Wednesday, December 07, 2011

More pedagogic change in 10 years than last 1000 years – all driven by 10 technology innovations

Pedagogy - one of those words that’s used when people want to sound all academic. So let’s just call it learning practice. Of one thing we can be sure; teaching does not seem to have changed much in the last 100 years. In our Universities, given the stubborn addiction to lectures, it has barely changed in 1000 years. So what’s the real source of pedagogic change?
It’s not education departments who peddle the same old traditional, teacher training courses or train the trainer courses. It’s certainly not schools, colleges and universities which seem to have fossilised practice (to be fair some old practices are sound). It’s certainly not respected pedagogic experts. When they do arise, like Paul Black and Dylan William, they’re largely ignored. Here’s my theory – the primary driver for pedagogic change is something that has changed the behaviours of learners. independently of teachers, teaching and education – the internet. Let me elaborate…..
Suddenly we had Google, then in the last ten years Facebook, Twitter, BBM, MSN Messenger, Wikipedia, YouTube, iTunes, Nintendo, Playstation, Xbox. All of these have had a profound effect on how we learn, through radical shifts in the way we find things out, communicate, collaborate, create, share or play. The internet is a pedagogic engine, changing and shaping the way we learn. In this sense, we’ve had more pedagogic change in the last 10 years than in the last 1000 years – all driven by innovation in technology.
1. Asynchronous – the new default
Education and training have been tied to the tyranny of time and location. Being able to access courses, knowledge and media has been a huge positive flip towards learning where and when you want to learn. Clive Shepherd believes that the new default should be ‘asynchronous learning’ (not realtime) and not the traditional live, face-to-face, synchronous (realtime) classroom course. Only after you’ve exhausted the asynchronous online options should you consider synchronous face-to-face events. What a wonderfully simple idea, a massive pedagogic shift enabled, largely by online technology.

2. Links – free from tyranny of linear learning
The simple hyperlink encourages curiosity and is a leap to more learning. It has allowed us to escape from the linear straightjacket of the lecture or paper bound text (article, report, academic paper, book). It has led to more meaningful learning experiences adding breadth, depth and relevance. Links are a key feature of Wikipedia, online content, articles, reports and huge amounts of posts in social media that finish with a meaningful link. This pedagogic innovation has freed us from the tyranny of linear learning.

3. Search and rescue
Google aren’t kidding when they state their mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. They are well on the way to doing it and while they’re at it, providing educators with the tools, over and above ‘search’ such as Google Docs, Translate, Scholar… the list goes on. They’ve even invested in the Khan Academy. The challenge for every teacher is to ask themselves, ‘Is there anything I’m doing or teaching that can’t be found in Google?’ This pedagogic shift means more independence for learners, less dependence on memorised facts and answers to most questions, 24/7, for free.
4. Wikipedia and death of the expert
Jimmy Wales should get the Nobel Prize. A crowdsourced knowledge base that is bigger, better, easier to use, searchable and in many more languages than any encyclopedia that went before. In addition, it recognises that knowledge has blurred edges, so discussion is available. The 5th most popular site on the web, everyone uses it – yes everyone. The radical pedagogic shift is not only in the way knowledge is produced but the fact that it’s free, seen as open to discussion and debate, and so damn useful.

5. Facebook and friends
Sarah Bartlett’s study has found that students are keeping Facebook open for collaboration right up to deadline during assignments. Social media is a way of sharing experiences and knowledge with a wide range of friends and weak-tie acquaintances and has changed the way we learn. It allows us to collaborate and access recommended links to learning, as well as learning events in the real world. Being networked means living within a new pedagogic ecosystem.

6. Twitter, texting and posting
There has been a renaissance in reading and writing among young people. They text, BBM, IM, Facebook (primarily a text medium), every day, often many times a day. This is often done even when they have the possibility of voice (mobile) and face-to-face services such as Skype and Facetime, which they often avoid. They are also keenly aware of what channels are archived (text and Facebook) as opposed to discarded (BBM, IM and voice). Far from drifting towards high end media, text is alive and kicking.

7. Youtube – less is more and ‘knowing how’
YouTube has changed the way we use video in learning for ever. The irreversible change is the idea that a piece of video needs to be as long as it needs to be, not an overlong, over-produced mini-TV production. This is why the 1 hour recorded lectures on YouTube EDU and iTunes U seem so damn awful. Why replicate bad pedagogy online? It also proved Nass & Reeves original study was right that high-fidelity video is not essential. YouTube has shown us how to do video, keep it short and that we don’t need big budgets to do good stuff. More importantly, for ‘knowing how’ as opposed to ‘knowing that’, it has proved incredibly powerful.
8. Games
Games have brought the proven sophistication of flight simulation into our homes and shown that failure (abhorred in traditional teaching) is the key to learning. Repetition, reinforcement, deep processing, learn by doing and fine-tuned assessment are all features of gameplay. Games, and console hardware has opened up possibilities for simulations and experiential learning that is already shaping learning in the military and healthcare. The multiplayer dimension is also changing the way we see the pedagogy of collaboration in learning. Gameplay is just another word for sophisticated, experiential pedagogy.

9. Tools
This is not often recognised but the word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tools have effected a considerable change on pedagogy. Word processing has changed, irreversibly, the way we write (reorder, redraft, use reference, citations, spellcheck, grammar check) as well as providing graphics and layout tools. Our digital documents are also replicable and easily sent by email. Spreadsheets have given us the ability, not only to do formula driven work, especially in functional maths useful in business and science, but also driven the easy and flexible representation of data as graphics. Presentation tools have allowed us to present text, graphics, photographs and even video into teaching and learning. Tools, pedagogically, allow us to teach and learn at a much higher level.

10. Open source
Open source in coding led to the idea of open source in tools and knowledge. From MIT Courseware to Project Gutenberg, huge amounts of learning have been made available online, across the globe, for free. Free books alone have opened up the canon in a way we could never have imagined, fuelling the e-book revolution. In this age of digital abundance, open and free content is the democratisation of knowledge. This is truly a digital reformation that has swept aside unnecessary barriers to access. Pedagogy, in this sense, has been freed from institutional teaching.
These are ground breaking shifts in the way we learn. Unfortunately, they’re not matched by the way we teach. The growing gap between teaching practice and learning practice is acute and growing. Institutional teaching, especially in Universities is hanging on to the pedagogic fossil that is the lecture. The word pedagogy has become a hollow appeal for traditional lectures, classroom teaching and summative assessment. The true driver for positive, pedagogic change is the internet.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

21st Century Skills are so last century!

The new mantra, the next big thing, among educators who need a serious sounding phrase to rattle around in reports is ‘21st Century Skills’. I hear it often, almost always in some overlong, text-heavy, Powerpoint presentation at an educational conference, where collaboration, creativity, communication and emotional intelligence skills are in short supply. Thank god for wifi!
But does this idee fixe bear scrutiny? In a nice piece of work by Stepahnie Otttenheijm, she asked (radical eh?) some youngsters what 21st C skills they thought they’d need. Not one of the usual suspects came up. They were less vague, much bolder and far more realistic. Rather than these usual suspects and abstract nouns, they wanted to know how to create and maintain a strong digital identity, be nice, recognise what’s learnt outside school, learn how to search use my Facebook privacy settings. My suspicion is that they know far more about this than we adults.

Collaboration and sharing
Young people communicate and collaborate every few minutes – it’s an obsession. They text, MSN, BBM, Instagram, Facebook, Facebook message, Facebook chat and Skype. Note the absence of email and Twitter. Then there’s Spotify, Soundcloud, Flickr, YouTube and Bitorrent to share, tag, upload and download experiences, comments, photographs, video and media. They also collaborate closely in parties when playing games. Never have the young shared so much, so often in so many different ways. Then along comes someone who wants to teach them this so called 21st C skill, usually in a classroom, where all of this is banned. I’m always amused at this conceit, that we adults, especially in education, think we even have the skills we claim we want to teach. There is no area of human endeavour that is less collaborative than education. Teaching and lecturing are largely lone-wolf activities in classrooms. Schools, colleges and Universities share little. Educational professionals are deeply suspicious of anything produced outside of their classroom or their institution. The culture of NIH (Not Invented Here) is endemic. 

