Citizen Science & the Internet of Things

citizenscientists1Since the release of the book which, apart from occasional stock shortages, has gone really well I’ve been spending my time presenting findings from the project at various events around the world, mentoring a number of really interesting start-ups in Vietnam and the UK, developing ideas for my next book and working on a number of consulting engagements.


My next book, when I have figured out how to finance and publish it, will start where Learning {Re}imagined ended. It will consider some of the challenges that we as a society already know that our children and their children will encounter during this century. Rather than flying cars, interactive watches and an increasingly digital world the things I’m thinking of are population, climate change, antibiotic resistance, environment, ideology and increased urbanisation. But more than simply identifying the challenges I’m going to explore the kinds of projects and people that make me optimistic about our future chances as a species.


It was with this outlook I was introduced to a project lead by London’s former Deputy Mayor, Nicky Gavron. Nicky, it could be said, is a force of nature, a person who has made a career out of an obsession with grassroots community activism to improve the lives of Londoners and potentially the populations of other urban cities. Amongst many achievements Nicky has lead London’s response to climate change, she introduced policies and programmes to reduce C02 emissions across energy, water, waste and transport. Her initiatives include establishing the London Climate Change Agency and the C40: Large Cities Climate Leadership Group.


Nicky’s challenge to me was how can we encourage grassroots community awareness of key urban issues in the creation of smart cities. Specifically how could we empower communities to engage in the discourse around the design of their urban environment? How do we engage them in the policy discussions around transportation, energy, sustainability, health and well-being? If we’re going to design smart cities then surely it must be smart communities of smart citizens who build them.


It was with this in mind that I embarked on designing a learning experience that will be piloted during March and April this year in schools in Lambeth with a cohort of up to 50 children age 9-11, their parents/carers, their teachers and members of the local community.


citizenscientist2We hear a lot these days about STEM, STEAM and the importance of engaging young people in learning science. We also hear a lot about computer science and learning coding. We hear a lot about making. We hear a lot about parental engagement in their child’s learning. We hear a lot about flipped classrooms. You get the picture.


So in Lambeth this month and next I will be working with Nicky and colleagues to provide a cohort of children, parents and community members with a collection of internet connected sensors and activity trackers. The idea is that we will use these devices as part of the Internet of Things to conduct experiments that encourage conversations and deeper learning as a result of experiences and multi-generational participation. We also hope that it may embed some knowledge and thinking about some vital urban issues and we want to do this by co-discovery engaging all of the participants.


Over the course of the pilot we will be distributing 30 low cost, Arduino-based, air quality sensors to families in Lambeth with instructions on how to install them at home and connect them to the Internet. The sensors consist of a base station which connects to the household broadband router and a remote sensor that detects changes in air temperature, humidity, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO). We chose Arduino because I’m familiar with the coding environment and I can perform any necessary calibration in situ by uploading sketches. These sensors will be used in tandem with a number of more expensive sensor devices provided by project partner, Intel Collaborative Research Institute (ICRI).


The installation of so many air quality sensors in a relatively small catchment area provides us with a unique opportunity for the children to consider and learn about the air quality around the school and the routes to and from it. The data from these sensors feeds a central website that will inform conversations that we will encourage with the children in school time. It provides a chance to think about and discuss possible reasons for different air quality readings from different locations and circumstances such as weather, temperature and traffic density. The quality and accuracy of the data from these sensors won’t be to the same standard of the devices that cost about the same as a small car but they will provide a contextual hub that will inform learning that travels across the curriculum effectively catalysing new conversation, explorations and learnings. More importantly the child and their family will own the device that provides open public data to the rest of the world.


Thus we are flipping the science laboratory where the experiment and measurements are occurring at home but monitored from anywhere over the internet and discussed at school with their co-learners.


Each child’s parent/carer will be provided with a wearable activity tracker that comes with free apps for Apple or Android smart phones owned by the parent. The data is anonymised and fed into another central website that can be studied at school. This will allow the child to study their parents walking activity and dietary impact against this activity then make comparisons and consider reasons. The objective of this experiment will be for the children to study their parents attitude and behaviour to walking when it is being quantified.


citizenscientist3It may be, for example, that air quality around their school might improve if more people walked rather than use their cars for short journeys of less than 1 mile. But might there be other benefits to walking? By flipping the science lab, we’re encouraging the children to become “Citizen Scientists”. We hope that they will engage with the design and creation of experiments with their parents to learn more about their environment and participate in decisions about it. We also think there’s a lot of fun to be had in this activity and that the experiential nature of it will embed the knowledge and understanding that they will discover together with their co-learners, parents and teachers. We wonder if this understanding will inform future behaviour and decision making at the community level.


