The clue to the mystery of missing racehorse, Silver Blaze, was provided by “the dog that did nothing in the night-time”. It was the absence of any barking as Silver Blaze was removed from her stable that aroused Sherlock Holmes’ suspicions that it had been the stable manager himself had taken the horse.
When called upon by Michael Gove to engage in “a serious, intelligent conversation about how technology will transform education”, the education technology community proved almost as unresponsive as the dog in Silver Blaze’s stable. If it woke up at all, it was only to wag its tail.
Michael Gove did not only call for a “serious intelligent conversation” in his BETT 2012 speech, he also told people where that conversation was to happen. Naace and ALT had already set up a discussion site at www.SchoolsTech.org.uk, where they hosted the conversation over the second half of January and February 2012, with the collaboration of the DfE, which provided the stimulus questions. In July 2012, Naace and ALT published the conclusions of the conversation in a joint report, Better learning through technology (BLTT).
Both the level and quality of the debate were disappointing: the respected ed-tech journalist, Merlin John, rated most of the contributions to the debate “lacklustre”.
This post will ask three questions:
- why did the “serious, intelligent debate” not happen as we all might have hoped?
- to what extent does Better learning through technology make good the deficit?
- now that the Naace/ALT report has been published, what conclusions should we draw and how can we now move forwards again?
Why did the “serious, intelligent debate” not happen as we all might have hoped?”
I have two broad answers to the first question. The debate did not occur as hoped:
- because there were mistakes made in running the debate;
- because the majority of people involved in the debate were unable or unwilling to challenge existing orthodoxies.
Mistakes made in running the debate
There were four.
Insufficiently wide participation
Not enough was done to solicit engagement from a sufficiently wide range of contributors. Perhaps it might have helped if a series of short white papers had been used to seed the debate, produced by well-known figures representing conflicting points of view. I understand that such white papers were solicited but were not in the event published. It might also have been possible to incorporate a live event or a stand on the floor at BETT. Other organisations, like BESA, the Publishers Association, JISC/CETIS and the SSAT could have been recruited to the project team.
The debate was constrained by poor stimulus questions
The stimulus questions that were produced by the DfE were unhelpful, seeding the debate with the same set of assumptions on which past policy had been based. This made it difficult for the discussion to challenge these assumptions. There were many who made this point (including one who ended up co-authoring the report)—but I was perhaps the person who argued the case most strongly:The question “How can we harness the skills and enthusiasm young people have for technology?” is the *wrong* question … The only conceivable answers to this sort of question are things like “they will enjoy blogging, collaborating through social networking sites, and show-casing their work on-line” – and we already know that those answers are wrong. I mean, you wouldn’t really answer the question saying “we can harness their enthusiasm for technology by greater use of digital assessment and performance tracking systems”, would you? At the same time, we are *not* being asked the questions that matter, like “is it realistic to use technology to improve learning across the curriculum?” (the question posed by Bob Harrison), “what sort of technologies do schools need?”, “how should these technologies be procured and paid for?”, “what should be the purpose of technology in the school curriculum?”, “should computing be taught across the curriculum or as a separate subject?”, and perhaps most important of all, “what do we mean by technology?”
Debates were closed after one week, preventing the constructive exploration of disagreements and further reducing participation
The problem with the stimulus questions was compounded by the mechanism by which discussions were (at least at first) closed at the end of one week. Such a device is commonly used to prevent people drifting too far “off topic”—but since the stimulus questions were so poor to start with, drifting off topic was the only way in which we could have had a useful debate at all.
Second, I shall argue in this essay that the value of an intelligent discussion lies in the resolution of disagreement by robust but constructive argument, with each side arguing, supporting and refining their point of view to meet the criticisms of their opponents. This process may take time and may require participants to engage in more extensive argumentation—but they were never given this opportunity.
Thirdly, the imposition of a strict time limit assumes that everyone required for the conversation is in the room, fingers on buzzers, when the conversation starts. As suggested by 1.1.1, this was not the case. The opportunity for the conversations to draw in new participants was lost. If anything, participants were alienated as each thread was closed like some teenage party that had got out of hand.
Clumsy moderation reduced the vitality of debate
Although the report makes a virtue of the site’s “light touch approach to moderation (no contributor had their comments blocked)”—my experience was that the approach to moderation was anything but. All comments were moderated and only appeared on the site after a delay, often of many hours, which represented a significant drag on conversations which only lasted for a week. Even half a day’s approval time had the effect of dampening the cut and thrust of debate which might have occurred had several contributors been allowed to generate pseudo-synchronous conversations. In my own experience on this blog, moderating a contributor’s first comment is quite sufficient to protect against spam and abuse.
Participants failed to challenge existing orthodoxies
If the organisers made mistakes, the problems of organisation were compounded by the mind-set of the great majority of participants in the discussion. We all find it very difficult to challenge our preconceptions, we are all creatures of habit and the more passionate we are, the more emotional capital we invest in a particular point of view, the more difficult it is to abandon. The only reason why any of us might find that we are forced to question our preconceptions is when we engage in open-minded debate with others, arguing our case at the same time as listening carefully to theirs. People who are unfortunate enough to be surrounded by flatterers, people whose beliefs coincide with popular orthodoxy and people who shy away from disagreement are all liable to become increasingly committed to untested preconceptions–.