Again, we live in the age of abundant communication. There’s been a renaissance in writing among young people, who have become masters at smart, concise dialogue. The mobile has taken communication to new levels of sophistication. They know what channel to use, in terms of whether it’s archived or not, synchronous or asynchronous. Texts and Facebook comments are archived, some messages are not (voice). You call people, synchronously, when you want them to make a decision. Text is asynchronous, therefore slower, more relaxed. They can also handle multiple, open channels at the same time. What do we educators have to offer on this front? Whiteboards?  Some groupwork round a table? Not one single teacher in the school my sons attend has an email address available for parents. I’ve just attended two major European conference where only a handful of the participants used Twitter. What do we know - really?

Problem solving
Problem solving is a complex skill and there are serious techniques that you can learn to problem solve such as breakdown, root-cause analysis etc. I’m not at all convinced that many subject-focussed teachers and lecturers know what these generic techniques are. Problem solving for a maths teacher may be factoring equations of finding a proof but they’re the last people I’d call on to solve anything else in life. Do teachers actually know what generic problem solving is or is it seen as some skill that is acquired through osmosis when a group of kids get together to make a movie?

Beware of big, abstract nouns. This one has become a cipher for almost everything and nothing. I have no problem with art and drama departments talking about creativity but why does creativity have to be injected into all education. Creative people tend to struggle somewhat at school where academic subjects and exams brand them as failures. When it comes to creativity, my own view is that the music, drama and other creative skills my own offspring have gained, have mostly been acquired outside of school.

Critical thinking
I have some sympathy with this one, as critical thinking is sometimes well taught in good schools and universities, but it needs high quality teaching and the whole curriculum and system of assessment needs to adjust to this need. However, as Arun has shown, there is evidence that in our Universities, this is not happening. Arun (2011), in a study they tracked a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 students who entered 24 four-year colleges, showed that Universities were failing badly on the three skills they studied; critical thinking, complex reasoning and communications. This research, along with similar evidence, is laid out in their book Academically Adrift.

Digital literacy
Across the world young people have collaborated on Blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to bring about change. Not one of them has been on a digital literacy course. And, in any case, who are these older teachers who know enough about digital literacy to teach these young people? And how do they teach it – through collaborative, communication on media using social media – NO. By and large this stuff is shunned in schools. We learn digital literacy by doing, largely outside of academe. To be frank, it’s not something they know much about.

Beneath all this, is there just a rather old, top-down, command and control idea – that we know what’s best for them? Isn’t it just the old master-pupil model dressed up in new clothes? In this case, I suspect they know better. There’s a brazen conceit here, that educators know with certainty that these are the chosen skills for the next 100 years. Are we simply fetishising the skills of the current management class? Was there a sudden break between these skills in the last compared to this century? No. What’s changed is the need to understand the wider range of possible communication channels. This comes through mass adoption and practice, not formal school and university. It is an illusion that these skills were ever, or even can be, taught at school. Teachers have enough on their plate without being given this burden. I’ve seen no evidence that teachers have the disposition, or training, to teach these skills. In fact, in universities, I’d argue that smart, highly analytic, research-driven academics tend, in my experience, often to have low skills in these areas. , formal environment is not the answer. Pushing rounded, sophisticated, informal skills into a square, subject-defined environment is not the answer. Surely it’s our schools and universities, not young people, who need to be dragged into the 21st century.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Learnt to ride a bike from a single sentence in a book!

The Bike, by Robert Penn, is a brilliant paean to the bicycle and it brought back some great memories. Above all it made me think of my late, great, lifelong friend Frank Gormley, who hilariously learnt to ride his bike from a book. He came from a large, poor family in Barrhead (or Barrheid as he would pronounce it) in Scotland and never had a bike as a child. So when he bought one later in life, he couldn’t get the hang of it. Eventually, he went to the library, found a book and learnt to ride from a single sentence, ‘Turn the handlebars in the direction in which you feel yourself falling’. With this one piece of advice off he sailed. In fact, off he sailed, on his own, across Europe and through Turkey. Tragically, he died on his bike, coming off going downhill on his own in northern Spain. I like to think of him enjoying those last moments with the wind in his hair and the warm sunshine on his face. He was always an independent sort of guy, the sort I admire.
Despite the fact that I have fallen off, shattered my wrist and lay in agonising pain waiting for the ambulance, needing a full-anaesthetic operation and titanium plate, I also love cycling.  Like Frank I took to cycling late in life. In this, my 54th year, I’ve cycled the whole Hadrian’s Wall on a sort of ‘Four Men on a Bike Run’ trip, and loved it. Later in the year we cycled down the Danube through vineyards and orchards visiting the castle in which Richard II was held, Baroque monasteries and Vienna. Above all, I love to ride along the sea cliffs of Sussex and in my local woods where for the last two years I’ve seen the seasons change close-up; butterflies in summer, mushrooms in Autumn, snow and ice in Winter and wild flowers in Spring. I’ve even taken the plunge and bought a mountain bike (Andy tedd was the spur for this), and now relish the pleasure that roots, mud and weaving through single path routes in Stanmer Woods can bring.
I’m not a road bike sort of person, none of that lycra and drop handlebars for me. My good friend Ken is such a creature. It’s all sweat, effort and speed for him, on his Harry Quinn frame (rebuilt twice) and Brookes saddle (he’s a traditionalist). I admire this but it’s not for me. I don’t drive and prefer to avoid the manic world of roads, drivers and cars. When my other cycling mate, Ronnie, asked me what improvement I’ve had on my clock times around Stanmer Park, I replied. “Don’t know, as I often stop for a picnic!”
A bike even featured in a quite unusual family affair. My son's bike was stolen by a bare-chested, tattooed thug, who didn't reckon on him, his brother and mother's perseverance. After driving around Brighton for half an hour, in a long-shot attempt to spot the thief, they did. Gil operated a SWAT team swerve, cornered him on the bike  my two boys leapt out recovered the bike, and saw him off (they're both second degree Black Belts in Taekwon Do). As my son said in the article that appeared in The Sun, headlined 'Boys Belt Thief' "My mum;'s quite scary - she's Scottish!"
In any case, whatever your cycling proclivities, gentle rides in the country, hard road riding, mountain biking –especially if you’ve ever had that feeling of being king of the world when in the saddle or that rush when you’re hammering downhill, you’ll love this book.
Penn interleaves the history of the bicycle with personal memories (he’s cycled round the world) and his goal of building his perfect bike, one that will last the rest of his life. For the techies, there’s lots of detail on tubes, spokes, rims, tyres, handlebars and gears. He travels the world, at least the US and Europe, to get the perfect components and meets the people who make them and watches their often hand crafted manufacture.
But the real joy of the book is the sheer pleasure he (and others) get from this simple self-propelled vehicle. There’s nothing like a simple book where the author’s passion for a subject is just overwhelming, especially if it’s a passion you share.
Lessons learnt? It’s never too late to learn, don’t let adversity stop you, teach your kids to stand up for themselves, and (in learning) less is always more (even a single sentence can teach you a new skill). God bless you Frank.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

UK e-learning companies in rude health? A rude review!

