Monday, December 13, 2010

10 lessons learnt at WISE in Doha

Loved the speedy little birds that darted back and forth in front of the speakers and across the heads of the crowd at the WISE conference in Doha, Qatar. A good omen, as Twitter was to prove pretty useful. Symptomatic of the old world versus the new was the constant reminders to ‘switch off your mobiles’. How are we meant to tweet and collaborate, if not through the technology? For those Twitter sceptics – remember that this was how many who couldn’t get to Doha knew what was happening.

This culture clash surfaced time and time again at the conference, characterised by 10 Manichean oppositions;

1. Monologue v dialogue

2. Global v local

3. Private v public

4. Closed v open

5. Teaching v learning

6. Religious v secular

7. Old practice V new science

8. Assessment v attainment

9. Horizontal v vertical

10. 20th C v 21st C.

Contention is good, and perhaps we could redefine the dialogue next year by having these oppositions as themes, to stimulate debate and discussion and a forward looking dynamic.

1. Monologue v dialogue

Nima, our earnest BBC host for the next three days was being very ‘presenterish’ with lots of pregnant pauses. I personally think she’d be better off not using a script fed through an earpiece, as it makes her sound inauthentic. I met her later, and she’s quite informal and good fun. This is, perhaps, the problem with education, all too often a series of earnest, didactic monologues, rather than dialogues. But I liked her “Who dares teach must never cease to learn”.

The format of educational conferences, with their endless speeches from the great and the good is a bit tired. Are future problems really going to be solved through lectures - or discussion? Don’t get me wrong, this was a great event, but the real action was among the hundreds of amazing delegates, rather than the speakers. Too many simply read from notes or described their own pet projects. Few addressed global problems head-on.

Nima introduced a stellar series of video introductions including Kofi Annan, Nancy Pelosi, Ellen MacArthur and others, with lots of effusive congratulations on winning 2022 FIFA World Cup bid. This would remain a three day theme, although I’m not sure what it has to do with education. Although, as I was staying in Zidenine Zidane’s room in the ‘W’ Hotel, an almost religious experience, I didn’t mind. If education were as popular as football, we’d be pleased as punch. In any case, the Qatar 2022 win was a real force for good among 1.3 billion people in the Islamic world.

Lessons learnt 1: More dialogue not monologue

Encourage people to use their mobiles and Twitter, don’t let speakers read from written scripts, have more head to head debates, more organised discussions.

2. Global v Local

Martin Burt, from Paraguay, laid siege to the idea that traditional schooling was suitable for the majority of the world’s poor. Just building schools is not the solution – people LEAVE schools and drop out of schools. How is quality education to be funded when governments lack resources? You can’t just say give us more money. Money in education has doubled but results not doubled. Too many children just get ‘schooled’ then leave into a life of poverty. They aren’t taught the skills they really need to improve their lives. He wanted to inject entrepreneurial spirit back into school by linking the curriculum to work and business start-ups. Learn maths so that you can understand a break-even point.

In Paraguay, a vocational school built by aid was closed down as the government wouldn’t pay for teachers. They turned around this school by delivering entrepreneurial and vocational skills. Students learn how to DO things; how to deal with public, set up shops, manufacture jam, do the maths for breakeven points. This addresses relevancy, motivation and aspiration – hence the zero dropout. It appeals to the dignity of the poor people they serve. They learn to earn.

Now he has a point, but as many delegates pointed out, the model can’t be used across education a whole. The point is not to turn everyone into ‘little capitalists’.

For example, the Chinese government are investing massively in online for science and technology by 2020. Innovation matters through pedagogical reforms. 100 key academic higher institutions have been identified as the key to China’s development, as they need high quality human capital. We saw examples from Haiti, New Orleans, Pakistan, Denmark, UK, Africa – all with different needs and political contexts.

The lesson here is not to blindly import models from one system to another. I spoke to a guy in Guatemala who described Mormon archaeology and US Christian education in Mayan ruins, hugely resented by the local Mayan population. Another delegate, from rural Brazil, thought Burt’s ideas were OK but no real solution for education as a whole in most countries.