I suspect that this tendency is aggravated by the Internet. By extending the geographical range across which communities can be formed, it is possible to seek out those who agree with you and to ignore the opinions of those who do not. The Internet can even bring together wannabe cannibals with people willing to be eaten in solidly pro-cannibalism communities.
Whether it was a result of this phenomenon of online self-selection, because participants did not want to cause offense, because of the self-interest or intolerance of participants or because of some particular characteristic of the consultation, that fact is that there was remarkably little genuine debate.
To demonstrate this, I divided the posts into those which replied to another post (either because the commenter hit the “reply” button, quoted from someone else’s post, or referenced them in their first paragraph) and those who did not (which I therefore deem to have started a new thread). This gives a figure for the average length of each conversational thread, in which a thread length of 1 represents no conversation at all.
|Average length of thread||
These figures show that not only did the total number of posts decline sharply, but also that the average thread-length, starting at only 1.75, fell rapidly to a point in weeks 4 and 5 when there were no replies to any other posters at all. These figures would be even worse if the replies made by myself (over one third of the total) were discounted.
Nor by any means did all of these replies contain criticism or argument. A significant proportion express uncritical support along the lines of “I totally agree. Hit nail on head” and “Most sensible ideas about education I’ve read in years” (H B Davies and Julie Higney respectively, responding to Simon’s eulogy on Sir Ken Robinson). Not that there is anything wrong with supporting and elaborating positions with which you agree—but a uniform diet of agreement can also close down debate, establishing a premature consensus which will suffer from a lack of any proper scrutiny. When I posted (also in response to Simon) my extensive argument against the views of Sir Ken, none of the enthusiastically pro-Ken contributors made any response.
Nor did many of the contrary replies contain argumentation. Much of the controversy occurred in the second topic in response to a post by Joe Nutt, who attacked Becta’s talk of “e-confidence” and “e-readiness” as “vacuous rhetoric”, accused teachers of being “anti-business” and excessively influenced by “techno-zealots” and “gurus”, who often used their position as industry promoters to exert more influence than “subject specialists”.
Although Joe’s language may have been colourful, the points he made were serious and deserved proper consideration. Becta’s focus on “e-confidence” has been widely criticised–; my own blog on Sir Ken Robinson substantiates the attack on “techno-zealots”, and the views that the curriculum should not be determined by subject specialists– and that the relationship with industry should be mediated by partnerships with the advocates of ICT, were both actual recommendations of the Naace/ALT report (see below). Yet instead of addressing these points with a substantiated critique, Joe Nutt’s views were dismissed out of hand by fellow contributors:Whilst Joe Nutt makes some interesting and pertinent points, I think the case entirely spoiled by some excessive comments that border on the paranoid or conspiracy theorist. [These views] may go some way to explain why some teachers are led to form that anti-business view of which he complains!…Perhaps if we focussed a little harder on seeking the evidence of things that are working, rather than polemic about things that are less than satisfactory (and I do recognise they exist) we can move this debate forward more constructively? (Tony Parkin) I am glad that “techno-sceptics” have a voice in this discussion–: their views are important, but Joe Nutt’s [comment] is a both OTT and a reflection of how things may once have been. (Bob Harrison)
In response to a further comment by Joe Nutt pointing to research which he claimed justified his position:Thanks Joe, I am fully aware of your past experience with RM but it does not change my view of your comments! Let us focus on the conversation please. (Bob Harrison)
Even on the few occasions where opposing views emerged, there was hardly any of the reasoned discussion for which Michael Gove had called. Participants who approved of the majority Naace/ALT line either ignored contrary opinion or used the conversational form of a threaded list actively to silence opposing voices.
The analysis above shows that:
- there were relative few comments overall;
- the rate of contributions declined sharply;
- a relatively small proportion of those comments represented responses to other people’s views;
- a relatively small proportion of those responses contained reasoned criticism of other people’s views;
- a diminishingly small number of posts responded to other people’s criticisms for their initial position.
To what extent does Better learning through technology (BLTT) make good the deficit?
The task of writing up such a disappointing discussion was not an enviable one. Achieving coherence and consistency must have been made even more difficult by the fact that nine different people are listed as authors of the report. Perhaps this diverse authorship accounts for the report’s lack of consistency, a notable example of which lies in its stated objectives. In the first paragraph of the Executive Summary, it saysThis report analyses and summarises the discussion in an attempt to distil coherent outcomes
while section 1.2 Overview of report aim and structure states that[The report] represents ALT and Naace’s conclusions, drawing on the discussion.
These are two subtly different accounts of the report’s objectives, one of which states that it was to summarise the outcomes of the discussion, the second of which states that it was to argue a position agreed by the authors, drawing on the online discussion as required for support.
On the whole, the main body of the report does a pretty good a job at representing the range of different opinions fairly—even my contrarian position, which was reflected in the main body of the Executive Summary:The relationship between teaching, technology, quality and productivity in schools is complex. Lines of argument in this area tend to talk past each other, with some maintaining that good teaching is independent of technology, while others feel this misses the point that technology can augment and extend good teaching, as well as supporting independent learning” (BLTT page 3).