The UK e-learning business remains, I think, in rude health, with predicted growth this year for Kineo, Epic, Brightwave, Line and Learningpool. It's not all been plain sailing, but here’s a gander at the top UK e-learning businesses over the last three years.
Kineo  has grown every single year since the guys set up after Epic was sold to Huveaux in 2005 and have never had any debt. Well that’s not quite true, as they converted their company from a partnership to a limited company, thereby lending money to themselves, a common tax wheeze, but it’s not really debt in the sense of a liability. It's a good team, led by the force of nature that is Steve Rayson, and they’re going strong on the back of bespoke work, franchising and Totara. What’s really interesting is their rapid expansion abroad where revenues across their shared businesses are probably nearer 15m, making them a salable entity. (3.7 m 2008, 5.2m 2009, 7.1m 2010).
Line have never really been interested in recapitalising and going for rapid growth, which has kept them clear of debt. However, they have over recent years, strengthened their focus on defence. Although dropping by a million in revenues last year, again I think they’ll bounce back this year on the back of defence work. Piers (ex-Epic many years ago) has a good team who do good work. (6.95 m 2009, 6.15m 2010)
Epic declined badly under the weight of a bad loan from the Bank of Scotland to Huveaux, and has declined in revenues every single year since it was sold it in 2005, when they eliminated the huge cash reserve and started to drop on revenues. Although bought out from Huveaux, they also suffered badly from a talent drain to Kineo, whose management team are all ex-Epic. However, it looks as though they may be bouncing back, with a possible increase in revenues in 2011. They’ve won a couple of large contracts and are dabbling in mobile and Moodle, which is a sign that they’re thinking afresh. (6.1m 2008, 5.15m 2009, 5.1m 2010).
Brightwave have also taken senior people from Epic and have a good reputation for well-designed content but seem stuck at revenues more akin to a lifestyle business. However, Charles Gould, who also worked at Epic many moons ago, is a smart cookie, and has recently shown more signs of ambition for growth. I suspect we’ll see good growth this year on the back of this ambition. Brightwave don’t put out accounts which shows they’re below the £5 million threshold, probably in the £3.5-4.5 million range. (estimates: 3.8m 2008, 3.0m 2009)
Redtray seem to be mired in debt and have been laying of staff. What distinguishes the successful from the non-successful is that all too familiar word ‘debt’. To grow by acquisition means taking on debt that has to be financed at the same time as you try to get efficiencies and revenues from your acquisitions. Not easy. (3.75m 2008, 3.66m 2009)
Learningpool have grown steadily since 2007, with a focus on a licensed service to the public sector and they will grow again this year, showing there’s space for sector specialists. Their successful, hosted content delivered via Totara will drive sales this year. (1.23m 2008, 2.07m 2009)
Saffron Interactive seem steady at below £2 million and we all hope they’ll remain. a player after the tragic death of Hanif Sazon. (1.8 2008, 1.8 2009)
The irrepressible Steve Dineen’s a trooper and has, presumably, timed out on his non-compete clause and resurrected Fuel as Fusion, with the same shocking pink corporate palette, and check out the shot of the company management team on their website– it looks like a cheap version of the Bullington Club! 
Other news includes the sale of Edvantage (ex-Futuremedia). It looks as though Lumesse have bought them for their LMS and tools, so it will be interesting to speak to that other Brighton force of nature Andrea Miles (ex-Epic) to see what the future holds. 
Specialists in oil & gas, these folks from Aberdeen have shown that sector specialisation has its rewards. However, I don't know them, so will not comment.
Brighton rocks
Brighton remains the epicentre for UK e-learning, with Kineo, Epic, Brightwave, Edvantage (now Lumesse) Vivid and many other small companies forming the backbone of the UK industry. Sheffield like to say they have the edge but it’s the Kineo and Line satellite production groups there that keep it strong, showing a degree of dependence on the south-east.
The new league table should show Kineo and Line (neck and neck finish I reckon) then Epic, Brightwave, Redtray (if they survive), Learningpool and Saffron. I wish all of the above companies well in 2012. Times are tough but they’re all seasoned campaigners and should do well.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Education’s a slow learner (lessons from WISE 2011)

1200 leaders in learning from 120 countries at WISE2011, all flown into Doha by the Qatar Foundation to shape the future, with a focus on innovation. Did they succeed? Yes and no. It takes more than three days to create an Education Spring. Here’s my take.

Education’s a slow learner
It may be more accurate to say that education has learning difficulties. The system is fixed, fossilised and, above all, institutionalised, so the rate of change is glacial. People are, by and large, trapped in the mindset of their institution and horizontal sector. In truth, small pools of innovative practice are patchy and stand little chance of wide scale adoption.

Many of the speakers repeated platitudes about education being the answer to all of the world’s problems. What they were short on were solutions. Education is always seen as the solution to all problems. The problem with all this utopian talk is that it dispenses with realism.

It took a politician, Gordon Brown, to show we educators how to communicate, teach, frame a problem THEN a solution. His speech was masterful, laying out the many dimensions of the problem, informing through humour, moving the audience with heart rending stories then he hit us with a vision, a clear goal and details on funding. All children in school by 2015, with massive injection of funds by the private sector, public sector, religious institutions and not-for-profits. He put great emphasis on tech companies such as Google, Apple and so on, which was novel.

Generation gap
Few were using Twitter, Facebook was a mystery to most and fewer still blog. The stage was often filled by older people in dull suits who all agreed with each other, that education was a glorious and great good. If only our leaders could see this, give us more money, then all our sins would be washed away. But this doesn’t wash. Things only sprang into life when we got younger learners' voices, like the young Qatari woman who shocked the academics by saying she wouldn’t have got through her medical degree without Wikipedia. She challenged the audience to step into their local school to see if things have got better (obviously meaning they had not).

Real innovators, like Jimmy Wales, were thin on the ground. I would have given him the WISE prize, as Wikipedia is a truly amazing, global, scalable success in learning. He explained that he didn’t have a business plan and just got on with the task, “I’m a carpenter not an architect”.  A recurring theme of the conference was the undercurrent of ludditism. Even the presenters were at it, with little digs at technology. We kept hearing ‘technology is only a tool’, ‘technology is not proven’, ‘it’s not the technology its teachers that matter’. Replace the word ‘technology’ with ‘books’ and you’ll see how odd this is. Valerie Hannon of the Innovation Unit has continued with this anti-technology theme in her blog.

Crisis of relevance
The Arab Spring has taught us educationalists a lesson. The heavy investment in education, especially universities, is turning out graduates with low, relevant skills, resulting in mass unemployment. Across the Arab world of 85m 18-24 year olds, nearly 1 in 5 is unemployed. The immediate (and it is immediate) challenge is to develop skills for employment and security. 1 in 4 are out of work in Tunisia. In Egypt 34% of young people wait for a long time before finding a job. They call it the ‘waithood’ and can be up to 3 years or more. At 7% of GDP on education, Tunisia is near the top of the league table, so what went wrong? Why has so much money been spent with so little success? Ask the graduates. “No one wants the skills we have and we don’t have the skills they want”. E4E (Education for employment) has a real and relevant approach where employability matters with application based learning and good career guidance. Employers want real world experience not just paper qualifications, so you have link education to the workplace. With female job seekers it’s worse , with unemployment at more than 30-35% among female graduates.

There was some agreement on the lack of relevant skills, most employers expressing dissatisfaction with critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communications. The system was stuck with memorisation and lecture based learning. Professors sell their notes and set exams around the memorisation of these notes to increase sales. Asking questions and questioning the knowledge of teachers and academics is barely tolerated. This is not education, this is programming. On top of this there’s a strong stigma against vocational training, especially among educationalists.

Edgar Morin saw modern universities as having failed to respond to modern times. Their disciplines limit our knowledge and lead to separation. We need relevant knowledge, not barren , specialised experts, lost outside of their discipline. The proof? The current financial crisis shows this – academics are impotent and lost. They have lost the ability to communicate properly and come up with solutions.