Of course, all of this might not work but that’s the thing about science and innovation, failure is always an option. Besides, if we can encourage new conversations with the children around some of these important subjects whilst at the same time engage them in science practice, I’ll take that as a win!


If your school or city borough whether you are in London, New York or Beijing would like to get involved in this programme then please get in touch. It’s not a free programme but you will be part of a new movement that empowers communities to make smart decisions about their environment.


I’ll update this blog in a month or so and let you know how we get on but in the meantime please feel welcome to follow me on twitter via @GrahamBM and in the meantime you can follow my air quality sensor here.


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


Sugata Mitra – Education and Empire

Famed for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments with children and computers in slum districts in India, winner of the $1 million TED Prize, proponent of emergent learning theory and advocate of self organising learning environments (SOLE), Sugata Mitra has successfully challenged what many of us think we know about learning and technology. Not for him, the suggestion that we use technology to simply reinforce the teaching practices of the last century nor should it be used to simply replace the teaching profession. Mitra seeks a complete rebooting of our educational systems to reflect the information infrastructure that todays children are born into.


On the day of the launch of the Learning {Re}imagined book I wanted to share this excerpt from my interview with him where in 5 minutes he succinctly describes how we arrived at where we are and why we need nothing less than a total transformation in the way we approach learning, teaching and assessment.


He tells me:


Coming back to technology. Now paper becomes cheap, pencils become really cheap, so now you can have all that in the hands of children. Books become really cheap. You can give them to children. The teacher’s role starts to change. Then comes technology and to my surprise, technology was allowed inside the examination hall. You were allowed to use paper. You were allowed to use pencils. You were allowed to use rulers, straight edge, set squares, protractors, compass. Everything that the last generation used for solving real world problems were available to the person being examined.


Somewhere along the line, we seemed to have lost sight of it. We have come to this ridiculous situation of saying, only the past technology is allowed still, but nothing more than that. We went up to the point where we said, logarithm tables and slide rules are allowed, but then we stopped. We stopped at the calculator most of the time and when it came to the Internet, we said, not at all. I wonder sometimes if I were to go back a hundred years to the Victorians and show them our world, what if those same Victorians were to say, well why on earth aren’t you allowing all this inside the examination hall? How are you going to test them for their real world skills?”


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


Technology as a “Sat Nav” for learning?

Digital learning entrepreneur Donald Clark is someone that I find myself often in complete agreement with, or in fierce opposition, but always entertained. On the board of numerous e-learning organisations he is a bonafide contrarian, regular speaker at conferences, and a prolific blogger.


I’ve known Donald for nearly 30 years as we both ran digital design companies that produced learning materials since the 1980s when “new media” was genuinely new and came in the form of 12″ Laserdiscs. It has to be said that he was a more shrewd businessman than I and by focusing his attentions on the corporate training market while I decided to go and disrupt the music industry he made a tidy return when he sold his company, Epic Group, in 2005. He has won numerous awards for the design and implementation of e-learning, winning the ‘Outstanding Achievement in e-learning Award’ at the World of Learning Conference (WOLCE).


I met with Donald at the WISE Summit last year and asked him why he thought digital platforms had not made as much progress within our educations systems compared to their impact in other sectors. His position is that higher education and schools are resting on their laurels and tradition rather than embracing the future. Here’s a short excerpt from our conversation:



gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


Malcolm McLaren on Learning and Technology

Malcolm McLaren, artist, innovator and provocateur, former manager of the once notorious punk rock band The Sex Pistols, passed away on April 8th 2010. One of the last public speeches he gave was to an audience of educators and technologists at a conference series that I curated for more than 7 years.


Whilst looking through my archives I happened once again upon his talk that is in equal parts challenging, biographical and thought-provoking. If you have an hour to spend to watch theentire talk I recommend it but only if you don’t mind language that some consider risqué or adult themed. It is however the last 5 minutes of the talk where I think Malcolm really nails it in regard to the debate around how we use technology for learning.