The problem lies not in the body of the report but in its conclusions. The final section of the Executive Summary is entitled Interventions. These proposed interventions are recommendations in all but name—and that is the part of any report that really matters. On that basis, I will confine my assessment of the report to an assessment of its five proposed interventions.
Providing authentic, meaningful learning experiences by embedding technology in teaching and learning activities.
The first of the report’s proposed interventions contains some of the community’s favourite bits of jargon—but what the recommendation actually means is far from clear.
The place of “authentic” and “embedded” in the online discussion
Before discussing the meaning of the recommendation, it is worth reviewing how the terms “authentic” and “embedded” came to be included in the report in such a prominent position.
“Authentic experiences” was the title that was provided by the DfE for the final week’s discussion. This discussion attracted a total of nine comments, none of which replied to anyone else’s. Outside of that discussion, the word “authentic” was used only once–. There is therefore no compelling evidence that the concept of authenticity was seen by participants as significant.
Nor did the term “embedded” receive strong support in the discussion. While used more frequently in other contexts (I, for example, talked about embedding pedagogy within software), in the sense of embedding technology in teaching and learning, the word was used only four times: three times in favour of the concept and once against (see below).
In the cases of both “authentic” and “embedded”, the fact that terms that were so little used in the online discussion were given such prominence in the report’s first recommendation supports the objection I made during the discussion that the whole exercise was to some extent pre-scripted.
The meaning of “authentic and meaningful”
“Authentic” generally means real, original or truthful as opposed to fake. All experience is both real (in that it involves real sense data) and illusory (the sense data never giving a direct depiction of the true nature of the physical world, which in reality has neither colour, sound nor solidity). Sometimes we are subjected to extra layers of illusion, as when we are dreaming, viewing artificially generated images, or duped by a sleight of hand. It is at least curious to suggest that digital technology will lead to more “real” learning experiences as the development of digital imagery and virtual reality are powerful and increasingly ubiquitous sources of illusion in the modern world.
A second meaning of “authentic” comes from existential philosophy, meaning “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures” (Wikipedia). This sense of the word might suggest that the subject of “authentic learning” is set by the priorities of the student and not imposed on the student by the teacher, curriculum or society.
Whatever its rationale, the phrase “authentic learning” has achieved currency amongst educationalists for a style of learning by doing, rooted in independent learners addressing what are perceived to be real-world problems in real-world contexts. The following quotes are from Authentic Learning for the 21st Century by Marilyn M. Lombardi:Thanks to the emergence of a new set of technological tools, we can offer students a more authentic learning experience based on experimentation and action. With the help of the Internet and a variety of communication, visualization, and simulation technologies, large numbers of undergraduates can begin to reconstruct the past, observe phenomena using remote instruments, and make valuable connections with mentors around the world. With access to online research communities, learners are able to gain a deeper sense of a discipline as a special “culture” shaped by specific ways of seeing and interpreting the world. They begin to grasp the subtle, interpersonal, and unwritten knowledge that members in a community of practice use (often unconsciously) on a daily basis. “Learning becomes as much social as cognitive, as much concrete as abstract, and becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration,” just as it is in an actual workplace. Developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner reminds us that there is a tremendous difference between learning about physics and learning to be a physicist. Isolated facts and formulae do not take on meaning and relevance until learners discover what these tools can do for them.
“Authentic learning” says that we should not just learn about physics, but we should learn to be physicists—addressing the same types of concrete problem, using the same kinds of tool, working in the same types of community as the professionals.
While accepting the meaning of the term “authentic learning” as it is currently used by educationalists, it is worth noting that the use of the word “authentic” in this context is loaded and misleading. Proponents of the theory suggest that the socially grounded practice is more “authentic” than cognitive understanding, that the concrete is more “authentic” than the abstract, and that if you cannot participate directly the real thing, the best way to be “authentic” is to fake it by the use of illusory, digital simulations. The absurdity of this position illustrates the naivety of the assumptions behind the whole theory: both Socrates and Professor Stephen Hawking would say that it is not the physical world which represents ultimate reality but abstract truth.
The meaning of “embedded” technology
The term “embedding” is normally applied to the placement of something in a compatible but abnormal context. A reporter is said to be “embedded” in an army unit because:
- the army unit is composed of soldiers, which are a similar sort of thing to reporters;
- but the reporter would normally be regarded as being out of place, dressed in a flak jacket in the back of an armoured personnel carrier.
In school, you would not talk of “embedding” tables and chairs and whiteboards in a classroom—that sort of equipment is what you would expect to find in a classroom anyway. Nor would you “embed” a learning activity such as a debate or a test in a lesson: that is what you expect a lesson to be made up of anyway. Nor would you embed a chair in a History lesson because a History lesson is not composed of furniture. What you might embed in a History lesson is some teaching about English composition, Geography, or ICT. These are the right sorts of thing to go in a lesson: you just would not normally expect them in a History lesson.