Educational colonialism
A German Professor of Mathematics told me that he’s just spent 6 months in Ethiopia help set up 40 (not a mistype) Universities. He thought this was lunacy. The country has barely functioning schools and they’ve been fed the line that HE is the answer to their problems. What they need, he explained was more vocational colleges for technicians and functional jobs, not advanced degrees. This is the madness of institutionalised initiatives.

All over the Middle East and Africa, western Universities are playing this game, setting up campuses in education parks. It’s a distortion that they could do without. It sets the expectation that everyone should become a ‘Doctor or Engineer’. That’s the phrase you hear all the time. No, these countries need functioning managers and professionals across a wide range of professions.  On the same panel, a South African claimed that the country needed ’more postdocs and women in Engineering’ (that old trope). Oh yeah?

I attended a completely sterile debate on University rankings. Despite general agreement that a linear sequence does not statistically represent the diversity of the institutions or data, and despite knowing that they don’t represent teaching (yet are used by parents and teachers to choose universities), they are still used by academics who should know better. These are lies told by people who know they are lying. Prof Jeffrey Sachs was clear, don't invest in the American model, now driven by greed selfishness and short-sightedness.

Revolution’s here
The Arab Spring was omnipresent. It coloured everything. Young people want jobs and in the Middle East the current model hasn’t worked. Degrees have been commoditised. What people need is jobs. We need to recognise that technology played a huge role in the Arab Spring, and if it can help topple governments, it can help transform education. The Arab world has one language and could benefit hugely from an initiative that produced good Arabic content, from the cloud, that was device-independent. If the Qatar Foundation could step up to the plate on this one, we’d have real progress.

Some voiced the opinion that the Arab Spring is the best thing that could have happened for education in the Arab world. It could help elevate the agenda to where it ought to be. Why? Long standing institutions, with sclerotic structures and management, are the problem, with deeply rooted incentives to prepare for a test or get a diploma. So, at the heart of any programme needs to be the reform of incentives, comprehensive and ambitious reform, not only in countries that have gone through revolutionary change but other countries by proximity.

A deeply depressing incident occurred in Charlie Leadbeater’s session on innovation. After a brilliant triplet of innovators who were reshaping education by getting it out of the traditional classroom, the Minister of Education for Iran swanned in with a posse of henchmen. Or so we though. It was actually a lackey who read a speech that had numbered goals around setting tens of thousands of Koranic schools and prayer rooms, linking, and I quote ‘knowledge to religion’. This cultural engineering is a disgrace. More education, in this, sense is casting the net backwards.

Out of the box
You must not only think out of the box but get out of the box that is the classroom. Indeed, the best workshop was on three innovations from India, Denmark and Australia. All three had taken education out of the classroom. A school in Denmark, Hellerup Skole, had been built as a ‘house’ then space allocated and appropriate furniture bought. In Australia Stephen Harris had abolished classrooms and reimagined education around different concepts of space. I asked him why his kids were still in uniforms and he said, clearly annoyed, “it’s the legacy of the British public school system”.

I heard of schools under mango trees, walking schools that took place in a different house in the village each day, learning in church halls after hurricanes that had wrecked everything else, pavement kids in India that had school bussed to them as they couldn’t leave their home unguarded. Did you know that 50% of all schooling in Afghanistan takes place in tents?

Of course, the real space that has been colonised by learning is virtual. Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, Twitter, Khan Academy, VLEs, OER and a huge number of other sites and tools have created an alternative world of learning. Despite WISE attendees being largely lost with technology, technology is easily the most important innovatory force in learning.

Get real
Lifelong learning appears to have been hijacked, at least in Europe, by educational institutions. I attended a workshop on LL that started with nothing but talk of Universities and the funding they receive in Lifelong Learning. Until, that is, the audience revolted and pointed out that institutions are the reason why Lifelong Learning is failing. We know that formal and informal must be recognised. This is not about schooling, but avoiding the trap that schooling leads to – that learning must take place in institutions through courses, with teachers. One could argue that Universities have little or nothing to do with this.

On the topic of realism, Martin Burt runs schools as businesses. The schools pay for themselves. Rather than teaching abstract maths they teach business maths. For him this is not a business project but a business. This is interesting, an appeal that more learning should be REAL and RELEVANT. Until we see knowledge, skills and learning in context we’ll be stuck in a culture that values the academic over everything else. We know this has been a huge mistake. Vocational learning needs a voice.

Get mobile
Despite the obvious barriers, such as small screens, cost, technical variability in devices and basic illiteracy, it’s starting to happen. Mobiles are powerful, personal and portable. The costs are plummeting, with some operators offering zero rates for educational use. In some countries the cellphone has leapfrogged other technology for the poor.

Dr Maths has been used by 30,000 students in Africa, and elsewhere, to deliver text and tutor support in maths. They bypassed schools and teachers entirely relying on word of mouth. They operate in S Africa and found that even in the townships mobile ownership and access was pretty much universal. In fact it is staggering how much poor people will spend on mobiles – up to 30% of their income.

Of course, seeing mobile as just a communication device between teachers and learners restricts its primary advantage – scalability. Tutors and teachers are not scalable. I learnt how Twitter was used for language learning (the 140 letter constraint is the trick). Siri offers a breakthrough here with voice recognition and AI driven coaches, assistants and language learning.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Going online way forward for education says Gordon Brown

I slipped into a front row VIP seat for Gordon Brown’s talk at WISE in Doha, Qatar (security were clearly fooled by the Scottish name on my pass). I have to say he was on fire. No notes, just a brilliant analysis of global education and poverty that captivated the audience and gave the summit wings. This may be hard to believe but he seems to have been reborn.
After an endless series of lacklustre educational panellists Brown’s speech had it all. Millennium goals for 2015 will not be met for another century; children been betrayed. It’s now impossible to meet the Millennium Development Goal to cut infant mortality by half, but, he claimed, the goal on education could be achieved if we have focus and will.

Reagan joke
His Reagan joke was a cracker. When A Swedish minister spoke on world poverty and education Reagan asked if he was a Communist. He was politely told by his ambassador that the Swedish minister was, in fact, an anti-Communist. “I don’t care what kind of communist he is” said Reagan, “he’s wrong”. The point was that politicians, companies and not-for-profits must all pull together on this one.

One of Brown’s strengths as a politician is his principled approach to world poverty and when he tells stories of his visits to Africa and other countries in the developing world, they’re told with feeling. The evil o child labour where 300 million children working today when they should be at school. We heard of a child bride who died in childbirth, too young to bear her child, the woman who turned to prostitution to send her child to school, the child soldiers, a real evil, forced to commit atrocities. Killer facts, for example, a Sudanese girl stands more chance of dying in childbirth than receiving a school education. I spoke to several people afterwards who were truly moved by this part of the speech. I was.

He was also brave enough to have a pop at Koranic schools, unusual in an Arab country. But he was right. I had heard a depressing speech from the Iranian Minister of Education at the summit the previous day, who had an appalling plan to link education to the Koran, and all knowledge to religion. God save us! Politicians can be bad news and education is not always a good

We must hold national Governments to their promises to provide the funding both in development aid and of course the funding that individual developing countries’ governments have promised for education in their own areas,” he said. “And where countries fall behind, we should be telling them that this is not acceptable because it is not simply about them and their generation – it is about future generations, ”what was required, he added, “was a global fund for education in the same way there was one for health”. Heady stuff.
Online the way forward
Now listen to this, as at this point things got really interesting. He gave a detailed account of why online learning was essential to his vision. I was not surprised at this. Brown was the brains behind UFI, an e-learning charity I’ve been a Trustee on for over six years. Unlike Gove and co, he believes in this stuff. “I want all the technology companies, the Microsofts, the Apples, the Facebooks, the Googles to be involved in this project,” he said. He said he wanted technology to be available to the poorest countries. “If they have a worldwide vision, as we have, about the importance of education, then they should, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet has said, make it possible not for 20% of the world to benefit from the internet, but 100% to benefit from the new technologies, including the Web, that are available.” The only odd moment was mentioning Simon Cowell. Educational Idol here we come. This was the really fresh idea, that scalable technology will, is in the end, the only real global driver in terms of reducing cost and reach. Far too many of the educational leaders at the conference were closet luddites, who can’t see past the ‘we need more teachers argument’. They’re right but teachers are not scalable.