He says:

“Technology has unquestionably put something else in its place. But it’s not used necessarily correctly. If you can use technology to rediscover the idea of a flaneur, the idea of the romantic notion of learning for learning’s sake, the idea of art of art’s sake not career then maybe. Because information is accessible now, of course, and at extremely low cost, of course. Everyone knows that. We can’t fall into the trap that you can just flit around online. Use the internet and technology to discover new ideas maybe, be a virtual flaneur maybe, debate, go further and deeper maybe.



Don’t take information for granted just because it’s free. One did at school and we learned back in the fifties that the UK was a nation of liars and simply taught a culture of deception. Use technology in the right way, don’t become a slave to it. That is don’t become so reliant on it that you can’t calculate or read a map, because how do you know then to turn left rather than turn right? How do you know how to even spot a lie? Use technology as a tool just like a pencil for learning. It’s not a replacement for applied learning basically, it’s not a replacement either for experience. That’s it.”



Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


Keri Facer – What do parents want?

Over the next few weeks whilst I finalise the digital resources and complete the coding for the app that supports the Learning {Re}imagined book (officially launching in October!) I’m going to tease and tantalise you with snippets and excerpts from the material that I and my photographic colleagues, Newsha Tavakalion and Raphael Yaghobzadeh, recorded on our recent global tour.


These last months I’ve been having a wonderful time re-tracing my steps going through more than 50 hours of video and audio recordings and thousands of photographs. This material has been percolated into the book that stands at nearly 350 pages of visual loveliness that comes with a free downloadable app (iOS and Android) providing exclusive access to more than 4 hours of video and audio recordings in the form of a digital cloud that sits above the printed page.


So while you’re waiting for the book (come back to this site in a week or two to find out how you can pre-order an exclusive hard back collectors edition) here’s an excerpt from my interview with Professor Keri Facer, Educational and Social Futures, University of Bristol and hear what she has to say about what she thinks parents really want from schools when they talk about qualifications.



Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


Sunday Times Education Festival

wellingtonIn between writing, video editing and app programming I have been popping up at various conferences and gatherings to talk about the journey that I took as part of the Learning {RE}imagined project.


This weekend I was invited to Kinnernet Europe that was held in the 12th century city of Avallon in the Burgundy district of France. Describing itself as an “Imagination Festival”, Kinnernet is an invitation only unconference that reads like a who’s who of European innovators.


During the first week of July I will be in Sydney, Australia where I have been invited to present the opening keynote at the Slide2Learn conference.


On Friday June 20th I will be in England giving a talk at the Sunday Times Education Festival hosted at the rather splendid Wellington College.


Russell Prue, who has created the radio station for the festival, interviewed me in advance and this is what I had to say.

If you would like me to speak at a conference or broadcast please get in touch


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.

Jake Davis

Digital Activism – Jake Davis

You cannot arrest an idea


Jake Davis


LulzSecOn July 27th 2011, Jake Davis was visited at his home in the Shetland Islands, a remote archipelago of Scotland that lie north-east of mainland Britain, by 6 police officers from London and arrested. Aged 18, Jake was accused and subsequently charged with a number of offences including unauthorised computer access and conspiracy to carry out a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack on the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency’s website.


Jake, as it transpired, had been playing with online activist groups including Anonymous and LulzSec, the latter being more akin to a team of digital pranksters sailing the waves of cyberspace rather than the kind of cyber-terrorists that certain parts of the media would have the public believe.


Under his online pseudonym , “Topiary” (@atopiary on Twitter), Jake came to prominence amongst the hacker community after participating in a live radio phone-in discussion with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church whilst their site was hacked and replaced with a message from Anonymous. The Westboro Baptist Church is widely recognised as a “hate group” for its extreme ideologies especially against the gay community as well as picketing the funerals of children and US military personnel. In this regard, whilst illegal in terms of the law, the live hack of the web site could be regarded as an act of protest within the digital domain against the proliferation of online hate speech.

According to Davis, LulzSec was formed during a moment of boredom within an online chat room with fellow users none of whom had met in the physical world nor knew each others real identity. The groups objective was initially to rail against what they saw as the absurdity of online marketing by using the digital world against itself. They launched a number of notable campaigns including the exposure of Sony Playstation’s lack of security for users confidential information, posting a fictitious story on the PBS site about rapper Tupac Shakur being found alive in New Zealand and hacking the site of The Sun newspaper in the UK where they posted a spoof story suggesting that its owner, Rupert Murdoch, had taken his own life as a result of the “phone hacking scandal” that had implicated his own organisation.