Talk about “embedded technology” therefore implies that technology is not being seenin terms of bits of equipment or pedagogical processes (these are just used, not embedded). It implies that technology is being seen as part of the curriculum. This impression is borne out by how the term was used in the discussion. I mentioned above that the use of the term “embedded” was used favourably only three times–:
- Pete Bradshaw called for the “embedding [of ICT] in statutory requirements for all subjects and their assessment”;
- Terri Kemminson wanted “Key Skills for ICT…properly embedded in assessments”;
- Bob Harrison argued for “embedding technology-enhanced learning” in ways being pioneered by University Technical Colleges that “specialise in STEM subjects, Computer Science and Digital Technology”.
In every case, the people advocating “embedded” technology are talking about embedding ICT as a subject discipline, learning objective or set of assessment criteria. They are not talking primarily about using technology as means of teaching other subjects (except in the sense that the skills that you learn in one subject may prove to be useful in another). This critical confusion between the teaching of ICT as an end of education, and the use of technology as a means of delivering education effectively, runs deep in the ICT community and was the subject of my previous post, Scrapping ICT.
Bob Harrison’s University Technology Colleges are in any case not really relevant to the concept of embedding technology in mainstream education. If someone goes to a Technology College, then they can expect to study more technology just as someone who goes to an Art College can expect to study more Art. The whole purpose of University Technical Colleges is that they will offer a more technical and vocational style of education at the expense of the traditional academic curriculum, which will occupy only 60% of the total teaching time from 14 to 16 and 40% of the total teaching time from 16 to 19–. If UTCs show the way forwards for a technology-enhanced curriculum, then the non-technical part of the curriculum will find itself diminished and not enhanced.
The other two comments that support embedding propose that subject teachers should be forced to teach ICT by including the evaluation of ICT-related skills into their non-ICT subject assessments. This appears to be the sense in which the Naace/ALT report recommends the embedding of technology—confirming the charge made by Joe Nutt that the views of subject specialists are to be ignored, at least when they conflict with the prescriptions of technology enthusiasts.
How embedded technology might support “authentic learning”
According to Marilyn Lombardi’, the concept of “authentic learning” encompasses a wide range of pedagogies, from the use of creative tools and social networking to the use of simulations. The concept of “embedding” is only appropriate to some of these pedagogies.
The main barrier to the use in the classroom of creative and professional tools (which have generally been developed for use outside education) lies in the learner’s lack of skill. The use, for example, of CAD/CAM modelling software requires prior mastery of the software. Similarly, while many young people are habitual users of social networking in social contexts, they are not normally adept at making productive use of such tools in a pseudo-professional context. As with creative tools, the barrier to the productive use of social networking appears to be about the skill of the leaner and their use in the classroom is therefore likely to depend on the prior acquisition of technical skills.
Simulations, by contrast, can be devised so as to be easily accessible to people of any ability level. Because the simulation is likely to have a fairly limited application, it would rarely be worth spending much effort on learning to use it in any case. As it is likely to have been developed specifically for education, it can be designed to allow rapid mastery of the software with minimal disruption to the study of the primary learning objective. In this case, the main barrier to the deployment of simulation-based pedagogies lies in the lack of appropriate software, which must be developed specifically for the learning environment, and not in the lack of skill of the learners.
- the concept of “embedding” is about the inclusion within a lesson of learning objectives not directly relevant to the primary subject discipline;
- simulations and other “pre-baked” digital activities do not demand significant pre-requisite skills on the part of the learner…
…it follows that the first recommendation of the Naace/ALT report is not about the provision of more simulations. It is rather about developing a range of technical skills, appropriate to different parts of the curriculum, which the advocates of the policy claim will enable students to engage in a range of self-directed activities to enhance their learning. Students of History will come to a better understanding of the uses of historical data by analysing databases and students of Science will come to understand the scientific process by writing blogs that engage them in criticism and debate (more effectively, one hopes, than the advocates of the policy themselves manage to demonstrate).
This conclusion is confirmed by a re-examination of the wording of the recommendation, which is about “embedding technology in teaching and learning activities” and not “embedding teaching and learning activities in new technology”. The latter is what would happen with what I refer to above as “pre-baked”, digitally managed activities delivered by specially developed, education-specific software.
I do not deny that there is some sense at the heart of the first recommendation. As it is widely acknowledged that we learn by doing, so the emphasis on learning activity is likely to be helpful. Engaging the learner’s creative and critical faculties will develop what Bloom’s taxonomy rates as the higher levels of thinking (evaluating and creating). Allowing more self-direction to the learner is likely to increase motivation and is consistent with the needs of an increasingly diverse society.
The problem with this first recommendation lies in:
- the jargon-ridden language in which the recommendation is phrased, which:
- makes it hard to understand properly,
- implies an unjustified polemic against abstract knowledge,
- makes the unwarranted assumption that the use of technology to improve learning is necessarily dependent on the acquisition of significant levels of technical skill by pupils and teachers,
- obscures the potential for the development of education-specific technologies that work out of the box;
- the failure to examine the difficulties with the recommendation;
- the weak evidence of benefit, even after a decade of attempted implementation.
Some of the unexamined barriers to the adoption of the recommendation are as follows.
