Sunday, October 03, 2010

Faceless schools?

Weird incident this year. A friend of mine’s son wanted to do an IT course at sixth form college that required a B pass in Higher Level Maths GCSE. His teacher point blank refused to put him in the higher class or enter the exam. I gave him the Higher Paper and he scored a C months before the exam, so couldn’t see the problem. If he was a C student with months to go, a B was achievable. Despite appeals by his parents, the maths teacher was belligerent and wouldn’t teach him at this level. Our one victory was that we insisted that he get put in for the Higher exam.

I do free maths tutoring for kids who are struggling with the subject, and helped him get his B. He’s now in college, enthusiatic about the subject, and even chose to do A-level maths. What annoyed me about this was the arrogance of the teacher and the school. They were clearly hedging students into lower qualifications to play safe on their exam results, a despicable and morally bankrupt approach that puts the interest of the institution above the students they are meant to serve.

Teacherless schools?

It was with some delight, therefore, that I saw the BBC report on children being tutored in maths by highly qualified teachers in India via headphones and computers. The service is being provided to 7-16 year olds by Brightspark and is available 24/7 for both parents at home and in some schools.

Ashmount Primary School’s Rebecca Stacey, Assistant Headteacher and Head of Key Stage 2 in Islington, comments:

BrightSpark Education is effective because it provides targeted one-to-one maths help for students through online technology, which would otherwise be too expensive to facilitate. Each of our pupils who have used it have improved and become more confident in their maths ability. They have learnt to express their thinking and use mathematical vocabulary correctly…….It has also given pupils the perfect opportunity to work online and improve their IT skills at the same time. Many pupils intend to sign up at home to benefit from the service for their homework and revision.

Given the poor quality of many maths teachers and the shortage of suitably qualified staff, surely this is the way forward. In fact, this approach may well prove superior to the maths teaching in many of our schools, in terms of both quality and cost. The fact that the service can be used as a supplement, at home, is a big plus. Parents are already paying way more than this for tutors, many who are working teachers, so it’s a cultural fit. The reaction of the children (watch the BBC interviews with the kids using the service and you’ll see that they value it more than classroom teaching) says it all.

Learndirect – faceless blended learning

One of the reasons I love this approach is that in my own experience, as a Director of Learndirect, I’ve sat in on lots of telephone and online tutoring sessions from the Learndirect call centre in Leicester. It provides numeracy and literacy training to people direct top their homes, with no face-to-face components. It’s heartwarming to hear people with very poor numeracy and literacy respond with real enthusiasm to telephone and online services, with absolutely NO face-to-face support.

The learners are pleased not to be attending a class, college or school, as that, for them, is associated with past failure in their own lives. They are learning in the comfort and safe environment of their own home, free from the tyranny of time and location. The system works by responding to telephone and web enquiries, doing a quick online diagnosis, then being helped through the learning by friendly tutors. The learners go at a pace suited to their ability and circumstances.

This is not so different from the 200,000 Open University students, none of whom are on campus. As the largest university in the UK by miles, and the one that scores consistently higher than the others on student satisfaction, we have the answer to education staring us in the face – get rid of the faces!

F2F free

Let me be quite clear here. We are now in a position of seeing learning delivered more efficiently to both children and adults that is free from face-to-face teaching, and altogether better because of that fact. We are not getting rid of teachers but positing an alternative to the classroom as the main environment in which teachers’ teach. Huge productivity gains can be offered by teachers who tutor online, handling multiple students, with good online resources that deliver much of the core content. The teacher can then focus on motivation, problem solving and feedback.

What’s next?

OK, having freeing learners from the tyranny of fixed time and location, the next step is to free them from fixed devices, namely fixed computers. This, of course, has already happened. The market penetration of mobile devices has outstripped that of fixed devices, and offer web services, apps, and access that will eventually outstrip traditional learning.

Neil Lascher’s phone2learn uses voice recognition and text to speech technology to provide what he tongue-in-cheek, calls just-too-late learning. True performance support on mobile devices. Google Goggles, the astounding visual search engine, promises a point and learn service superior to that of many teachers.

Like real journeys, we used to use printed atlases and maps (books), then journey printouts from websites (e-learning & personalised journeys) and now Satnav (realtime knowledge acquisition). The classroom is looking like an increasingly tired and inefficient space for learning.

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Blogger John McLear said...

I work in Primary Schools and have certainly seen an increase in pupils using sites like Primary Games Arena and other web based tools to improve and personalize the way they learn.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Donald,

Whilst I agree totally that we should be making far more use of distance-learning techniques in our schools, I'm not entirely sure how it would work out.

Distance learning works best for self-motivated learners (or, at least, those who are motivated to get a particular qualification).

Our current, politically driven, school system pushes all students down the same, school-based route regardless of whether they are motivated to learn or not.

What do you think?

6:42 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Hi Mark
One of the reasons for writing this post was my experience in this approach with what Barber called the "disappointed, disillusioned and disappeared". These are the learners who did not do well in school and have low esteem and expectations. Learndirect has this audience as its primary audience in Skills for Life.

I wholly agree that the 'school' system is fossilised and seems unable to get itself out of the 'classroom' rut. At the same time I'm convinced that technology offers the best way forward, precisely because it avoids the 'class wars' that struggle between mobs of learners crammed into rooms, and teachers. The techniques offered in the post show a way forward that enhance teaching and learning by avoiding the conflict and putting 'distance' between teacher and learner. I have a whole theoretical framework that lies beneath this based on peer group theory from Judith Harris and others, namely that peer groups matter more than teachers and parents, and that current teaching practice fails to recognise this.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Mark Berthelemy said...


That makes sense. I know the power of the peer-group from my own teaching experience.

However, Learndirect works with people who have come to a point at which they now realise the benefit of "education" in some form or other.

Many (not all) of the children (word used advisedly) in our schools don't have the maturity to take advantage of the resources and experience offered to them (whether f2f or as a distance learning programme). From my experiences in South Yorkshire I know they are fighting against ingrained low familial and social expectations. So there's still a need for some sort of immediate, extrinsic motivating factors.

That doesn't just mean paying students to learn, as the research on productivity seems to indicate financial reward is counter-productive.

Perhaps we need to include some elements of recognition and creativity?

All of this is possible in a distance-learning environment. The hard bit is to get people motivated to start...

7:10 PM  
Anonymous Bob Harrison said...

inakerazI recently spent some me with the people behind the Stanford Virtual High School project...

It supports your argument Donald.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Having just been inspired by Sugata Mitra’s New TED Talk “Education is a self organizing system, where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

It seems more than a lucky chance that I should land on your article. I totally agree with this approach and the video above supports it. Working collaboratively students retain more knowledge and are inspired to acquire new knowledge through self discovery. By giving learners the opportunity to autonomously discover, motivation and interest increases and learning can effectively take place.

Agree with...
"peer groups matter more than teachers and parents, and that current teaching practice fails to recognise this."

@Mark... how to motivate... provide the tools, give individual and group autonomy, be in the near to offer support as is required, and most importantly make it contextual and fun.

Thanks for an inspiring post.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Paul - interestingly I gave the keynote the day before, gave a critique of the 'lecture', and got lots of grief. Mitra came along with an even stronger form of 'teacherless' learning and was hailed as a hero. Also love his work.

4:45 PM  

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