Each successful campaign brought the LulzSec group notoriety across global mass-media and, as if to prove the point about digital marketing, their @LulzSec Twitter account managed by Jake Davis accumulated more than 400,000 followers. Legality aside one can only admire the chutzpah of a group of teenagers using their laptops to create mischief within a digital world barely understood by their parents generation.


LulzSec only lasted a matter of months before the arrest of Davis but already there was disagreement within the amorphous group with the suggestion that government hired hackers had infiltrated the group to encourage less whimsical campaigns and more carnage.


After his arrest Jake was banned from using the internet for 2 years, wore a location tagging device that enforced a curfew and was sentenced to 37 days in Feltham Young Offenders Institute, a prison more commonly used to accommodate young people with a history of committing violent crime or narcotic distribution.


The inclusion of my interview with Jake Davis within a book about learning in a connected world is to give voice to the kind of learner whom we almost never hear from in the discourse about education particularly when we discuss digital. So often the young people of Jakes generation are described as apathetic and disengaged from the society around them. Whilst western nations describe the transformative effect of digital platforms within emerging democracies and, for example, the “Arab Spring” the flip side is that they are not prepared for protest or even pranks within the emergent digital economy. The brightest minds of Jakes generation are now actively nurtured and recruited by our respective intelligence agencies to commit acts of espionage and civil surveillance on behalf of their nations. So by interviewing Jake I wanted to understand more about the world in which current and future generations are expected to grow and demonstrate dissent.


My full interview with Jake will be published in the Learning {RE}imagined book later this year but in the meantime here is a short clip where Jake describes his experiences of schools that lead him to cyberspace.



Further viewing – Courtesy of BBC Newsnight



Digital Learning : Tailored or Taylored?


The message I’m trying to send is that technology is political, and that many decisions that look like decisions about technology actually are not at all about technology – they are about politics, and they need to be scrutinized as closely as we would scrutinize decisions about politics.


Evgeny Morozov


They say a week is a long time in politics and the past week has been quite a big one for the UK government who have played not one but two cards in a recent initiative to demonstrate their belief in the role of technology in education.


In one initiative, the Year of Code, the government has positioned technology as an outcome of learning rather than enabler. Although to be fair, it’s not entirely clear what they have demonstrated beyond a woeful misunderstanding of the subject.


The initiatives director, Lottie Dexter, was thrown into the spotlight, like a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter, to explain the project on national television only to expose that she really didn’t know anything about computer programming beyond her scripted conviction that it was now an essential skill like reading and writing. It was regarded by many as car crash TV that also revealed that the, government influenced, committee of yes people behind the initiative also had next to no knowledge of the subject. Fast forward to 5:24 in the video below.



The second initiative, the Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG), seems more promising. A committee of the usual suspects and educational technology evangelists chaired by respected educationalist Stephen Heppell. Set up by UK government ministers Michael Gove, Matthew Hancock and David Willets with the brief


to identify barriers to the growth of technology that have been put in place (inadvertently or otherwise) by the Government, as well as thinking about ways that these barriers can be broken down.


For a government that entered parliament with the mission to close quango’s it is now on a mission to create as many as possible within its own image.


What could have happened to engender this about face and commitment to technology for learning?


Could it be as, open data designer, Adrian Short suggests, a demonstration of the administrations “neoliberal agenda” that calls for economic liberalizations, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and enhancing the role of the private sector in modern society?


Matthew Hancock MPMy concerns were raised initially by a speech given by UK skills minister Matthew Hancock at a private event in March 2013 to launch an EdTech incubator where he showed scant understanding of the education sector but a good nose for potential business growth which, after all, is his job.


Since then having garnered the support of EdTech start-ups looking for the door marked entry Mr Hancock has grown bolder in his statements. By December 2013 he was going on the record announcing his governments plans for teachers to “take a backseat in the imparting of knowledge”.


This was followed by a speech at the recent BETT EdTech trade show held in London where he said “An algorithm then takes that data, and works out how each child could learn more”.


It’s quite possible that Mr Hancock might have been using a standard issue government algorithm for speech writing given that in 2005, Ruth Kelly, Labour’s Education Secretary said “And in the future it will be more than simply a storage place – a digital space that is personalised, that remembers what the learner is interested in and suggests relevant web sites, or alerts them to courses and learning opportunities that fit their needs.”