- poor literacy already bars many students from effective learning in many subjects and the introduction of a new “literacy”, which will form a prerequisite to learning across the curriculum, will tend to create a new barrier to learning for many;
- experience of cross-curriculum approaches have already shown that teachers specialised in non-technical subjects are unlikely to have either the skill or the motivation to teach what might be deemed to be prerequisite technical skills;
- the value of many of the synergies that are claimed for a technology-enhanced curriculum are still unproven and their value may be over-stated by advocates of ICT who are not themselves specialists in the primary subject being taught;
- the expectation that school-children have the levels of understanding, skill or motivation required to behave in ways that mirror “real world” professional situations is unproven and often implausible, particularly at lower ability levels;
- the emphasis on learning objectives which are seen as relevant by learners may divert attention from advanced forms of understanding, the benefits of which are rarely apparent to those who have not yet acquired them;
- designing education systems that respond to the aspirations of the learner is likely to disadvantage working class children whose aspirations tend to be lower than middle class children;
- the emphasis on contextualised learning is likely to hinder the teaching of abstract knowledge and skills, which are likely to be more transferable and therefore more useful in the long-term than context-dependent skills;
- much of the literature on “authentic learning” has originated from academics whose experience of higher education is not necessarily transferrable to schools.
The theory of “embedded authentic learning” is largely unproven. While it may have interesting possibilities, it also raises many potential problems and questions, none of which are properly examined in the Naace/ALT report. The application of the theory therefore needs to be approached with caution.
The muddled language with which the recommendation is expressed is also a significant problem. The inappropriate use of loaded words like “authentic” and “meaningful” not only over-sells the theory but also obscures other more promising applications of technology to education. The participants in this debate are principally ICT teachers, their advisers, trainers and administrators. All of these people are likely to be over-impressed by the importance of a set of technical skills that needs to be imparted to students. They do not acknowledge the potential (amply illustrated in other sectors) for industry suppliers to develop new software that will provide benefit without requiring any significant mastery of prerequisite skills, either by students or teachers.
Creating frameworks that encourage responsible but liberal use of new technologies (the view that prohibition of online services and mobile devices is unsustainable was not contested in discussions).
It is not true that no-one contested the proposal that the prohibition of mobile devices was unsustainable. I did.
Seb Schmoller, Chief Executive of ALT, posted a reply to Daniel Stucke, saying,I’ll take this opportunity to link to the interesting post you published today on your own blog about 1:1 vs Bring Your Own Device.
In response, I made a reply which I said:I cannot take seriously a blog about using mobiles in school which does not even mention the very real problem of distraction in the classroom.
To give credit where credit is due, Daniel Stucke (the author of the original blog) made a carefully argued response to my post—and I am sorry to say that on that occasion it was I that let the conversation drop, failing to reply before the discussion was closed four days later. Daniel’s point was that if children were distracted by their mobiles during his lesson, then it must be his (the teacher’s) fault that was unable to hold the attention of his pupils. If I had made a reply to Daniel, it would have been that:
- while admiring the high standards which Daniel set himself, I doubt that it is realistic to place such high expectations on teachers across an education system in which indiscipline is recognised as a major cause of poor performance;
- placing the entire onus on teachers to keep their students stimulated and engaged is likely to distort the priorities of the classroom, placing more emphasis on entertainment than on productive instruction and determined study, which will very often fail to provide much immediate gratification.
If Daniel (or anyone else) would like to take me up on this point in response to this essay, I would be delighted belatedly to continue the conversation. In the meantime, I did at least challenge the principle that BYOD in the classroom was necessarily and always a good thing. It does nothing to strengthen the case for BYOD in the classroom that such reasonable counter-arguments are treated by the advocates of BYOD as if they were barely admissible.
The main recommendation at issue, however, is not about BYOD but about the supposed usefulness of “frameworks”. To understand what the report means by these, it is necessary to refer to the main body of the report, which includes a link to the “UNESCO ICT Competency Framework, which challenges a ‘skills based approach’”. The Naace/ALT report continues, “Indeed, a clear message is that focusing mainly on skills is itself problematic — we need to understand impacts on society, changes to disciplines, extensions to pedagogy, and competence in making decisions about all the above in light of emerging technologies”.
It appears from this account that that teaching ICT is not just about improving the skill levels of your students, but about promoting revolutionary change to the curriculum and indeed to society itself, and defining who is competent to make decisions (members of “the elect”, presumably) and who is not. The formula is as incoherent as it is radical:
- it is unclear how a competency framework can challenge a skills-based approach, given that “competency” and “skill” are generally regarded as synonymous;
- in recommending the UNESCO challenge to a skills-based approach, the Naace/ALT report ignores the online discussion, in which the word “skill” was used about 70 times, in all but one case– accepting without question the essential importance of skills to any learning process;
- that no evidence is given, either in the report or in the online discussion, that the UNESCO framework has been used to any effect whatsoever by anybody.
A reading of the UNESCO framework itself does nothing to resolve these doubts. The framework uses some high-sounding rhetoric about “using teaching methods which are appropriate for evolving knowledge societies” and insists that students should “understand how they themselves can generate new knowledge, using ICT as a tool”. It recognises that its “novel and challenging ideas…will take time for teachers to understand” and that consequently that their introduction will “require strong leadership from the government”. Fortunately, a series of helpful appendices are provided to “guide governments in shaping their education policies”. These grandiose, self-important aspirations are not matched by the content of the framework itself, which consists of a succession of uninspiring suggestions for technology-enhanced activities, such as “obtaining…video clips from the internet” or “using a word processing application on the interactive whiteboard while conducting a discussion with the class”.