The lessons learnt from post-Katrina New Orleans, were that the trauma of disaster had become the catalyst for change. He saw education as a marathon not a sprint. Good line, I thought, but it’s mostly a treadmill. Similarly in the presentation from Haiti, where a new approach is arising like a Phoenix from the ashes of disaster. In both cases, the previous systems were moribund and broken. Only time will tell, whether these newer approaches, involving Charter Schools and fresh government policies will work.

Lesson learnt 2: Global v local – one size doesn’t fit all

There is no ‘one size fits all’ model for either funding or curriculum choices. It depends on the political, economic and cultural context.

3. Private v Public

Strong voices were heard from the private sector lobby, some of whom (Microsoft, CISCO) has sponsored the conference, about the failure of the public sector to deliver. We heard from the World Bank about Human Capital Banking. Yes, I felt more than a little disgust at the term. His idea was to raise money through a Global Education Bond, like carbon trading. My doubts include the political stance the World Bank takes in these circumstances. However, if it could be offset against debt, we may get somewhere.

But, as one delegate stated from the floor, we must move beyond this simple private v public argument. The private sector has just been bailed out by the public sector. If education is the way out of the current crisis why did crisis start in most educated countries? What went wrong in those top Universities & business schools? We were led astray by a highly educated elite. Education could be accused of causing the problem.

3. Lesson learnt: Private v Public – it’s not a war

Both sides have their faults, and in reality education is, and should be, a mixed economy. Above all, it should match the goals it sets and not be overly politicised.

4. Closed v Open

Imagine a future where there’s access to free education and resources for everyone. A future where learning and assessment are free. A future free from institutional protectionism. Education is largely delivered through formal instruction in expensive institutions; schools, colleges, Universities etc. Contrast this with the way we actually access knowledge in the real world; Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, OER.

We’ve had 3 generations of open learning, the attempt to open education up to new people, places, methods and ideas. Gen 1: No entry qualifications – the massification of education through print/radio/TV. Gen 2: Web, blended and flexible approaches. Open access. Gen 3: OER – open resources – knowledge a public good. Initiatives include: CORE – China, LIPHEA – East Africa, OER Africa, JOCW Japan, The Vietnam Foundation, Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, Open Learn.. OER promises much more than it currently delivers in terms of shaking up the status quo.

Cecilia d’Olivera Exec Director of MIT Opencourseware explained that OER is more than traditional course materials, it’s also online textbooks, online lectures, online games, complete online courses, software, virtual labs. But at heart it’s really about these c-words – consortia, community, collaboration, copyright cleared content and courseware.

OER initiatives include: Connexions Curriki – collaborative platforms. Khan Academy – 1600 free Youtube resources for younger learners – non-profit. NPTEL – India. Flat World Knowledge – open textbooks with a business model. Online Learning Initiative – full online courses Carnegie Mellon. OU – led to explosion in rest of world but not UK. UNISA. Athbasca. The list goes on and on.

MIT’s traffic is 1.5 million visits per month, so that 70 million have used the content to date. Fewer than 10% are educators, Self-learners 43%, Students 42%, Educators 9%, Others 6%. The dominant use is the advancement of personal knowledge at 46%. Guy from Taiwan translated MIT courseware to through network around the world by crowdsourcing. So what explains the failure of institutions to take advantage of this?

Cecilia suggests that it needs to be easier to find and that language is still a barrier. Sorry, but I don’t buy this. It takes seconds to find this stuff on Google. Fact is, they don’t want to use it. NIH (Not Invented Here) is the real barrier to use. Sure content isn’t enough; we need other services – study groups, certification, assessment etc. But what we really need is an embrace by government. This is happening in China and India.

Prof VN Rajasekharan Pillai gave us the run down on IGNOU Open Course Portal - 40,000 text, 1600 videos, 80,000 users, one of world’s largest educational resource repositories with a special YouTube channel. Anyone can register and use resources, there are no entry qualifications, no restriction on duration – you only pay for certification – the revolution is here.