Which brings us to these algorithms that are going to enable teachers to take a back seat and for “Technology” to decide what and how much your child can learn. I’m curious about who will own these algorithms, who will write them, how they will work and how they are biased. I say biased because as we should know by now algorithms aren’t neutral, they are designed and written by people, i.e. they are mediated. Suggesting they aren’t biased is like saying newspapers like the Daily Mail or The New York Times aren’t biased. Of course they are.


We know that digital platforms offer the most amazing possibilities for learning and that isn’t the question here. My book and digital resources for Learning {RE}imagined will document many interesting digital deployments for learning from 5 continents. The question relates to the point that writer Evegny Morozov makes in the opening quote of this post that technology is far from neutral, it is political.


In the early 1900’s the American engineer and management consultant Frederick Taylor in a desire to improve industrial efficiency conceived the “scientific management” approach to manufacturing. The underpinning of scientific management is the disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill set. Its objective was the transformation of craft production into mass production. Whilst Taylor’s management theory were largely obsolete by the 1930’s most of its themes are still important parts of industrial management thinking.


In particular, Taylor’s management approach fetishised data which was collected at numerous points during the manufacturing process that could be used by management to determine what steps to take to improve efficiency. Taylorism, therefore, was probably one of the first attempts to use at the turn of the 19th century that which today we call “Big Data”.


The problem with all this data is that we arrive at what French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard, suggested when he wrote in his work , Simulcra and Simulations, “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning”. What he means here is that the data tells us what is happening but not why it’s happening.


Stephen_HeppellWhen I discussed some of my concerns with Stephen Heppell he told me that it would be important for educators to remain vigilant in the face of these prospects and, of course, he is right. We need to make sure that digital platforms for learning are not appropriated within a political tactic to introduce Taylorism into our education systems. That is, we shouldn’t believe that technology is an opportunity to de-skill and de-professionalise the teaching profession, to remove the craft of teaching in order to achieve the efficient manufacturing of children to a set of industrialised test standards.


Understanding as we do that algorithms and technology aren’t neutral, that technology isn’t as, suggested by Noam Chomsky, simply a tool like a hammer we should remember that simply a love for technology itself doesn’t breed change. We must, as Heppell suggests, be vigilant and we must, as Morozov implores, scrutinise technological decisions as we would the political.


It seems common today for our techno determinists, evangelists and festishists to simply reject all criticism as being anti-technological & anti-modern but this is unhealthy and stifles an important discourse around the deployment of digital platforms within our education systems. Ironically, the stifling of this debate could mean that technology continues to have little or no transformative effect on learning rather it becomes a management tool for enforcing 19th century ideas about schooling.


“They’ll have that repeated forty or fifty times more before they wake; then again on Thursday, and again on Saturday. A hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months. After which they go on to a more advanced lesson.”


“Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions!


Aldous Huxley – Brave New World


Further reading


Silicon Valley – Open Up (Algorithmic Bias)
Evegny Morozov



School Britannia

The United Kingdom was, of course, home ground for me. Having curated and hosted one of the worlds largest summits about learning, technology and creativity for the past 7 years in this country I felt that the pressure was on for me to bring together a challenging cohort of thought leaders and a case study.


Our journey in the UK took us from London to Bristol then on to Cambridge, Bolton and Newcastle.


Makie DollWe kicked off in my old stomping ground of Shoreditch famed for its “Silicon Roundabout”, the digital heart of London and home to some of the most exciting start-ups in UK digital. We caught up with Alice Taylor, formerly a commissioning editor for education and television station, Channel 4, now founder of Makie Lab. Makie Lab brings together Alice’s interests in education and entertainment with the latest in 3D printing technology that provides a consumer platform that allows young (and not so young) designers to create their own action figures online and then have Makie Lab make them with their 3D printers. This novel approach allows people to have a go at making with 3D printing without having to purchase a professional 3D printer and learn any complex design software. Alice see’s a convergence occurring between a re-emergence of interest in “making”, digital fluency amongst young people, the sharing of 3D data and consumer priced 3D printers. In a world of mass production where every looks the same people want difference and authenticity. 


