Because it’s there

EverestThose of us advocating new approaches to ed-tech in UK schools need to take the time between now and the next election in May to build a case that does not assume that the argument for technology in education is self-evident.

Two days ago, a UK government re-shuffle removed from their current posts all of the sponsoring Ministers for the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG). The likelihood that this report will now have any significant influence is slim. This might represent a lucky escape because I saw no evidence that ETAG was going to produce any convincing or coherent argument for ed-tech that went much beyond saying we should adopt it “because it’s there”. This is not a position that is going to cut any ice with Ministers of any political party. The following post is copied from an email sent to the ICT Research Network, a reflector originally established by Becta and now managed by ALT and NAACE. It responds to a conversation bemoaning the uneven extent to which schools have pursued “digital normalisation”.

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Textbooks for the digital age

Liz TrussWhy Liz Truss was right to call for more professionally produced learning resources; and why the profession misunderstood her when she talked about “textbooks”

Liz Truss, Minister in the UK DfE for Education and Healthcare, has been calling for a return to textbooks. The headline story masks a more complex argument that bundles together several different strands. Instead of dismissing Truss’ call as regressive, it should be brought together with Matt Hancock’s ETAG initiative to stimulate a serious debate about how teachers can be given better tools of the trade, which exploit the opportunities provided by digital technology.

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Rescue ETAG—say no to FELTAG

FELTAG and ETAGThe DfE should reject the FELTAG recommendations in order to ensure that all the same mistakes are not repeated by ETAG

At the same time as the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) got ready to submit its recommendations to government for action to support ed-tech in Further Education, a new group was set up to propose similar recommendations that would cover all education sectors. But the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) has inherited all of the same flawed assumptions that were made by FELTAG and by BECTA before them. If Matt Hancock wants to be the man who ends the long history of failed government initiatives and the man who helps introduce genuine, transformative education technology to the UK, he needs to insist that the government is given a much clearer and more convincing rationale for action than the FELTAG report has offered.

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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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Land ho!

land_hoMatthew Hancock, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for further educationskills and lifelong learning, announced in the Sunday Times yesterday that the government was setting up a Whitehall unit “to examine how children can be taught by computers that use sophisticated algorithms to set the pace according to individual ability”. After three and a half years of virtual silence on ed-tech, this is a welcome and exciting announcement. Online tuition, he says, is the key that “could help to raise Britain from the bottom of the international educational league tables”, using technology in a complementary role to teachers, so that “computers [will] take the lead in ‘imparting knowledge’ while teachers focus on ‘mentoring, coaching and motivating’”. Not only does this statement put education technology back on the political agenda in the UK, but it does so on completely different terms from those previously proposed by the advocates of independent learning, twenty-first century skills, and the wisdom of the crowd. Instead, it reflects something very similar to the position that I have been arguing on this blog. There is even a sense of urgency detectable in the fact that Mr Hancock wants “the changes…to be implemented as soon as possible”.

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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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Computing in the National Curriculum

Michael Gove leaving a platform on the National CurriculumMy response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the draft National Curriculum

Following my previous posts on the review of the National Curriculum (Digital literacy and the new ICT curriculum and Good lord! Where’s the digital literacy?), I submitted the following response to the DfE’s consultation on the National Curriculum, with particular reference to Computing.

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Education’s coming revolution

The requirement for education technology rests, not on spurious arguments about “21st century skills”, but on a long-standing need to find a way of teaching traditional skills systematically and at scale. To succeed, education has to go through its own industrial revolution, which will introduce systematic processes, backed by effective quality controls and robust quantitative evidence of effectiveness.

At a recent event in London reported by Merlin John[1], Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment suggested that the British textbooks produced in the 1970s by the School Mathematics Project (SMP) and the Nuffield Science series still represented the best resources around in their respective fields. This is startling claim, coming as it does after 40 years in which we have seen a revolution in information technology and the expense of billions of pounds on technology in schools.

Two of the leading figures in the textbook publishing movement of the 1970s were both Headmasters at my old school, Sevenoaks, a commuter town 25 miles south of London. At the time that I was at the school in the late 1970s, the Headmaster was Alan Tammadge, a principal author of the SMP series for Maths. The previous Headmaster had been Kim (L C) Taylor, who had resigned from Sevenoaks in 1970 to become Director of the Nuffield Resources for Learning project.

Resources for Learning[2] was also the name of a book, written in the following year, in which Taylor provided a justification for the Nuffield programme. He questioned whether the comprehensive education that was being introduced in the UK at the time was realistic. His concern was not about the phasing out of selection: the problem that caught Taylor’s eye was the fact that the new system of secondary education was to be universal. Traditional education had always been provided to a small elite based on a model of the teacher-as-craftsman. So long as we clung to that model, Taylor argued that there would not be enough sufficiently well qualified teachers to go around.

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The problem with “Technology Enhanced Learning”

Oscar Pistorius coming off the starting blocks, running on carbon fibre bladesNow that the use of the term “ICT” is coming under increasing scrutiny in the schools sector, many are making more use of the term “TEL” But “TEL” has similar flaws to “ICT”, as was brought home to me when attending the Online Educa Berlin conference last week.

Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) has for some time been the preferred term for the academic community  when referring to the application of technology to the improvement education. It has been the title of various funding streams of the European Commission (such as TeLearn and TELNET. The only slightly different “Technology Supported Learning” appears in the strap-lines of conferences such as Online Educa Berlin (which I attended last week) and Learning Technologies, to be held in London in January.

This post makes the case that the HE “TEL” community has been just as ineffective as the schools-level “ICT” community at delivering real improvements in education—and that some of the key reasons for this failure are embedded in the terminology itself.

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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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