This is driven by huge demand. By 2020 India needs to provide employability skills to 500 million! The only way to satisfy this demand is through unconventional ideas. OER will transform education, so we need sustainability plans for these initiatives. People will use it if people see advantages for themselves. This means Open Assessment combined with Open Courseware. Knowledge and learning are trapped inside accrediting institutions. Until we break that mould we’ll be pricing learning out of the hands of the masses, especially the poor.

We need acceptance, not sniffy elitist statements about quality from the current establishment. This is happening, take the OU in the UK, now the largest University in the UK, or NIIT in India – it just takes time. Even in traditional system there’s a hierarchy and brand marketing. It took Oxford and Cambridge a thousand years to develop their brand – give it time – it’s a marathon not a sprint. Let’s not keep it as a treadmill.

OER needs to focus less on Universities and more in schools, further education and adult education. Openschooling already uses distance learning and free content with 20 subject areas in Africa. Other examples are Hippocampus, Monterey and Currici with 50-60k users per month accessing MIT content in schools.

We could also use the OER model for teacher training – that will act as agent for immediate global change, with more teachers being trained quicker and cheaper. Online teacher training has already started through Hibernia in Ireland and the UK. There certainly needs to be more off campus, not contact, models. The trend is for both, that’s the future.

Lesson learnt 4: Closed v open - Private money should be targeted at Open Resources

Education is a closed shop. Technology opens it up. Rather than funding schools and schooling, let’s fund the future model of open resources in the global classroom. In OER we are at the end of the beginning – so what’s about the next ten years? How do we turn this all into a quality education? Quality of teachers a big issue. Training, retraining and CPD – that is the challenge- at all levels. Above all OER needs to move from the development of materials to use of materials.

5. Religious v secular

The star of the first plenary, for me, was a challenge from Dr Ben Achour on how education (or lack of it – I’m not sure which) can cause mayhem. First the brutal murder of men, women and children in their Christian church in Iraq. Second, the “prison or concentration camp” that is Gaza, where he saw 8-10 year olds being taught in a sweltering sea container, as the Israeli embargo on building materials prevented schools from being rebuilt. Surely, he reminds us, that denying children education, or educating them in hatred is not the way forward.

Right from the start this raised a key question for me. Should education be secular? Christian fundamentalism in North and South America, Islamic studies as a compulsory school subject in the Middle East, Ultra-orthodox Judaism in Israel – are they really such forces for good?.

In the next session Charles Clark, a UK Minister for Education, who introduced Whiteboards wanted to see education cast its net forward, not back. He admitted that there was always a tension in education between going back or forward, mentioning Gove’s recent mad policy of reintroducing Latin into UK schools, which is going back 2000 years! However, his suggestions were more ‘status quo’. Nothing really new: look at system holistically, quality of teachers counts (not class sizes) accountability etc. Although he did mention the importance of ‘work experience’ and thought that the gap between education and work was too wide. His parting shot was an appeal for more focus on pedagogy – but he left it there and I’m not sure that he had any more to offer on that issue.

My question to the panel was, “If, as Charles claimed, education must cast its net forward, and not backwards, then is religious education in schools a forward or backward step? Should education be in the business of opening up young minds and not closure?

Only Charles answered, but he fudged it. “Well, there’s good and bad religious education…….” If we continue to fudge like this, rather than challenge and discuss assumptions we’ll get nowhere.

Lesson learnt 5: Religious v secular – keep education secular

It is often assumed that all education is good, it is not. Much religious fundamentalist education, in any religion, is bad. My own view is that we educate for autonomy, and that education should be secular. What a bold step this would be for an international organisation to state, rather than accept education as indoctrination.

6. Teaching v learning

On the final day, while young people were rioting in London and attacking a Royal’s car shouting “off with their head” we were talking about ‘teaching’ not ‘learning’. Putnam was right to say the young no longer trust us, and that we need to win back their trust.