Whilst the physical economy has began to shrink as a result of a shift to the digital economy, i.e. atoms to bits, we’re beginning to see a rebound of bits to atoms – a new renaissance of the physical economy perhaps? Certainly we are beginning to see a desire in retail for authenticity and the physical whether it’s amongst a renewed popularity for craft fairs or farmers markets. A generation of young people growing up fluent with 3D world and object builders such as Minecraft then many are already equipped to design in 3D. But there are also now free versions of advanced 3D design software available for Autodesk and Google that output to low-cost 3D printing devices. The 3D printer would seem to be an ideal tool to add alongside a lathe or potters wheel in any modern school. Perhaps we will also see a growth in the “fab lab” model where maker labs that include 3D printing and other personal manufacturing technologies will appear like the making equivalent of gyms with high-end equipment available for use by the public overseen by specialists. In this world everybody would have the chance to create something then get it made by the “factory in the cloud”.


Alan O'DonohueContinuing with the theme of making we met with Alan O’Donohue, teacher and founder of Raspberry Jam – a self-organising group of enthusiasts for the low cost Raspberry Pi computer who meet regularly in many parts of the UK and now overseas to share their work and learn from each other. Alan tells me that Raspbery Jam is like the computer clubs he was part of when he was a kid where people of all ages and backgrounds came together to show what they’ve done or help newbies get started. The point, he tells me, is to share and learn together and the open source nature of the Raspberry Pi tends to encourage a high level of openness and willingness to share. Alan is an incredibly energetic and passionate teacher who decided to stop teaching Powerpoint to teach computing. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that every kid must be able to code but does believe that every kid should have the opportunity to have a go. Alan tells me that it’s not just about coding but also to help kids understand what’s in their smartphone or tablet as well as being able to develop problem solving skills and computational thinking.


Clive BealeWe headed to Cambridge to the headquarters of Raspberry Pi in Cambridge to meet with their Education Director, Clive Beale. Coincidently, or maybe not, Raspberry Pi occupy the same office building as Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Acorn Computers the creators of the BBC Micro that kick started massive interest in computer programming amongst young people in the UK during the 1980’s. As a result of this in a rapidly growing personal computer sector the UK took the lead in video game design. Alas, like many things where the UK initially took a lead a lack of investment and vision meant that its leadership was short-lived and its talent pool much reduced as focus shifted from creating to consuming computing from computer science to ICT.


Since Bletchley Park (my birth place) and Turing to the BBC Micro and Tim Berners-Lee the UK has had an enviable lead in computing so how did we lose the plot?


It was pretty simple really and we can already see it happening again in mobile and other technologies. Our policy makers would cosy up with the large vendors of computing platforms that essentially had set up sales and marketing offices within the UK. Not practicing any actual development work in the UK these vendors had no interest in hiring local development talent so when asked by policy wonks to advise on UK strategy for IT they sagely responded that people with ICT office skills were what the country needed if only to fulfil the vision of the future using their applications which they had been peddling. So, as they say, mission accomplished, the UK became a nation of office workers, Powerpoint somnambulists and spreadsheet jockeys. And then they ask where’s the UK equivalent of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, etc? Cue “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson.


So Raspberry Pi is a valiant attempt to stall that strategy in its tracks and re-engage the population with what happens under the hood of a computer. Ever wondered how your tablet computer worked? Well you can just make one with Raspberry Pi at its heart. Want to make an outdoor automated camera system to see who’s stealing the nuts you put out for the birds? Build one with Raspberry Pi.


Cheap enough to lose, the Raspberry Pi is no more than $35 wherever you are in the world, it is a flexible, low powered, decently spec’d computer for us to explore the digital world with and I don’t just mean surfing the web or updating your Facebook profile.


When Raspberry Pi was introduced it was thought that the total market was just 10,000 units so that’s how many were made. They sold out in less than an hour online and Raspberry Pi has since shifted 1.6 million units in one year with no sign of things slowing down.


Now it has to be said that a large proportion of these Pi’s have gone to middle-aged geeks like me but the Raspberry Pi Foundation are now taking steps to assist schools and teachers to get to grips with the device and will shortly be publishing a series of online how-to’s, projects and lesson plans which are sure to brighten up the computer science class and provide something for people at every level to have a dabble.