The UNESCO document is typical of the sort of useless verbage that Becta used to churn out. They may well have provided work to armies of bureaucrats and consultants but, after more than a decade of use, there is no evidence that they deliver any practical benefits to teaching and learning.
Encourage formal (CPD framework) and informal (peer guidance, self-organising “TeachMeets”, even student-led instruction) initiatives to help teaching staff develop their use of learning technologies.
It is a well-established orthodoxy within the ICT community that road to the better use of education technology lies through the development of better practice by teachers; and that the way to achieve better practice is through better teacher training and Continuing Professional Development (CPD). It is a plausible and popular theory (particularly amongst trainers and CPD consultants) and I do not dispute that the Naace/ALT’s third recommendation is consistent with the views expressed during the online discussion.
The problem is that the recommendation does not offer any answer to the question posed by Michael Gove or by the title of the Naace/ALT report: it does not suggest how technology should be used to achieve better learning. In proposing that teaching staff should be encouraged to develop their use of learning technology, is assumes that we already know what such productive use of technology looks like. This was the assertion made by Becta in its Next Generation Learning PR campaign, run between 2008 and 2010, that 20% of schools were already using technology productively and that all that was required was for this good practice to be disseminated amongst the 80% who were not. The message was consistent with the interests of Becta, which saw itself as the chief disseminator of the good news, but was never supported by convincing evidence to show productive use of ICT by the 20%. Many in the ICT community argued that it was unreasonable to ask for statistically significant evidence of improvement—but the possibility of making statistically significant improvements to educational outcomes is demonstrated, not only by many of the UK’S international competitors, who beat the UK with increasing ease in the PISA rankings, but also by the dramatic improvements recorded by the use of traditional teaching methods in many of Michael Gove’s new academies–.
It is the contention of this blog that, at a pragmatic level, the emphasis on teacher training is mistaken; that a decade of successive CPD initiatives and endless TeachMeets have had no significant impact on improving teaching and learning; and that what we need is not the better use of technology, but better, more appropriate technology. However, this is not the place in which to further this particular argument.
New partnerships between schools, teachers, industry and volunteers to make the educational technology marketplace work better
The fourth recommendation combines two separate points:
- the perception that the education marketplace is not working well;
- that the solution to this problem lies in different kinds of partnership, between “schools, teachers, industry and volunteers”.
It is a central contention of this blog that one of the chief reasons why we do not have the right kinds of technology for education lies in the failure to create an open, innovative marketplace that would allow technology users (principally teachers) to drive the supply of technology products. I am pleased that many of these arguments were summarised (even if a little lopsidedly) in a list of four bullet points in the middle of section 2.1.
While drawing attention to the problems, the body of the report does not propose any solutions to this market failure. It is only in the fourth recommendation that, in a single enigmatic phrase, “partnerships” are suggested. It strikes me as a bizarre solution as the market is essentially about competition and partnerships are essentially about collaboration—and these are two contrary principles.
The only explanation that I can give of how the authors of the report traced a path from “market failure” to “partnerships” is through an inconsequential game of Chinese whispers. The market is something to do with industry and there are several different types of industry, or at least different types of relationship between industry and education. There is:
- the industry that develops products specifically for education, which depends for its revenues on its sales to education, and from which any education-specific innovations must originate;
- the industry that supplies to education generic products developed primarily for other markets, which depends on those horizontal markets for its principal revenues and which therefore regards education as one small market in a much wider landscape;
- the industry which looks to education to provide it with a suitably skilled workforce—maybe contributing directly to bringing on that workforce by developing curricula, apprenticeships, work experience or funding;
- the industry that views education primarily as an object of philanthropy and source of positive PR.
Although both of the first two relationships are mediated by competitive marketplaces, the failure of the marketplace for education technology relates almost entirely to the first: if a school does not like the provisions made by the education establishment for the provision of computer hardware, operating systems or generic software, it can always find these goods on the open market instead.
The last two relationships are mediated not by competitive markets but by collaborative partnerships—and it is these relationships which participants in the online discussion almost always had in mind when they discussed “the industry”. The term was mentioned 60-70 times in the online discussion and the following extracts give a representative sample of the senses in which it was used:Delivering a curriculum which has…clearly defined routes into employment in multiple areas of industry (Brian Sharland). I have strong connections with other industry specialists, and I hope to get many of them on board with [my] project (Andrew Hook). Give ICT teachers secondments in industry (Simon). [Provide] a tax incentive fund to allow industry experts “real” artists, scientists, coders, linguists etc to work alongside teachers and parents at schools as a form of sabbatical to build authentic projects in schools whereby the usual curriculum is suspended (Leon Cych). Let’s put industry experts in schools to evaluate where learning is at and to help teachers update their skills (Ellen Ferguson). Industry could offer a series of programming competitions for real world problems that engage all types of learners (Terri Kinnison).