It took a politician to show the word’s educators how to communicate, teach, frame a problem, provide facts and detail, THEN a solution. His speech was masterful, laying out the many dimensions of the problem, informing through humour, moving the audience with heart rending stories then he hit us with a vision, a clear goal and details on funding. All children in school by 2015, with massive injection of funds by the private sector, public sector, religious institutions and not-for-profits, all given wings by technology, mobiles and the web. 
Suddenly he’s naming Sartre, de Beauvoir and quotes Camus, "shouldn't we admit we got it wrong" and asks that we put it right. Education at that turning point, every child in 21st C should be at school. When Cicero turned to the crowds in ancient Rome, people said, 'great speech'. When Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece and people turned to each other, they said: 'Let's march. Let's march for education and let's march for it together.” At last, a call to action.
Standing ovation then exit stage left
For me, this was the high point of the Summit. His standing ovation was deserved as he had stood up for the poor. Education is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. He was mobbed as he left the stage and it was a shame that he didn’t stay to answer a few questions and speak to a few of the people from the developing world who had clearly been moved by his words. In fact he seemed uncomfortable in the melee and relieved to be rushed out of the side door.

I spoke to Charles Clarke afterwards, but he missed the speech due to a misreading of the programme (they are arch enemies, Charles having attempted a coup in 2009) and agreed with Clarke’s point that the focus on primary schooling was wrong. What we need is focus on vocation education to tackle relevance and unemployment.

At least these guys have the big picture and vision. I heard nothing like this from the educational establishment, many who seemed past their sell by date. But my real worry is whether his call for action is realistic. We’re in a recession and finding funds for a fresh push on a reframed Millennium Goal seems unlikely. The idea of a single fund is the only way to solve the problem and as Jan MorganKaufman pointed out view Elizabeth King, the Director of Education at the World Bank, we have a fund. Unfortunately it’s too small. However, I hope the golden wind will fill his sails, as it’s such a noble cause.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Flippin’ heck –is the whole of education doing things backwards?

The TES has just published an article on ’flipped learning’ with views from myself, Salman Khan and others. My first point was that flipped learning is not new. The Open University has been doing it for over 40 years. “They let you learn in your time through the materials they provide and the tutors are there to help and close the knowledge gaps”. However, “we have only just started to explore this. It is literally thinking outside the box, the box in this case being the classroom” or lecture hall”.
Out of the box that is the classroom
Additionally I stated that, “we should be taking technology out of classrooms so they can be used for their intended purpose – learning”. Why? The classroom is a cramped box crammed full of alternatives targets for attention, “an incredibly awkward environment in which to learn because of all the distractions”. Conversely, “the trouble with a lot of homework (awful word)…is that kids get stuck because there’s little or no help at home”. So why not flip them and do the straight exposition at home, and formative learning in the classroom?
Trapped in fossilised pedagogies
The problem is that teachers and lecturers have become trapped in fossilised pedagogies – quite simply, huge dollops of talking at people in the classroom and lecture hall. To be fair, expectations of institutions, expectations of students, job titles (lecturer), buildings, budgets and quality evaluations, all target the fossilised model. So there will only be change when there’s a “concerted effort to change the fundamentals…. You have to redesign your course from scratch and not just add technology. It should be a compulsory part of teacher training to use technology in innovative ways”.
Don’t talk – teach
I’ve blogged on flipped learning before, extolling its sensible approach to the use of technology in learning – DON’T PUT TECHNOLOGY IN CLASSROOMS, use classrooms to teach through formative assessment. The internet has given us more pedagogic shift than the entire cadre of educationalists over the last century. First text (Wikipedia), then audion(podcasts) and then ubiquitious video, along with links and interaction, have all given us the opportutnity to learn the basics online. What we need from teachers is teaching – namely constructive feedback.
Flip and force them to teach
To be honest, ‘flipped learning’ is merely a species of ‘blended learning’, just one of many possible blends. What makes it such a great fit in education, is the obsession with the lecture or talking at people in classrooms. If you can’t get people to stop reading at you for hours in a lecture hall or classroom, and calling it ‘contact time’, do something radical, get them to stop the madness, flip it, and force them to teach.

Friday, October 28, 2011

When apprenticeships go bad (7 fails)

When I was growing up in Scotland I knew lots of people on ‘apprenticeships’. My uncle, adopted by our family at 16 (we shared a room), became an apprentice joiner, and went on to work all over the world in Africa and the Far East, eventually becoming a Director in the Local Authority. It served him well. But the whole system was dismantled by both Labour and the Tories, one seeing it as second-best, the other killing it off as part of the free labour market. Big mistake.

I have some sympathy, however, with the current government’s attempt to bring them back. With £1.4 billion of funding in 2011-12 it should have some impact. But ask yourself a few questions. Do you really know what a modern apprenticeship is? How long does it last? Can you name the politician in charge? Can you name the Minister in charge? Do you know what government department is responsible? This shows the  myriad of problems, here's just seven of the 'fails'

1. Brandless
What is an apprenticeship? Well, it’s been widened and diluted so much that it’s hard to tell. A qualification needs to be a brand that employers trust. If you simply rebadge short-term, low-level training as an apprenticeship, you do untold damage.
2. Lack of leadership
Ever heard of the National Apprenticeship Service? No? Hardly surprising. The problem is that it falls between two stools, the Department of Education, who are too obsessed with schools and HE to manage it properly and BIS, who don’t have the skills (sic) to manage the process.
3. Wrong people
Only 7% of the recent increase was in 16-18 year olds, the target audience for traditional apprenticeships. This is shocking, and a con. The reason is that most apprenticeships are being mopped up by older people in employment.
4. Wrong level
Apprenticeships are meant to be a clear route to picking up a craft, making you employable. But when they’re stuck at shorter Level 2 apprenticeships, they’re little more than mop up exercise for bad schooling. The recent announcement on increased numbers are really just low level placements.
5. Lack of quality
Believe me, there will be sizeable fraud and lack of quality in apprenticeships as employers see it as a shortcut to increased profitability and government lack the wherewithal to oversee the process. In its modern reincarnation, it covers too many levels and is still mired in an old mix of largely discredited qualifications such as BTEC.
6. Cheats
Employers have spotted the weakness. Take your older, low-paid workers, switch them to apprenticeships and draw down the funding. Supermarkets, like Morrisons, have been shelf-stacking apprenticeships like crazy, with 18,000 people over 25 atLevel 2, almost every single one an existing employee. Impact on youth unemployment – zero.
7. Really part of the benefits system
We have an opportunity here to create a vocational qualification that has a trusted, quality brand, led by a known organisation and targeted at young people at the right level. This should be part of or national growth strategy, instead it’s turning into a minor arm of the benefits system, a half-baked YOP scheme, without the Y.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