Keri FacerChanging gears we travelled to Bristol University to meet with Keri Facer, Prof. Educational and Social Futures. Keri has a long and distinguished background in the education world and technology have formerly been Director of Research at Futurelab, a UK venture to explore new ways of learning with technology. Keri is less enamoured with the implied rush for technological transformation that is the buzz of the education sector. She makes the point that the future isn’t a real place, that it doesn’t exist yet and it will be what we make it. Thus the idea that technology will determine how we live and what we value may be flawed. The purpose of education, Keri tells me, is to prepare someone to lead a life that is fulfilling to the individual and the well-being of the society in which they live. The rush to the virtual that somehow dismisses the physical as something less valuable is a recipe for a dystopian future she believes. This doesn’t mean that Keri is opposed to technology but that she hasn’t got carried away with the technological determinists worldview that currently appears to have control of the agenda. The physical experience, the learning by doing and understanding how we learn is ever more important. Our education systems have become industrialised processing facilities focused on a result measured in tests. For this to change, Keri suggests, there must be a transformation of the Higher Education institutions. Rather than be the end monetization point for consumers of education universities should be a place where society has the opportunity to think and enrich the civil society. The shift to MOOCs would suggest that HE institutions are today like rabbits caught in the digital headlights rushing to “deliver a product”.


Essa AcademyWe then travel some 4 hours north to Bolton and Essa Academy. Our host at Essa Academy is Abdul Chohan who, under the leadership of principal Showk Badat, has lead the transformation of the school from its difficult origins of a challenged school in a challenging area.


We arrived on a day when all of the new entry of year 7 children would each receive an iPad mini tablet provided by the school. Parents and the child would arrive in the evening for a short introduction from Abdul and a quick run through iTunesU the central system used by the school, teachers, pupils and parents to manage their learning career at Essa. There was a real air of excitement as the families collected their new iPad and I’m sure the kids were walking 2″ taller.


This was in stark contrast to the printed copy of the Oxford English Dictionary that my daughter received last year when she joined year 7 at a school in Lewisham, London. She also received a warning about not bringing her smart phone or iPad to school.


Now it would be easy to just call Essa Academy the “iPad school” or, as one BBC news item called it “the school without books” but this would be to completely misunderstand all of the work and innovation that the staff at Essa Academy have developed. The real transformation doesn’t lie so much with the iPads but what they’ve been able to do as a consequence.


Abdul Chohan“Computers”, Abdul explains, “help us do a lot of things faster and more efficiently. Not so long ago if I wanted to do some banking I’d have to take some time out to actually go to the bank, stand in line and so on. Today I can do the majority of these banking tasks on my phone”. It’s these time savings that let us focus on more important or more relevant tasks in our day. So much teaching staff time was spent doing tasks that weren’t directly involved with their day to day teaching. Tasks like marking textbooks would take a significant amount of time not to mention having to take 30+ books home each night and then think of written responses when commenting. By using the practical capabilities of the technologies in the school where every child and teacher has an iPad, every room as one or two HD TV screens or projector with its own inexpensive Apple TV unit to allow easy beaming of an iPad screen to a large screen the school has saved time and money. There are no Interactive White Boards in the school, Abdul tells me, and there are no VLE’s etc. The money saved on IWB’s, VLE’s, management systems and laptops as allowed for the iPad per child policy. The time saved has allowed teachers to get to grips with the platforms and rather than a termly inset day where great ideas are discussed but never implemented the teachers have time to meet each other weekly and share practice. The traditional timetable for students of 1 hour periods has been jettisoned in favour of 2 x 3 hour subject sessions per day and pupils are streamed by stage rather than age.


The result has been a calmer, happier environment. Student attainment has continued to climb since Essa was opened in 2009 where now every student achieves the requisite number of passes at GCSE level but also due to the “stage not age” policy there are some children leaving with 12 or more GCSES.


I’m going to cover Essa Academy in more detail in the Learning {RE}imagined book and film resources but needless to say that I was genuinely impressed and I felt that a transformation was taking place but one that wasn’t entirely technology driven but where technology provided the space for resistance against what Abdul calls “pedagogical oppression”.


Now about a third through my trips for this project I’m not certain that we’re going to see in the education sector the kind of radical transformations that digital platforms have brought to, say, the communications sector or music industry. The reasons for this are legion and will be discussed at length in the book but something we continually come back to is the tyranny of assessment, the same standardised tests designed for the last century upon which we insist on testing the kids of today. It’s like giving them a bicycle test on a Penny Farthing when they’ve got a BMX.


Sugata's OfficeWith this in mind we travelled to Newcastle to meet Prof. Sugata Mitra who is famed for his research using “hole in the wall” computers in slum parts of Indian villages to see if kids would use them to learn and more recently he won the £1 million TED Prize to develop his ideas for Self Organizing Learning Environments (SOLEs) and the “School in the Cloud”.