However, if we had a Wordle slide for the whole conference, the largest two words would be ‘teachers’ and ‘teaching’. There was too little talk about’ learners’ and ‘learning’. I know it’s an old chestnut, but it signals a failure to move on. To be fair the Conference gave the Learner’s Voice group, 24 students, a stand, but they themselves were shocked at the lack of real collaboration. They were really active on twitter, videoing delegates (including me) and asking smart questions from the floor. We could have done with a few of them on the stage.

Typical of the teacher-oriented adults was the Microsoft guy, who really only related a couple of anecdotes, and talked mostly about classrooms and teachers. (CISCO did the same.) The plural of anecdotes is not data. He did have a useful suggestion - use student driven learning, namely learning outside of the classroom. On student assignments, he claimed that most teachers don’t know how to do this – too true. But let’s be clear, the future of technology in learning is NOT Microsoft, Cisco and Intel, it’s Wikipedia, Google, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter and OER.

Lesson learnt 6: Teaching v learning – more about learners and learning

Think more about learning and learner voices, not teaching and teachers. Think OER, Wikipedia, Google and Social Networking, NOT Microsoft, CISCO and Intel.

7. Old practice V new science

Educators largely assume that our experience and common sense guides us well and tells us all we really need to know. Sorry, we need to wake up. However, the session on cognitive science was a case study on how not to impart information. The three presenters simply presented their incredibly narrow research areas or jobs, and provided little in the way of real and practical advice for practitioners. There were two interesting presentations on ‘plasticity’ and ‘natural pedagogy’. The problem here was that both were presented in isolation, and seemed to contradict each other. In fact they don’t. The mind is NOT a tabula rasa, completely open to plastic change through formal and informal learning. That’s taking us back to a behaviourist agenda. The mind is prepared and hard-wired to learn.

Education and health are the two main pillars of public spending but while medicine demands objective, evidence-based [proof before use; education wallows in a sea of pseudoscience and pop-psychology (learning styles, Maslow, NLP. Mozart effect, R/L brain theories). Half a century of cognitive science is now ready to be used. We know a lot about memory, deep processing, elaboration, reinforcement, practice and media selection but we apply very little of this.

Why does educational psychology seem to have lost its way lack impact? A question from the floor nailed the problem: teacher training. Questionable selection techniques, practice in the absence of evidence, and lecture based courses the norm. This is the fulcrum around which new approaches to learning could be delivered, but the courses are fossilised.

Barbara Wanchisen of the National Research Council recommended The reports are free e.g. How people learn, Knowing what students know etc. Although science evolves on its own, there are serious roadblocks: laws, large population to reach, tension between communities. The exception seems to be the military, who really do absorb and apply cognitive science. Other resources are

Lesson learnt 7: Old practice V new science – revolutionise teacher training

We need to weed out old theory and practice and feed the system with fresh findings from science and research. This means reshaping teacher training around learners and learning, not just teaching.

8. Assessment v attainment

Do we need an OECD Nuclear Arms race in education? Is it wise to create league tables at a national and international level? Do they create a rising tide or do they create a great deal of angst and rushed policies?

This 4th round of PISA covers 65 countries in a 3 yearly assessment of 15 year olds, with between 3,500 and 15,000 samples from each country i.e. over 400,000 students.

Conclusion 1 – socially equitable education systems do best. Curiously, the PISA results, released during the conference, confirmed that open competition in education is not a driver for improved performance. Doesn’t this put into question the very PISA approach to the quantification of education? In the UK, successive governments have been keen to use PISA as evidence for action, but selectively. Now that PISA has shown that equitable systems are best, will they promote this as policy? Of course not. They will cherry pick as usual.

Conclusion 2: Money is NOT the determining factor in educational performance – it explains only 10% of output. Was increased spending matched by better outcomes, not generally, apart from S Korea, who switched from small elite to a more equitable approach.

Conclusion 3: The top performer is Shanghai (not even a country) based on its innovative, forceful collaborative approach to schools development, something in which few other countries excel. They paired good and bad schools, have no group learning within their classrooms and focus on complete classroom discipline.