7 reasons why Siri could be a breakthrough in e-learning

I thought the breakthrough in natural language would come through games - I was wrong, it’s come through mobile. My son’s friend has a new iPhone and asked, “What is the meaning of life?” It answered, “Chocolate”. Rude requests get “I’m not that sort of personal assistant”. Good to see that Apple still has a sense of humour. But it will be the serious applications that will drive Siri.
Voice recognition is not new, Android have had it for ages, but it was seen as something to use when driving. This is a good thing, and undoubtedly saves lives, so on this advantage alone, Siri has a head start. But Siri is different. It may become as common as people using earpieces, odd at first, then annoying, then mainstream. The problem with mobile conversations is that the person can’t see the environment in which the other is talking, so it gets awkward; secondly people tend to talk too loud as they can’t overcome the natural brain response that you’re talking to someone at a distance. But the fact that Siri senses when you’ve lifted the phone to you ear is wonderful.
So what’s a natural language interface’s potential in learning?
1. Talking means better learning
E-learning usually puts something between the learner and content – a device. It can be a keyboard, mouse, touchscreen, joystick… whatever. This physical device requires cognitive effort and almost certainly distracts and diminishes the cognitive bandwidth available for attention and processing by the learner. Ideally, there would be no such device. Voice is, in fact, how most everyday communication takes place. We see and speak to each other without any interloper. You didn’t have to learn to speak and listen but you did have to spend years learning how to read, write and use computers. It’s good to talk as it’s how we learn.
2. Siri as personal assistant
This has HUGE potential. The problem with much e-learning is the linear, over-structured approach that lacks the flexibility to respond to personal learning issues. These may be; getting stuck, not quite understanding a point, needing more information, needing more depth, wanting to know why and so on. The learner is an individual and needs variance in response. Siri may turn out to be the ancestral Lucy that leads to systems that really do provide powerful, personalised, adaptive learning.
3. Siri as coach
Going one step further, Siri-type coaches may help you resolve things or lead you through a learning process with prompts that suggest alternative sources, strategies and solutions. The Siri voice is already a calm, slightly robotic but friendly, coach-like voice. ‘PersonaI assistant’ is only one step away from ‘coach’, and I can see it being a coach for real, when the software becomes really AI driven.
4. Siri as reinforcer
We’ve known since Ebbinghaus, in 1885, that we forget most of what we try to learn and that the cure for this rapid and inevitable forgetting is reinforcement and practice. Siri, or sons of Siri, could offer the promise of prompts, reminders and practice that really does push knowledge and skills from short to long term memory. It’s something that you carry with you and ideal for spaced practice.
5. Siri and language learning
Learnosity has pioneered the use of mobiles in language learning. You do your homework or assignments as voice and get them graded online. Imagine using the language you’re learning and getting immediate dialogue and feedback from Siri in that language. They say the best way to learn a language is to get a foreign girlfriend, well this is the next best thing, a personal assistant. Backed up with regular prompts, as in the previous point about reinforcement, and you have a powerful, semi-immersive, language learning system.
6. Siri and numeracy
Numeracy remains a stubborn problem in education, with millions failing to pick up even basic skills. Here’s a way of making that dull stuff dynamic. You talk to the phone, and it takes you through maths using natural language. You answer with voiced answers. Analysis of your answers prompts positive feedback and a reasonably constructed system will know your personal level of competence, so you don’t get left behind and progress at a rate that suits you. Siri, unlike most maths teachers could be an expert, constructive, consistent and infinitely patient.
7. Siri as assessor
Learnosity have already used voice for assessment, but the principle of voiced answers, checked by a language recognition system has fascinating possibilities in all subjects. It also allows you to assess people who have problems with written language e.g. dyslexia or physical disabilities. In any case, all those written exams taken by kids who don’t use pen and pencils in real life is rather odd. If you ask someone a question you expect a verbal reply. This could be the answer to remote assessment.
Is this a breakthrough or false dawn? To me it feels like a breakthrough, as it could change a basic behaviour, allowing the device to do things traditional teachers do well – talk to you, give you answers to your questions, help you progress.  It’s a breakthrough because it’s part of the consumer electronics revolution and hasn’t come from the educational world (where breakthroughs are rare), that means it has a chance of succeeding and becoming mainstream. I'm not saying that Siri in itself is the breakthrough, but it's the hole in the dam for natural language computing. Most of all, it’s cool and interesting. The Siri sites showing ‘fails’ and Siri talking to Siri, have already gone viral and viral is what we need in learning.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

7 compelling arguments for peer learning

Learning lurches between extremes: the formal v informal, didactic v discover , self-paced v social, teaching v learning. But is there a bridge between these extremes, something that cleverly combines teaching and learning? Over the years, starting with Judith Harris’s brilliant (and shocking) work on peer pressure, then Eric Mazur’s work at Harvard but also through several presentations at a recent JISC E-assessment conference, I’ve been smitten by peer learning. The idea is to encourage learners to learn from each other. Compelling arguments?
1. Powerful theoretical underpinning
The bible for ‘peer’ pressure, and why parents and teachers should know about this stuff, is Judith Harris’s wonderful The Nurture Assumption, the work for which she received the George Miller Medal in psychology. Stephen Pinker sang her praises in The Blank Slate, and claimed that she had turned the psychology of learning on its head. I think he’s right. In a deep look at the data she found something totally surprising, that far from parents and other adults, like teachers, influencing the minds of young people, she found that 50% was genetic, just a few per cent parents and a whopping 47% peer group. The initial evidence came from linguistics, where children unerringly pick up the accents of their peer group, not their parents (I know this from experience).
2. Massively scalable
Given the massification of education, here’s an interesting argument. Peer learning may actually be better with large classes, as you have more scope in terms of selected peer groups. As many struggle with the challenge of large classes, here’s a technique that amplifies both teaching and learning. Peer reviewing and learning works because it is scalable, especially when good web-based tools are used.
3. Learning by teaching is probably the most powerful way to learn
Unsurprisingly, to teach is to learn, as peer learning involves high-order, deep-processing activity. In fact, the teacher may actually gain more than the learner. In any case, the peer’s voice is often clearer and better than teacher’s voice as they are closer to the mindset of the learner and can often see what problems they have, as well as solutions to those problems.
4. Encourages critical thinking
You can easily see how peer learning produces diversity of judgement. It is this enlargement of perspectives that is the starting point for critical thinking and complex reasoning, the very skills that Arum found lacking in his recent research in the US.. It also increases self-evaluation.
5. Group bonding a side effect
In addition to enhanced social and communication skills, peer groups bond. In one nursing case study at the University of Glasgow, the students started off a bit sceptical but soon demanded and volunteered participation.
6. Dramatic drops in drop-out rates
In all the case studies I saw, higher attendance and lower drop-out rates were claimed. This is not surprising, as continuing failure and disillusionment are often the result of isolation and a feeling of helplessness in learners, especially in large classes and courses.
7. Higher attainment
Mazur has recorded some startling improvements, not only in the core understanding of physics, but in general measured attainment through summative assessment. The peer learning was, in effect, the result of clever formative assessment. In a nursing course, they experienced better note taking and higher attainment and in a psychology course with 550 students, reciprocal peer critiques also led to higher attainment.
Do students muck about? Apparently not, in the case studies I’ve seen the groups self-moderate. Indeed, the peer pressure prevents disruptive and non-participatory behaviour. It becomes cool to participate.
How do you know they’re not feeding each other false things? There’s certainly the danger of the blind leading the blind, but overall, the case studies show that real growth occurs. There’s real peer pressure in terms of not being exposed and not bullshitting the others. The approaches and tools help overcome this danger through the clever selection of mixed-ability, peer groups.
Of course there’s a difference between peer marking and peer review. Some advise against peer marking as it can be seen as a step too far, peer review, with constructive comments, however, seems to be more powerful.
Peer tools
You don’t actually need any tools to get started. As Mazur has shown, simple coloured cards that allow students to respond to the teacher’s diagnostic questions can be enough to spark peer group learning. He actually uses clickers, with histograms appearing on the screen, but mobile phones are increasingly being used for this function. However, for more technology-driven peer learning, Aropa, Peerwise or Peermark can be used.
Aropa is an open source tool from the University of Glasgow that allows teachers to set assignments then set up peer reviews between students. You review other students’ work, then receive reviews on your own work.

Peerwise is a free tool from NZ that flips assessment and allows students to create questions, share and see answers, a sort of peer-based, formative assessment generator. I like this angle as building good questions really does make you think in depth about the subject. It’s used by hundreds of institutions.

