The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

February 18, 2011

So, if the ICT world is being turned upside down with the demise of Becta and mass local authority redundancies in the area of ICT support, then where does this leave us? Stephen Heppell has spoken of a new, bottom-up world where innovation and change will increase at a local level. This may be just an evolutionary reflection of the digital technological world itself. We are seeing the demise of over-inflated, top-down, bloated operating systems and applications and instead an increasing appetite for connectivity, bandwidth, browser-based applications, mobility, personalisation and multimedia. So, if we are moving towards a more democratised, chaotic, imperfect, connected and edgy world of ICT in education, then who will be the gatekeepers? The local authorities? Teachers? Heads? The ICT industry? The children?

The genie is out of the bottle and there is no going back. The gatekeepers have gone. It is now all down to educating the children, the teachers and the parents. But isn’t that what schools are all about? And this time, we are all going to have to learn together. It could be the worst of times and the best of times.


Six Impossible Things

June 22, 2010

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Alice Through the Looking Glass

“… the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

Jean-François Lyotard

After 14 years of service to education, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) is being retired.  Becta was the government agency leading the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning. According to their website, Becta’s remit included:

  • raising educational achievement
  • narrowing the gap between rich and poor
  • improving the health and wellbeing of children and young people
  • increasing the number of young people on the path to success
  • improving the skills of the whole population throughout their working lives
  • building social and community cohesion
  • strengthening the Further and Higher education systems.

Many thousands of educationalists across UK, and indeed the world, have valued the support and advice that Becta provided over the years, and the decision to close it down means that educational institutions and communities will need to find new and creative ways to embed deep thinking into their decisions about learning technologies, ICT and e-learning. These decisions about the use of new technologies in education will inevitably focus on the raising of educational standards, whether through improving attainment, progression, engagement, enjoyment or by making educational institutions more efficient. But something else will also emerge.

I will always be grateful for the resources and support that Becta provided and for their contributions to the educational discourse that now allows so many individuals and organisations to embrace current and emergent technologies with confidence and ambition. But we must now pick up new challenges, one being to question the way in which the models of ICT support have been traditionally presented. We have the opportunity to challenge the old, modernisitic models of large, centralised support. As Stephen Heppell has said

…we need to see the opportunity presented: we are in a world where, as I have often said before, instead of the old 20th century model of “building big things that did things for people” we now have a world of “helping people to help each other…we’ve said all along that ICT empowers autonomous and collaborative learners. Now is the time to prove that these learners include ourselves too.

Now is an excellent time to encourage and work with the many online collaborators who provide inspiration and support for others. Many communities of practice exist that are well placed to take this debate forward. The online community will ensure that Becta publications and services will survive if there is a demand for them but we may also be entering an era of new opportunities. This has been signalled for some time by writers such as Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater. Some of the clubby, old, paternalism that has guided our thinking about ICT for so many years may be swept aside as impatient, younger influences become more dominant in education.

Many writers have opposed universal solutions, meta-narratives, and generalisations. More so than ever, some ‘universalist’ claims have been challenged in areas relating to knowledge and technology. Lyotard in his 1979 report on knowledge argues that our postmodern era is characterised by an ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’. These meta-narratives are grand theories and philosophies such as those that characterise the inevitable progress of history and the infallibility of science. Lyotard argues that the world has changed and that these sorts of narratives may no longer stand up to scrutiny. We have to embrace individuality, diversity, conflict, local knowledge and context, and encourage smaller strategies that have meaning and relevance to those who own them. Lyotard signposts the diversity of smaller communities and the multiple collaborative and conflicting systems which create their own meanings and their own rules.

Becta served and helped shape our views of ICT and e-Learning admirably and was instrumental in moving both technological and pedagogical discourses away from the technocrats and into spaces inhabited by teachers, parents, pupils and the wider community. The challenge for us all now is how to create new discourses about ICT, not just through membership organisations and formal bodies but through informal spaces which are increasingly attracting collaborators, inventors and innovators. The technologies are there to support these spaces and the old argument that puts pedagogy ahead of the technology is sounding tired. The boundaries between the two are blurring and young people know this. We need to do six impossible things before breakfast.

Becta had a Business Plan which set out its work for 2010-2011 which identified six priorities:

Priority 1: e-enabling institutions

Increasing the numbers of schools, colleges and other providers using technology to improve outcomes for learners and deliver value for money.”  Building on the work that Becta undertakes in the next twelve months, we need to take Stephen Heppell’s vision forward and each in our own way make a point of connecting up with each other through informal and formal networks to encourage, collaborate, celebrate and help each other to raise and meet expectations on the use of ICT in education.

Priority 2: Delivering Home Access and improving services for learners and families

Increasing the numbers of learners able to access learning materials, the school and wider services through technology” Many schools are already technological hubs of their communities. By opening physical and virtual doors to their ICT resources, schools are well placed to take this forward. By opening up provision of cloud-based resources through learning platforms, e-learning and other resources schools are increasingly positioning themselves to lead in supporting their communities through the use of ICT.