PISA has some useful signposts but it’s as skewed as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, when it comes to data and conclusions. Small countries are clustered at the top. Indeed there seems to be a correlation between size and homogeneity of country and results. The outputs like the tower are tall and narrow, focusing on reading, maths and science. It quantifies what is easiest to test. To be fair, that’s why PISA has a raft of initiatives around other measures; PIACC (adult skills tested via computers in 26 countries results 2013 on problem solving, cognitive abilities etc.), AHELO (assessing HE outcomes, not just research), OECD (review of evaluation and assessment frameworks for improving school outcomes (2009-2012), TALIS (International survey of a randomly selected 200 schools on teaching & learning).

Lesson learnt 8: Assessment v attainment – improvement, not league tables

Unfortunately, PISA has become an object of fear in many countries, promoting, in general, an atmosphere of failure, and skewed towards the developed world. The press and politicians focus on league position, rather than improvements, but it does point towards some basic policy shaping recommendations around equitable education, quality and collaboration.

9. Horizontal v Vertical

We had a presentation by Jeffrey Sachs that presented education as a series of horizontal layers of sedimentary rock – primary, secondary, further, higher. The problem with this structure is that education for the learner is vertical. The poor learner has to punch their way through these layers of impermeable rock to get anywhere, and most simply give up tunnelling, with only a few surviving.

Few talk about the core rationale for education. Sure it leads to better economic and health outcomes, especially the education of women. But some education (fundamentalist Christian, Judaic and Islamic) also leads to strife. I’d prefer to see education defined in terms of social good through individual empowerment. I have always held that education is about personal autonomy, autonomy in terms of abilities which help you make a living, contribute to society and have en enriched life. But education is so often about attendance not attainment, assessment not attainment. It’s about institutions, not the person. It’s about teachers not learners.

Lesson learnt 9: Horizontal v Vertical – don’t pander to horizontal interests

We could really address a core issue here. What is education for? The current models can soak up cash (often doubling budgets) with very thin improvements in outcomes. Equitable systems seem to work best, but we want to encourage competition and private sector driven hierarchical systems. Collaboration and sharing work, but our institutions share nothing.

10. 20th C v 21st C

There was one depressing aspect of the summit, the oft repeated refrain that students are badly in need of something called 21st century skills. A series of presenters ‘lectured’ us on how a new set of skills have emerged around collaboration, social skills, and problem solving! It was deeply ironic, if not tragic. The very idea that ‘teachers’ and ‘lecturers’ have the skills to teach the very things that the average 12 year old has in abundance, was laughable. What are my children going to learn from baby boomer models of collaboration and social interaction – nothing.

We get ‘talked at’ in schools, ‘lectured’ to in HE, suffer the stupid ‘breakout group’ method in training and spend far too much of our lives in useless, often unnecessary ‘meeting’s’. This was the baby boomers approach to collaboration and sharing. Compare this to the immediacy of mobile, txting, messaging, posting, commenting, tweeting, social networking, blogging, team-based gaming, skyping, filesharing and crowdsourcing. We have more to learn from them, than them from us.

The very phrase ‘21st C skills’ is a symptom of our prejudiced thinking, as if there was a sudden shift in cognitive need around the decimal system, and that we 20th century adults had it sussed, if only these 21st century kids would listen to our advice. We invented the treadmill that is the current system and need to sit back and learn from them on sharing and collaboration. The people who really are shaping learning through pedagogic shift are not educational theorists but the smart young people who invented Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and OER models.

And to those who say that we educators need to be in control of this attention sapping technology, I’d say it’s none of your business. What learners do with their spare time and technology is their business. ‘Teachers’ and ‘lecturers’ don’t own the minds of learners, their role is one of nurture not control. Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone!

Lesson learnt 10: 20thC v21st C – we have more to learn from them than them from us

Let’s be clear, we have little or nothing to teach them on this front. Neither can we predict the skills they’ll need. Since 2000 we’ve had an explosion of wireless broadband and mobile technology, fuelling a renaissance in communication, collaboration and sharing. The average teenager has already amassed years of daily, if not hourly communication skills, shared thoughts, photographs and videos, collaborative game playing, constant dialogue, filesharing and they write something every day, if not every hour. They understand collaboration and sharing at a far deeper level than their teachers and parents.

