What ETAG should say

The first meeting of ETAG, attended by Michael Gove and Mat HancockThe Education Technology Action Group, set up by the DfE and BIS and announced by Matt Hancock at BETT, has made a shaky start. This is what I think they should end up saying to Ministers.

In my post “Land ho!” of 16 December, I welcomed the noises being made at that time by Matt Hancock, Minister for Skills & Enterprise at BIS, about the government’s new, more proactive approach to education technology. This led to the announcement at BETT on 23 January of a new advisory group, the Education Technology Action Group, to be chaired by Stephen Heppell. The most that could be said so far is that ETAG has had a slow start.We didn’t hear anything of substance until 23 April, when it published a series of questions that are to form the basis of a consultation, which is to run until 23 June. In my view, the questions are not particularly helpful. Nor have they attracted any significant response in the first couple of weeks, there having been only a couple of dozen substantive tweets using the #etag hashtag. But I am looking forward to engaging in the consultation and, by way of encouraging the debate, publish below my own views on what ETAG should say to Ministers.

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Learning content customisation and adaptation

Custom car

A copy of a comment regarding the difference between customisation and adaptation, and the importance of the latter to learning content that encapsulates pedagogy.

It is a central argument of this blog that the attempt to apply technology to the improvement of education has been held back by the lack of education-specific software. Such software will generally encapsulate pedagogy. An objection to this approach was recently raised by Peter Twining in a useful discussion on his blog, EdFutures. It is a little difficult to link directly to the part of the conversation where this occurs – the best way is probably to follow the link to the discussion page and then to search for “Re Technology Enhanced Learning”, which is the title of the thread in which this discussion occurs.

To paraphrase the general objection to software that encapsulates pedagogy, such software might be seen as a way of scripting lessons that dis-empower the teacher. At the top level, I would respond that many teachers have a pretty shaky understanding of pedagogy, so the ability to put pedagogically proven tools into their hands is a key way in which we will empower (not dis-empower) teachers (see my Education’s coming revolution). As for the nature of those tools, I certainly accept that the way in which software is used in the classroom needs to be flexible, allowing the teacher (the professional on the spot) to apply the software in the right way. This provides the background to my conversation with Peter Twining regarding the customisation or adaptation of education-specific software.

Peter’s argument is that, according to an OU project in the 1990s called SoURCE, in which he was involved, the pedagogy encapsulated in software often needed to be subverted by the teacher—and that this suggested that the encapsulation of pedagogy was something of a blind alley. I copy below my reply to Peter, followed by my conclusion.

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MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles

Girl blowing a bubble gum bubbleWhy most of what currently excites the ed-tech world is hot air: MOOCs, Learning Analytics and Open Education Resources, amongst other fads.

I already know what my new year’s resolution will be. As well as losing a stone in weight (the same resolution every year), it will be to stop writing almost exclusively on why education technology has so far failed to transform education, and to focus more on arguing how education technology will transform education, when it is properly implemented. As the song has it:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr In-between[1].

The predominantly negative copy of 2012 has been no more satisfying to write than I imagine it has been to read. But it has been necessary. It is impossible to make progress with a cogent argument for how education technology will transform education while most of the community accepts as self-evident half-baked notions of “independent learners” and “21st century skills”, believes that creativity is possible without knowledge, or that testing is a dirty word. Before making a start on constructing the new you need to demolish the old.

That will be my resolution on 1st January—but for the last few days of 2012, I will follow the prayer of St Augustine (“Lord make me chaste but not yet”) and take one last swing with the old ball and chain. Continue reading

Six technical standards to build an ed-tech market

Throwing double sixInteroperability is critical if we are to build a market for educational technology, a market which will in turn enable the pedagogical innovations capable of transforming education. This post identifies six interoperability specifications which would take the first steps in this direction.

I will start by painting a quick picture of the overall education technology ecosystem towards which I think we should be aiming. I will then describe the six standards for data interoperability that I think will provide the foundation for the market that will be needed to deliver that ecosystem. These are standards for:

  • Digital Learning Activities
  • Reporting of performance metrics
  • Declarative sequencing
  • Managed use of creative tools
  • Competency definitions
  • Open classroom response systems

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Open standards: open opportunities

Response submitted on behalf of SALTIS to the Cabinet Office’s consultation, Open Standards: Open Opportunities, the consultation period for which closed on 4 June 2012

The Cabinet Office proposes:

  • to compile a list of approved open standards;
  • to mandate the use of these standards by central government departments and their agencies;
  • to encourage the wider public sector to follow the lead of central government.

A summary of the SALTIS position is that:

  • we strongly support the wider use of appropriate open standards;
  • we believe that the Cabinet Office’s approach may improve the transparency of central government data;
  • we believe that the current proposals will have little positive impact on the wider public services, where the imposition of bureaucratically selected standards is likely to hinder innovation.

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What do we mean by “content”?

A presentation given to an Ad Hoc group in ISO/IEC SC36, responsible for scoping future standards work for digital learning content

Learning content is a divisive concept. Over the last few years it has become increasingly fashionable to criticize “content-driven” systems as encouraging transmissive or instructionalist styles of teaching. Ian Usher from Buckingham County Council reported in 2008 that “the best work we’ve seen within our Moodles in Buckinghamshire hasn’t come from great swathes of pre-produced content but from interactions…between learners and other learners (with teachers in there as well)”.  This echoes a 2006 article by Stephen Heppell stating that “Content isn’t king any more, but community might just be sovereign”.

There are two questionable assumptions that lie behind this now established orthodoxy:

  • the assumption that content and community are opposed to one another;
  • the assumption that we know what we mean by “content” in the first place.

The following presentation argues that the problem with concept of learning content is not that it is pedagogically flawed—but that it is misunderstood. Continue reading

In the name of God, go!

A message to the DfE’s Information Standards Board

Of all the denunciations thrown across the floor of the British House of Commons, “In the name of God, go!” occupies a special place. It was first used by Oliver Cromwell when he dismissed the Long Parliament in 1653. In 1940, it was used by Leo Amery to call for the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, opening the way for Winston Churchill to come into Number 10. More recently, it has been used to call for the resignations of Gordon Brown and Silvio Berlusconi. Only Margaret Thatcher, at the hands of the more emollient Geoffrey Howe, was spared the British political equivalent of Robert Louis Stephenson’s black spot[1]. It is a call that is only appropriate at the final resort, when the last possibility of reasonable discussion has past. In the case of the DfE’s Information Standards Board, that point has now come.

The ISB holds responsibility in the DfE for the development of data standards to improve interoperability. On this blog, I have started (see Scrapping “ICT” and Aristotle’s saddle-maker) but not yet finished making the argument that will conclude (as did BESA’s Policy Commission of 2008) that these interoperability standards are critical for the intelligent application of education technology. It is in this context that the failure of the ISB should be judged.

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