Many of these comments offer useful suggestions for improving the teaching of ICT in schools and its relevance to the needs of employers. But, other than in my own posts, the term is hardly ever used in the sense of “the industry” as a supplier of education technology products to schools. When the term is used in that context (which is only a couple of times), it is to say that industry should not over-market to schools– and that it should provide to education the products that teachers ask for–. The idea that the industry might be able to surprise the teaching profession with innovative products (as Steve Jobs surprised the world with the iPhone and iPad) or the idea that the relationship between teachers and industry might be governed by a competitive market, are both completely absent from the discussion (other than in my own contributions).
This is the only, somewhat twisted logic I can suggest for recommendation 4: the market is the interface to industry; industry provides sponsorship opportunities, expertise, secondments and work placements; these contacts involve collaborative partnerships with the ed-tech community; collaboration is a good thing; the ed-tech community and the right sort of teachers should be the ones who drive practice; therefore any deficiencies in the market will be resolved by ensuring that industry acts through more general, collaborative partnerships with the ed-tech community.
If this model was ever intended to apply to the market for education technology, the missing link in its fanciful vision is Becta, which in the old days listened respectfully to the ed-tech community, wrote up their ideas in the form of unwieldy and incoherent procurement specifications and backed those specifications with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. It was these millions that caught the attention of the industry, not the opportunity to consult the advocates of a technology-enhanced curriculum.
Needless to say, what we need (and what eventually we are going to get now that the wasteful government programmes are being closed down) is exactly the opposite of the Naace/ALT recommendation: a market in which industry (consulting ed-tech experts only so far as industry deems useful) is free to develop the products that it thinks will appeal to the subject-specialist teachers responsible for teaching the curriculum; a curriculum that is developed by responsible government agencies, universities and exam boards and not ICT teachers or technology enthusiasts.
New forms of assessment tailored to technology enhanced curriculum and teaching
This would be an interesting and commendable recommendation if it were pointing to the untapped potential of technology to improve diagnostic, formative and summative assessment, linking the data that such assessments produce with better learning management systems, learning analytics systems and intelligent tutoring systems. But it isn’t.
As the body of the report and the online discussion makes clear, this recommendation is making broadly the same point as is implied by recommendation 1: that the priorities of subject-specialist teachers must be artificially manipulated by imposing on them an assessment regime which gives special weight to the requirement that students should be able to use ICT. The primary argument is not that technology can improve assessment, but that if students are not required to demonstrate their technical skills in the assessment of other subjects, then the teachers of those subjects will not be incentivised to embed the teaching of technology in their own classrooms: “Without major changes to the assessment regimes the use of technology to support learning will tend always to take a back seat” (BLTT page 13).
What conclusions should we draw and how can we now move forwards again?
The education technology community was given an opportunity by Michael Gove to join “a serious, intelligent conversation about how technology will transform education”; and the community flunked it. The process was flawed and the participants were already committed to a set of views that are muddled, unrealistic, heavily politicised, and that have already been shown to have failed. In spite of this contrary evidence, the community remains convinced that it is right, intolerant of criticism, and appears to avoid reasoned debate.
Joe Nutt painted a picture of “vacuous rhetoric” produced by “techno-zealots” and “gurus” who exercise undue control over industry. This was dismissed as the “paranoid” views of a “conspiracy theorist”, made in “starkly caricatured terms”. Yet the recommendations made by the Naace/ALT report suggest that Joe Nutt’s account came pretty close to the mark. The report recommends the introduction of a new technology-enhanced curriculum that would revolutionise the aims of education, which should be imposed on technophobic teachers through a reformed assessment system, and that the industry, instead of being given the freedom to innovate through a competitive marketplace, should act on the direction of the right sort of teachers and enthusiasts.
The reason why it is worth blogging at such length about the Naace/ALT report is not that anyone is likely to take these recommendations seriously: I suspect that they have already sunk without trace. The pity of the situation lies in the wasted opportunity, the failure to provide a compelling case for education technology when the Secretary of State asked for one, and the fact that many individually good ideas end up being discredited by a lack of refinement or any coherent, overall strategy.
I suggest that we need to go in a direction very different to that suggested by Naace and ALT. We need fewer government-led consultations, fewer bureaucratic frameworks, fewer supply-side initiatives, fewer partnerships that give a privileged place to self-appointed volunteers, less vacuous rhetoric about authentic learning, revolutionary curricula, and new ways of understanding the meaning of knowledge. It will be sufficient (as well as necessary) to provide convincing evidence that technology can be used reliably to improve the ability of the education system to achieve the aims that are and will continue to be defined by its various consumers and administrators (parents, government, employers, universities and exam boards).
To make the case that such an objective is attainable, we need to restart the discussion in a different way: in a way that will produce coherent, workable recommendations as a result of genuine debate and scrutiny. Instead of being suppressed, disagreement should be welcomed as evidence that participants have intellectual integrity and the process has intellectual rigour. The cause of disagreement needs to be investigated through constructive, rational, evidence-based debate. A much wider group of participants need to be engaged, giving particular emphasis to those organisations that represent important interests and expertise within the current system. Terminology must be defined in ways which discriminate clearly between different concepts and which as far as possible avoid both pejorative and positively spun language.