Last word…

Sorry, if this was rather long, but the summit did make me think, reflect and in that sense was a great success……thanks to all the people I met there: Graham Brown-Martin, Derek Robertson, Stephen Heppell, Charlie Leadbetter, Jay Cross, Dan Sutch, Marc Prensky, Andy Smart, Lee Heeyoung, Rob Crawford, Sharath Jeevan, Suhair M Ayyash, Samer Bagaeen,Mrko Mahkonen, Inacio Rodriguez, Farid Ullah Khan, Keith Kruger, Dilvo Ristoff and many, many more....

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Clickers: mobile technology that will work in classes

Eric Mazur teaches physics at Harvard, but he is also famous for having revolutionised the teaching of physics through peer learning. I should add that he is one of the few academics who really has done thorough and exciting empirical research into what works and doesn’t work in HE teaching, especially lectures. His lectures are not really lectures but Socratic exercises, in that they are question-led, diagnostic with episodic discussions and peer resolution. What's interesting is that his primary diagnostic tool is the ‘clicker’.

I have often written about the futility of technology in the classroom, and have long believed that technology is better suited to the individual outside, than inside, the classroom. However, there’s one piece of simple technology that I rather like – the clicker. We are now living in the mobile age and having small, powerful, portable and personal devices for communications is the absolute technological norm for students. The problem of mobiles in education has been their negative use in classrooms, where students text, record unsuitable videos and so on. But here’s a use that is actually useful, backed up by Mazur’s brilliant research. If you want to explore this further watch this video, 'Data is not the plural of anecdote' courtesy of Seb Schmoller – it’s long but it's worth it.

Seven uses and advantages

  1. Start-up. Before starting it can be used to grab attention, set up a problem to be solved, as a reinforcing assessment on previous work done or as a diagnostic device on the range of abilities within the class before you start.
  2. Amplifies attention. Attention is a necessary condition for learning and clicker questions demand a response making students stay on task. They pay more attention because they expect questions to be asked, and when asked, they get that lift they need after ten to fifteen minutes of exposition.
  3. Anonymity. Many students value the anonymity of the responses. They can check out their own knowledge relative to others without embarrassment. It’s a form of self-formative feedback.
  4. Diagnostic feedback. Teachers/lecturers can use them diagnostically to assess the overall state of knowledge of the class. This, as Dylan William states, needs the use of clever 'hinge’ or diagnostic questions, that really do test understanding, as opposed to recall. This is precisely what Mazur does at Harvard with stunning results in attainment.
  5. Sparks discussion. Results can be used for further remedial elucidation or to spark small group peer instruction. Again, this is how they are used in Mazur’s peer-instruction sessions.
  6. Summative assessment. Quick reinforcing, summative assessments can be held at the end of the session.
  7. Evaluation of session. It would take a brave teacher/lecturer to do this, but why not ask students to evaluate the session at the end. Could lead to improvements next time.

Mobile clickers

Ipads and Blackberries already have apps that convert them into clickers. The iPad, in particular, is starting to look interesting, with a whole rack of US colleges using them for textbooks, comms, recorded lectures and, interestingly, as clickers. There’s a few free and pro clicker apps out there.

iResponse available in iTunes

eClicker watch this on Youtube or but on iTunes

SRNclient available on iTunes

If you’re looking for something that works with more devices try Responseware, a multiple device software that works with iPhones, Blackberries, Windows Mobile devices and laptops.

Proprietary clickers have been around for years, and although more expensive, they work. Northwestern University use proprietary clickers for audience responses and also class attendance. I wouldn't not recommend these, but see the mobile phone as the ultimate solution.


Expect this virtual clicker software to be free from the cloud soon and to work with a full range of mobile devices. It’s one of the few mobile applications in learning that would have a huge and immediate impact in the classroom or lecture hall.