Peermark allows instructors to write assignments, from turnitin, the plagiarism folks. You set dates, can see how many assignments have been submitted, set how many students you want to review each assignment and whether you or the students choose what to review, pair up students, add review questions, reorder them. There's a nice video demo here.

I’m really convinced that this moves us on. We have to bounce teachers and learners out of that mindset that sees teaching as one to many and adopt the wisdom of the network. Pamela Katona at the University of Utrecht showed that students are less than satisfied with the teaching and feedback they receive. So many learners wait too long for feedback, receive cursory feedback, don’t have access to the marking scheme and often don’t see the final marked paper.
Arum, in Academically Adrift, has presented good research to show that critical thinking, complex reasoning and communications skills are all too lacking in our universities. So here’s a technique that moves us on, combing the best of teaching with the best of learning. All it takes is just that first step towards student interactivity and participation. And, to repeat, it’s SCALABLE, indeed, the more the merrier.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Only one thing lacking in Educating Essex – education!

Television has a nasty habit of showing state education as dysfunctional. If you have any doubt about Channel 4s intentions check out the sleazy publicity above. Suggests it's more about Essex Schoolgirls (nudge, nudge) than education. They view schools through a pathological lens, with an unnatural focus on problem kids. Channel 4 are obsessed with this approach. Educating Essex, like C4s ridiculous Jamie’s Dream School before it and again C4s The Unteachables before that, are a disgrace. This has become a TV genre all of its own promoted by the Tristams; TV types, who, in my experience, largely went to private schools, where problem kids are filtered out of the system.
The makers of this programme certainly lack the objectivity and professionalism of real documentary makers, as they simply select ‘discipline’ themes from hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape. It’s yet another example of a London-based, editorial class pushing their personal agendas. It’s the same with Channel 4 Learning, who burn millions year on year on dubious games to tackle social problems. It’s a patronising view of state education by a bunch of posh kids in Horseferry Rd.
The programme started well but I didn’t expect EVERY episode to descend into yet another ‘chav-porn’ series of portraits of individual children causing havoc in front of the cameras. It’s exactly what Owen Jones wrote about in Chavs, about the demonization of the state system. There’s precious little coverage of any of the hundreds of other ordinary children getting on with their education, only insanely detailed coverage of Sam, Vinnie and whatever lad they’ll choose next week as it makes for ‘good TV’. Have they no shame?
Where’s the teaching and learning?
In one of the few glimpses (that’s all we get) of actual teaching, we see a teacher make the classic mistake of introducing PI without any adequate reason or explanation. The charming young Carrie’s reaction was pained but rational, “What is PI? Where did it come from?.....” Cue the difficulty of teaching maths. This could have gone somewhere, but it was only used as an amusing clip. In fact, look carefully and it shows a typical maths teacher with his back to the audience simply reading out a Word document from the and e screen, and has failed to break the solution down into steps comprehensible by the class.
I’d like to know if this absence of teachers and learning was the result of editorial bias or at the request of the teachers and/or the teachers’ unions. As a governor in a comprehensive school I and other Governors faced extreme resistance when we tried to report honest observations from our scheduled classroom visits. We were eventually told that classroom visits were banned! If this is true, it would be a shame, as I’m sure many of the teachers in the school are good, inspiring and professional. The problem the programme makers may be up against is the hagiographic idea, sometimes promoted by the teaching profession, of all teachers being brilliant and inspiring, when many, like any other profession, are just average. I would much rather have seen the truth, than this wildly distorted, corridor-only, punishment room view of the school.
Administrators galore?
The one thing you do notice is the relatively large numbers of support staff on camera. This is exaggerated by the angle taken by the editors (problem kids), nevertheless, from the Head of Inclusion to the pair who sit in the support unit, the sympathetic Miss Baldwin and Mr Tracey, as well as Mr Drew and a team who are always in and around his office, it seems that teachers and teaching have been curiously erased from the programme. We saw a lot of Miss Conway, head of house and PE teacher in the last episode, but we’ve yet to see any sport or teaching of PE.
Obsession with  uniforms?
I really like the Headmaster, Deputy Heads (the legendary Mr Drew and Mr King) but shouldn’t they be doing more teaching? An unbelievable amount of time is spent policing school uniforms. Is this really what matters in schools? High school students in Finland don’t wear a uniform and it is one of the highest performing systems in the world. Imagine if all that time, effort and money went on education, as opposed to enforcing uncomfortable and impractical ties and blazers.
They get through the exhausting and difficult days with a healthy mix of banter and humour. No shots of the staff room though. I wonder why! Could it be that these were edited out? Surely we can take some reality here. These are real people with a real sensitivity towards the children. Those we see do really care, we just don’t see enough of them teaching or kids learning. We’re four episodes in and I have no idea what’s taught or how it’s taught – hopefully the next few episodes will enlighten me.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Facebook saved my sanity - remarkable story of Jan Morgan

On September 15 2010 I saw this appear on facebook:
"hello , this is Imogen , Jan's daughter , just to warn you if you are meeting up with her or due in work from her or whatever - she is in hospital after a stroke on monday night so will not be able to do anything for a while."
Jan Morgan, a well known e-leaning professional, had suffered from a stroke. (This message came from her 12 year-old daughter. How brave and mature is that?)
iPhone lifeline
It wasn’t long before the redoubtable Jan started to post from her iPhone in hospital. At first the posts were a little scrambled, and the spelling amusingly idiosyncratic. But as she recovered the spelling got better, the humour kicked in and she was soon posting about the awful food, asking for all visitors to bring a Starbucks and my favourite, “Nurses telling meboff for playing with my phone too much”. What was interesting was the way the staff kept complaining about her using her iPhone, yet as she says “it is my lifeline and link to the outside world hugely reassuring”. Then this lovely message “It would appear that I am sending bizarre messages as my spelling is atrocious and I'm not noticing before pressing send so apologies to everyone jan”.
Among lots of updates on her progress, including several on the slapstick process of physiotherapy, a genuinely moving moment, “Had a few blubbery moments over the weekend... I miss Imogen, I miss my home and I've had enough of this game can I stop now please? ... But I've made such a fuss about the food and gone on strike as I just can't face it anymore ...” But D-day was not far off, “20th December -my discharge date... I'm going home hip hip hooraaaaay:):):)thank you everyone for your support these past 11weeks”. The lack of stimulation in hospital was clearly annoying her, “Given that the only entertainment offered by the hospital is Wednesday "art&craft" classes- currently making Xmas cards and looking like a morning at playgroup or Friday morning bingo classes.... Watching kettles boil would provide more stimulation!”
Now if you’re fortunate enough never to have suffered a sudden unexpected deterioration in your health or spent an extended spell in hospital, this was an extraordinary series of posts over several months. Jan is currently writing a book about her remarkable experience. (if there's any interested publishers out there - contact me.) What was fascinating was the way she overcame the isolation of the hospital experience by posting on Facebook. She was humblingly honest, frank and downright funny about her own recovery. Listen to this, on hospital food,“Salad today consists of grated carrot, cress - slices of orange and lemons.......truly weird”. We all experienced her progress by proxy and it was always fun to see Jan post yet another reflection on her predicament (often in weird spelling). It was truly life affirming. This record, of her posts during recovery must be a mine of useful information about the early stages of cognitive recovery. Then a gear-shift.
“I went home this morning:):) gosh! My stomach has been burbling since 6 am and ive been shaking - bit like stage fright, a few tears too. I managed the stairs up& down and the front door step. Only need grab rails by front door and additional support rail at the bottom of the stairs so minimal. I failed on the coffee test though as my legs were shaking so much I couldn't stand, so Imogen made instead:)” We were living this realtime journey with Jan, always posting replies, not just out of sympathy, but out of sheer admiration for her gutsy refusal to get downhearted.
Finally Jan got home and started to adjust to the life she temporarily left. Again her posts were full of laughs as she struggled with the simplest of tasks. But it was her adjustments to the benefits system that were fascinating. The realisation that she had now to survive on a greatly reduced income hit home and I’m sure it was a dose of realism for all of us. Benefit cuts seem very abstract unless you know someone who relies on them. It was a laughable, at times harrowing, description from inside the Kafkaesque world of the DWP, disability benefits, disabled parking permits, phone calls, form-filling.
“They don't do home assessments and if I miss the appointment I will need doctors written statement saying why! No they cant see the medical information already held by DWP due to Data Protection... How often is the Data Protection Act misused and misunderstood ? Meanwhile I stiill only receive £65.45 per week”
‎”... I have to have a DWP formal fitness to work assessment - study scheduled my appointment for 8:45 next Thursday, in Birmingham- I was supposed to make my own way there on public transport …I can't even walk as far as the nearest bus atop yet.”
Again, it was a window to a world few of us know much about. The labyrinthine processes and exhausting complexity of the benefits system was a revelation. Then arranging care and support. How do I find people? How much do I pay?
In a truly remarkable act, she posted her own brain scan, showing where the artery had burst. This was merely another post with a minimum of fuss. I can’t say how much I admired this small, matter-of-fact post. It said volumes about her as a person. What we witnessed was her cognitive recovery, day by day, as the spelling got better and the messages more coherent. I have no doubt that the iPhone and Fecebook contributed greatly to diminishing her sense of isolation by keeping her in touch with the outside world. A bolder claim, and one which I hope she discusses in her book, is the claim that it helped her re-learn and recover that much quicker.
So thanks Jan (and Imogen), for your bravery in sharing what was clearly a massively traumatic event in your life. Thanks for your honesty and humour. We’ve all grown through this experience.

