“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.”
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?