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—we need to establish realistic expectations about where such a debate might lead. Where it will not lead is to the overturning of our curriculum, whether by a revolutionary cadre running after-school clubs or by the impositions of central government. Where I hope it will lead is to more open, flexible and informed markets: markets for ed-tech hardware (such as whiteboards and clickers), markets for ed-tech software, markets for training, information and advice. In every case, those markets will be governed by interactions between suppliers on the one hand and consumers on the other.
In the context of a new market economy, the role of the renewed debate that I am advocating will not be to steer the market but to create and to help to energise that market, stimulating sometimes contradictory user demand and inspiring equally diverse supplier innovations. If different parts of the community choose to emphasise different visions and benefits, this should be welcomed:
- the clash of conflicting ideas will normally help to hone both sides of the argument;
- in a sector with diverse requirements and aspirations, there may well be a place for diferent views;
- as different positions are developed, it may well be found that they are complementary and synergistic and not antagonistic;
- the clash between different intellectual positions will help stimulate the competition between different products on which an open and innovative market depends.
It is time that the ed-tech community stopped shying away from a healthy and constructive competition of ideas—that is what “serious and intelligent conversation” is about. It should become more questioning of its own orthodoxies, less deferential towards a body of academic literature that is often of dubious quality, and more critical of so-called research evidence. Instead of endless consensual, positive tail-wagging, we all need to become more comfortable with a bit of honest barking.
– Many thinkers have equated the position of the private citizen with orthodox views with the position of a tyrant surrounded by flatterers. For example, John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, points out that when “unanimity recurs…Fear and flattery then change votes into acclamation; deliberation ceases, and only worship or malediction is left”. It is for this reason that debate should always be welcomed, even with opinions held only by tiny minorities.
– “In the UK the government agency Becta collected data over several years, which showed continual progress in the access and use of technology, and a gradual shift towards “enthusiastic” and “e-enabled” use, but these are also essentially input parameters measuring changes in self-description by schools and colleges, rather than effectiveness”. Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a Design Science, p.83, Routledge,
– Sir Ken Robinson’s video attacks the pattern whereby “Schools are still pretty much organized along factory lines…specialized into separate subjects” and suggests the whole curriculum reflects “the intellectual culture of the enlightenment”, which was “conceived and structured for a different age”. Graham Brown-Martin, founder of Learning Without Frontiers, argues in a post to the ICTRN network that “My guess is that DfE will doggedly pursue it’s obsession with a fact-based curriculum and that it will become increasingly irrelevant to learning whilst young people learn more and more relevant skills in after schools clubs funded by industry.”.
– Of course neither Joe Nutt, nor Dr Geraint D’Arcy and I who both supported Joe’s post, are techno-sceptics: we all support (in my case at least, passionately) the appropriate use of technology to improve education: we just disagree with Bob Harrison about how this should be done. While “techno-sceptic” is no more pejorative than “techno-zealot”, the important difference lies in the fact that “techno-sceptic” is misleading in a way that “techno-zealot” is not. Its use in this context tends to discredit an opponent’s position by misrepresenting it. The intentional use of such a tactic shows a lack of integrity, while unintentional misrepresentations quickly come out in the wash during an honest debate. This is another reason why the unwillingness of people like Bob Harrison to engage in such debate is so regrettable.
– Leon Cych argued for “a tax incentive fund to allow industry experts “real” artists, scientists, coders, linguists etc to work alongside teachers and parents at schools as a form of sabbatical to build authentic projects in schools whereby the usual curriculum is suspended”. While I do not think the word “authentic” is helpful in this context, and I do not think that the proposed projects need necessarily involve ICT, I think Leon’s proposal is an interesting one. Although my assessment of the BLTT consultation as a whole is critical, I believe that there were many good proposals made by people who may come from different perspectives to my own and I hope that these would receive more attention in the course of the fuller debate that I am advocating.
– The fourth comment, questioning the concept of embedding was from Dr Geraint D’Arcy, who argued against the majority position, on the grounds that “Why should we find ways to embed technology into learning when sometimes the uncomplicated technology that exists is suitable?” He received no answer.
– See http://www.utcolleges.org/media/19526/a4%20utc%20brochure.pdf, page 16.
– Leon Cych made the same comparison (the meaning and utility of which I question above) between skills and competencies: “rather than skills there needs to be a set of professional competencies” (http://schoolstech.org.uk/stimulus-questions/theme3-teacher-skills-role-1/).
– For example Birmingham school Perry Beeches, celebrated by Michael Gove in his 2012 Conservative Party Conference, has raised the rate at which its students achieve 5 A-C GCSE grades (including Maths and English) from 21% to 74% over 4 years (see http://www.perrybs.bham.sch.uk/index.php/welcome/head-teachers-message). Other academies in disadvantaged areas have managed to record similarly dramatic improvements.
– “This year’s BETT was marked by some balanced, passionate and articulate discussion between those from the teacher/practitioner side and those from the industry. Sensible discussion about the role of industry, the desire of teachers to avoid being over-marketed to, and the recognition that there are balances to be struck.” Tony Parkin. The concept of striking a balance between industry and teachers suggests a zero-sum game.
– “Educators know best how to inspire learners and by working closely with schools, industry will be able to create content and tools that schools will want to use”. Kevin McLaughlin.