This was written with Jan's oversight and permission. Here's a message from the lady herself....
"You may say i have been an inspiration or whatever but from my perspective it was you and all my other fb friends sending me messages and just getting on with your daily lives that inspired me to get better - the world was still turning out there and I wanted to be included. One year on and attempting to live on less than 18% of my former income, there are moments when my hospital bubble suddenly seems attractive (apart from the food)"

"Adjusting to my new normality is all an ongoing experience, but this time last year my future was bleak. Now I have a future and it is going to be a damn good one and I'm going to have  fun:)"

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

7 reasons to put heads in 'cloud' e-learning

The future has just got kinda cloudy with iCloud and Kindle Fire. Forget the devices, that's just gadgetry. 

iCloud not iPhone
Reaction to the launch of the new iPhone4 was muted, as the gadget geeks expected more, but it was the other release at the launch that was far more important, the new version of IOS.  Look under the bonnet at Apple with iCloud and you see the future, your content in device-independent cloud services.It is expected (Forrester) that the number using personal cloud services will leap from 65m to 196m by 2016. That's a $12 billion market.

Kindle Fire
Just a few days ago Jeff Bezos launched the Kindle Fire. This is the big threat to the iPad because it's cheap, faster and has its head in the cloud with its EC2, cloud-focused 'Silk' browser that caches for speed. Amazon Cloud storage will come free. Again, it's all about device-independent content through cloud services.

Cloud nine promises
One view of the cloud is that it’s no big deal, that we’ve been using online services for yonks, without any fuss. Another is that it represents the most important shift in IT in the last decade. There’s even mention of that dreaded phrase ‘paradigm shift’. I’m in the latter camp. This is big news in IT and  for e-learning there are seven 'cloud nine' promises, seven major wins;  

1. Big migration
According to Gartner, this is the biggest shift in the IT world in the last decade, as IT turns itself upside down and flips applications, storage and processing power to the cloud. We’re now seeing a massive migration of e-learning to the cloud. When servers began to be clustered and virtualised, the real clouds began to form and this has fanned out to; infrastructure (IaaS), platforms (PaaS) and software (SaaS). The game changer was Amazon, with their EC2 and S3 services.

2. Full scalability
Cloud services offer contracts that allow you to scale according to actual demand, not forecast guesses on usage. This is important in e-learning, as uptake and usage is notoriously difficult to predict. You can pilot at low cost then scale up over time, in proportion to need.

3. Only pay for what you use
This shift from a fixed to variable cost model, paying only for what you use, can result in huge cost savings.  Learning services tend to be used erratically. It’s the equivalent of switching from using electricity generated by your own generator to using the national grid.

4. Buy less hardware
Dick Moore ran Learndirect’s IT for years and knows more than a thing or two about delivering complex learning services to huge numbers of people, 24/7, at the same time gathering huge amounts of data. He is an evangelist for shifting data to the cloud, virtualising servers, then using that acquired storage and bandwidth to deliver your main services - you don;t need to own all your own metal.

5. Buy less software
Like many in the business world, I first saw the real power of the cloud when I shifted all CRM activity to The benefits, in terms of access and savings, were immediate. It was clear that such a move was necessary to remain competitive and that these SaaS services would mark out the e-learning innovators. But over the last few years more and more e-learning services and content has been delivered from the cloud.

6. Lower energy bills
Hugely efficient data centres, based in cold climates, such as Iceland (the ‘cold rush’), deliver much greener, lower-cost services. If you can wean your IT guys off their old ‘server hugging’ habits, you can benefit through considerable savings on all that electricity used to run and cool your servers. Then there’s the opportunity to run these services on thinner, less energy-hungry, client devices.

7. Device independence
As an added bonus, as we move to an increasingly mobile and tablet driven world, you can support more and more devices. Learning needs to be free, and this means letting it loose on as many devices as possible. The Amazon Fire points the way to a fast, cloud cached, thin-client device and, in general, cloud-based e-learning accelerates mobile learning.

Many VLEs, from open source Moodle to Blackboard, now offer cloud-based services. Google apps, in the form of free email, calendar and collaborative tools, is being used by hundreds of educational institutions worldwide, more than 14 million students and teachers, they claim.  Monash University (Australia) has invited over 50,000 students to use the integrated services Gmail, Calendar for University and personal planning (shared) and Google docs. It’s accessible and efficient. The big advantage is the wholescale outsourcing of services. Google also have an open source, cloud-based LMS called CloudCourse. You can create content, track that content, schedule classes and it’s integrated with Google Calendar.

Kineo, Learningpool and many others offer hosted cloud-based LMS services such as Moodle and Totara, with full scalability through Rackspace. Companies, like Edvantage, just sold to Lumesse (formerly Stepstone) have been offering a complete range of SaaS services for some time, showing that cloud delivery adds value. Cogbooks offer a sophisticated, next-generation adaptive learning solution, that you just switch on from the cloud. Organisations large and small see learning services, as something that can be easily migrated, unlike hardcore commercial, transactional services. And although there’s new distinctions, such as public and private clouds, the bottom line is that cloud computing is the next big thing.

Under a cloud of suspicion?
So the cloud on the learning horizon promises a scalable service with massive savings in cost, a greener service and device independence – what’s the downside? Well, there will be worries about security. This is not to be ignored, as once you’ve shifted your data up and out, it may be subjected to scrutiny by authorities such as Governments and legal plaintiffs. And when you have a breach, you may find yourself unable to have the same level of forensic testing available as you had in-house. Remember that the cloud is not actually a cloud, but a huge data centre(s) somewhere on terra firma, so check what arrangements they have if it gets hit by a tsunami or hurricane. One other point, as Dick keeps reminding me, remember to encrypt your data before sending it to the cloud, doing it there would be self-defeating. In short, you also need to know what you’re letting yourself into contractually.

Of course, we’ve had our heads in the clouds for some time, as email, blogging, Youtube, Wikipedia, shared documents and social networking are just some of the cloud services we use without thinking. But as we've seen, there’s several new imperatives that push us towards use of the cloud, and surely the saved money can be better spent elsewhere. This is not cloud cuckoo land, it’s the future.