Media Education has the opportunity to pioneer and evidence those new approaches to learning that have the potential to mend a broken world. Together, we have the experience to show how to engage the disengaged, give voice to the unheard, empower the disenfranchised, transcend notational literacy. The danger though, is that Media Education eschews this meta-purpose. For many in Media Education the fight has been for simple local survival. Under-represented on education policy bodies, marginalised institutionally, assaulted by the disdain of the very media we research, tech-rich but resource poor, it has been all too tempting to see ourselves in the manner of a pedagogic proletariat, shackled by systems, with little control over our destiny, and aspiring simply to move on up in respectability and esteem. To focus on that parochial fight would be to betray the opportunity presented and to selfishly abandon the millions who might be helped. If Media Education has a manifesto then surely it should be headlined by a wish to push within all our institutions for ambitious change, to overturn moribund models of practice, to challenge ossified pedagogy, to be the engine of change, to apply what we know.

Media Education is one of only a few things that can help mend the world. Because we can, surely we should?

2010 ©stephen heppell


Shoeless learning works...

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Mobile technologies and handheld devices for ubiquitous learning: Research and pedagogy

I wrote this foreword for W Ng's interesting book "Mobile technologies and handheld devices for ubiquitous learning: Research and pedagogy". Hershey, PA, USA: IGI Global Publishing. At the time it was clear that the progression to embrace hand held devices was universal, but since then there have been rumblings about a universal ban in the UK (which cannot possibly happen, the genie is out of the bottle and even the most obsessive Minister will not call for the searching of every teenage bra!. However, even headline seeking sabre rattling around bans makes this all the more pertinent.

Anyway, here is my foreword:

Education doesn't have a very good track record with innovative technologies. A few folk reading this will be old enough to remember being banned from using the "new" ballpoint pens for fear that their cursive script handwriting might be ruined. Others, later, may have been prevented from using their slide rules, or in still later years yet had their calculators confiscated, or told that it was the "wrong type" ("we don't allow programmable functions here I'm afraid"). Education has had a track record of first confiscating, and then appropriating, emerging technologies. Even the potential that computers, and laptops, offered became tamed by a mass of "managed services" and by a stultifying focus on a small suite of tools for office workers, rather than perhaps the freedom of tools used in creative industries, or in play. For many, the power of moving image was reduced to weakly animated text on a Powerpoint slide. Even the remarkable, free, open world offered by the World Wide Web was rapidly closed off by massively filtered internet provision and by parallel "equivalent" services. "We have our own YouTube" authorities would proclaim, literally blind to the 10 hours of video contributed every minute to the real one.

Education's question, faced with most emerging technology, has traditionally been a simple productivity view of "how can this new thing usefully improve what we are already doing?", rather than "what new things might we now do?". The excitement of games became tamed to "spelling space invaders", the art, installation and celebration potential of a computer plus projector was reeled back into an interactive white-board and so on. It has always been relatively simple to achieve this appropriation of new technologies, because the pace of change was rapid but manageable. We had only been on the gentle slope of an exponential curve that is now, finally, beginning to steepen very rapidly indeed. On the gentle part of that slope we had plenty of time to reflect on quite small technological changes - and to head off perhaps the perceived dangers of that potential change. I remember a debate running for several years in the early 80s about whether we should have colour of monochrome computer monitors! People suggested that colour might be damaging for students' eyes! But now that we have reached the steep bit, where the Technology Progress against Time curve leaps skywards, we have but the blink of an eye to make sense of huge leaps in technological capability, and that changes everything.

Mobile technology is the first to appear in our classrooms and to successfully resist education's hunger for appropriation. It is the first technology already on the steep part of the exponential curve. When I put some of the very first "luggable" phones into a classroom in early early 90s the children saw a potential right away: "we could talk to people in France and improve our language skills; it wouldn't matter where they were, or we were, we could talk about what we were doing" they said, eyes alight with excitement. Education didn't give up the fight easily and produced the usual list of hokum to justify the usual bans: txting would ruin children's prose, radiation might fry their brains; when TV used video to show fictional fights and incidents it was "drama" when children did it it was "happy slapping" and so on. But mobile technology is essentially personal, portable and powerful. As schools were fretting about txting children were already social networking. This time the pace of change meant it was all too easy for the children to remain one step ahead. And they did.

Today of course mobile phone technology is an integral part of very many classrooms: children summarise their understanding, snap images from the board, blog their field trips, bluetooth to their teachers, do day-in-the-life projects through their phones with other schools, sample and exchange data, and - as this book reveals - much more besides. This post-Google generation see a whole new potential for themselves as learners and they see much of it lying beyond the structures and strictures of the old education system of the last century. Mobile learning has already shown itself to be a watershed in learning - the moment when the leaners, finally, had an authentic say in what the future might be like. The biggest certainty we have as we move forward is that education won't appropriate this next tidal wave of change. Tomorrow will be a very different place. This excellent book gives us some hints about what kind of place that might be.