When you win such a large prize and become accepted as part of the TED intelligensia you pick up your fair share of detractors and Sugata has certainly had his but he is philosophical about it. He tells me that he hasn’t set out to change the world nor is he an expert on education and learning. He is, in fact, a theoretical physicist who was employed in the private sector for many years in India in a good job with all the accoutrements that that brought but he did become interested in what might happen if children without digital access or good schools were provided with access. Thus the “hole in the wall” project was born. Cited as a reference by Danny Boyle when making the hugely successful feature film “Slumdog Millionaire” Mitra’s modest project suddenly took on a life of its own and since then Mitra has become curious about how children learn and whilst he may on occasion state what is obvious to academics of education he also brings a different and fresh perspective to subject.


Sugata has been developing his thinking around SOLEs (you can download his toolkit for free here) which shows that children tackling difficult questions together with the encouragement of a critical adult friend and access to the internet are learning at an impressive rate. He is developing these ideas as well as using the cognitive surplus of retired people, “the granny’s in the cloud, to act as friend/cajolers for the kids which may form part of his “school in cloud” programme.


Sugata MitraI asked him what his work and research meant for the teachers and schools of today. He offered the following as a possible scenario. Many years ago pens and paper would have been very expensive so education would have been very much in the oral tradition, the sage on the stage. As a student you would be required to listen carefully and memorise. As pen and paper became cheaper it could be used to record these sounds, these words which was a transformational technology. At this point the sages role needed to change when, after all, the words once spoken could simply be read in books so what would they do now? The educators argument was quite sensibly that they would direct what the student read and then ensure that they had read it, the “guide on the side”.


Today all of the books are on the internet where they point at all the other books, information and media that you could want. So what role does the teacher have now? Mitra suggests that it is the role of the critical friend who asks questions and offers encouragement.


The challenge then is that we continue to assess in a Victorian manner. Although it should be noted that the Victorians were quite progressive in their examinations given that the technology of the time was allowed in the examination room unlike the examination rooms today.


Mitra suggests that the real transformation will occur when we allow present day technology into the examination room in exactly the same way that the Victorians did. “Why ask a question in an exam whose answers can be found in a few seconds online, what is the point of that?” asks Mitra.


United Kingdom

The Learning {RE}imagined team has arrived in the United Kingdom. For me this is home ground and we’ve carefully selected a number of thought leader interviews and a case study to give a flavour of the innovations and new thinking in learning from this green and pleasant land.


Alice TaylorFirst off we are in Shoreditch, the digital heart of London otherwise known as Tech City, where we’re meeting Alice Taylor the founder of Makie Lab to discuss 3D printing and the digital maker movement. Makie Lab produces what it calls “Toys of the Future, Made in London” where you can design a perfectly customised action figure online and then send it for 3D printing at Makie Lab’s HQ in Shoreditch. Once created the toy is dispatched to you. Alice has a long history in gaming and education starting this new venture after being a commissioning editor for education programming at Channel 4 one of the UK’s popular television stations where she lead their online digital ventures.


Also in Shoreditch we’ll be meeting Alan O’Donohue, a teacher with staggering energy who gave up teaching Powerpoint to teach computing. He has since been on a mission to persuade other teachers to do the same and is the creator of Raspberry Jam,  a rapidly growing global network of user groups that meet every month to support hobbyists, developers, teachers, students, children and families – in fact, anybody that would like to put their Raspberry Pi to good use.


We head to Bristol in the south west to meet with Keri Facer, Professor of Educational & Social Futures to learn about “anticipatory sciences”, the future of universities and the role of technology.


Then we’re up to Cambridge to visit the creators of Raspberry Pi themselves to meet with their Director of Educational Development, Clive Beale, to learn more about their plans to place their ingenious $35 computer at the heart of digital creativity for children developing their computational thinking.


Raspberry PiNext up we’ll be in Bolton, to visit Essa Academy who have transformed their school, learning and teaching by implementing a successful 1:1 iPad scheme across every teacher and student.


Finally, we head to Newcastle to meet with Professor Sugata Mitra, recent TED prize winner for his “school in the cloud” project and also famed for his research into the “Hole in the Wall” computing kiosks in India.


As an extra surprise we hope to interview an “Anonymous” guest before we leave on the next leg of the tour 😉


Check back here in a few days for our update!