Priority 3:Supporting the frontline to achieve savings through technology

Achieving savings through better procurement, management and interoperability of ICT and improved operational efficiency”. This is possibly the hardest of the “impossible six” to achieve. Again, the key is collaboration. Procurement frameworks and the creation of ICT contracts that meet local needs will need to be well coordinated. Where the motivation is financial, there is greater motivation to collaborate. We can look forward to commercial strategic partnerships, regional procurement frameworks and other entrepreneurial and innovative methods of procuring and achieving interoperability. If the foreseeable future is to be based on personal, portable, wireless, networked, interactive devices then we can expect interesting times indeed.

Priority 4: Propositions to achieve future productivity through new operating models

“Developing propositions to policy makers, local authorities and system leaders on new models” Whether schools become academies, free schools or remain within Local Authorities, new models of operating will emerge. There is much to be excited about, as both educational structures and technologies will change rapidly over the next year. The challenge will be whether or not leadership models respond strongly enough in both reactive and proactive ways.

Priority 5: Supporting leaders and developing system leadership

“Ensuring commitment by education leaders to a strategic vision for technology and its implementation” This priority is inextricably linked to the previous one. To refer back to Stephen Heppell, we need to revisit our grand, strategic visions and focus on autonomy and collaboration.

Priority 6: Organisational delivery and reducing administration costs

Managing the organisation efficiently, effectively and reducing administrative costs.” The coalition government has stated that it is committed to giving schools more freedom from unnecessary prescription and bureaucracy. ICT will continue to play an important role in the management and administration of schools in increasingly efficient ways.

Becta had established each priority with both one and three year targets. It will be the challenge of schools and other educational providers to take these priorities and reinterpret them after March 2011. By collaborating and contributing to the national and international discourses on ICT in education we can embark on a new era of creativity and innovation in education.

Following the Alice in the Looking Glass quotation on Six Impossible Things, we would do well to remember what the Sheep said later in the same chapter: “I never put things into people’s hands — that would never do — you must get it for yourself.” Now is the time to start getting things for ourselves. How many impossible things can we dream before breakfast and then make real?

What Professor Stephen Heppell said at BETT 2010

January 14, 2010

“Education hasn’t had a very good track record with innovative technologies. Mostly we ban things, then, if they don’t appear to have gone away, we appropriate them. “Education asks, when faced with most emerging technologies, a traditionally simple productivity question: “How can this new thing usefully improve what we are already doing?” Rather than asking, “What new things might we now do?”. The learners’ question of course has always been that latter one, hence the dissonance that technology often produces. “The obvious and early excitement of games became tamed to “spelling space invaders”; the art, installation and exhibition and celebration potential of a computer plus projector was reeled back into the “stand and deliver” of an interactive white-board; the personal computer could have unleashed suites of learning tools that mirrored the creativity of a primary classroom, but instead it was reeled back with a suite of dull software that bizarrely mirrored an office. ICT capability became dull conformity, rather than startling creativity. But you know all this already. “But this time it really is different – this Christmas and New Year break saw hosts of families gathered around their Wiis and other gadgets, playing together and enjoying themselves hugely. The phones dreaded by so many schools for so long have opened up hosts of new play opportunities – for adults as well as children (HOW many games on the iPhone already, HOW much fun?!) and we are very obviously at the beginning of an era of post-appropriation in our schools relationship with technology. “And that changes everything as we struggle to keep education up with the progress of post-appropriation technology, rather than to drag technology back to where education is. Gaps will widen, schools that realise where we are will, and in many, many cases already are, listening to children who have suddenly moved from being “the learners’ voice” to being reconnaissance scouts spying out possible new futures. Smart schools will send their scouts ahead, with wise teachers, to spy out future possibilities. “Much of this is, of course, in the mind. We might see leaners doing creative and playful things, but too often our minds see a misfit with the structures and strictures of an orderly education life, and then we demonise what we saw. Top Gear ‘adventure’: picture BBC “A simple example: BBC’s Top Gear regularly features the little “adventures” of its three presenters. In truth we know that as the car edged around the crumbling roadside there was a full BBC production team watching. We know this “three men alone with a challenge” is a bit of playful fiction, albeit with real characters, and people seem to find it entertaining stuff. Indeed, even when the presenters go into bully mode, as for example when they have yet another pop at green politics, many viewers still seem to laugh. “The presenters are apparently lauded for this – but when instead the story is concocted by school children, filmed by their mates’ phones rather than a camera crew, and when the results are circulated among peers to laughter and delight, we call it Happy Slapping and see the perpetrators as the devil incarnate. I’m only signalling that children being playful with technology, with games, with video, with tools like Google Earth and consoles like the Nintendo Wii, with phones and social networking and more, will not this time be dragged back and appropriated into the old factory model of learning. “These post-appropriation technologies won’t be tamed. There won’t be an “educational version”, or a government scheme, so we’d better start some serious conversations about what 21st century learning might look like if we embrace, rather than deny them. “I can’t think of a better place to start than chatting to learners as they play. “So, send out your reconnaissance scouts. Having a bunch of articulate, normal, tech-savvy, diverse London kids playfully learning on the stand, is looking like a pretty important “don’t miss” opportunity for BETT visitors. And we have a scheduled series of inputs too, if you want to sit a while and ponder…”

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