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Olympic Learning for Brazil?

Smile, you're on cameraIt was far too short with so much to learn in such a large and diverse country as Brazil but nevertheless we managed to spend a few days there and left inspired but with as many questions raised as those answered which simply begs a return visit!

 

Brazil celebrates its 200th year of independence in 2022 and this perhaps sets a useful target for its nascent educational transformation programme. Currently committing over $15 Billion to host the Olympics in 2016 and $11 Billion to the FIFA 2014 World Cup it’s little wonder that the Brazilian public, who are footing the bill, are wondering why there is less enthusiaism from government to commit to delivering Olympic or FIFA standards to their public services including schools.

 

The disruptive history of Brazil is a good indicator of that which has lead to its challenges with public (state provided) education. From colonialism, outside interventions (ongoing) and military dictatorships to redemocratization it hasn’t been an easy ride for the Brazilians. Even today there are vast inequalities amongst marginalised ethnic groups such as the underrepresented Afro-Brazilian population, which is extraordinary when you consider that a recent census showed that 50.7% of the Brazilian population define themselves as black or dual-heritage.

 

The public education system in Brazil has historically been tragically underfunded and the status of teachers and educators undermined by successive governments. Over recent years there have been many attempts to meet the challenges of transforming their educational systems through the use of technology with a variety of national schemes including the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), 1:1 computing with Intel Classmate PC and various mobile phone programmes of which none could claim to have been successful. Commentators within Brazil have even suggested that these were vanity projects that merely suggested change but met other more commercial interests.

 

But grassroots activism, social entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships are emerging to meet these challenges. The country is so vast and diverse with a population of nearly 200 million that “change must be orchestrated in partnership with the civil society” as one government official told me. By this, he recognised that the creation of a long term plan that could transcend changes of government in a democracy could only be really achieved if the plan was owned by external social and commercial enterprises.

 

Gilbert Dimenstein

Our first visit was to meet with the people behind Porvir, an initiative of the Inspirare Institute, whose mission is to inspire innovations in entrepreneurial activities, public policies, programs and investments that improve the quality of education in Brazil. It is the brainchild of Brazilian business man, Bernado Gradin, whose family fortune was made in the petrochemical industries before investing in sustainable energy sectors and other social programmes.

 

Interviews with Bernado and the many people either behind Porvir or who share the same mission will be featured in the Learning {RE}imagined book.

 

The creation of Porvir is a not for profit response to the dearth of knowledgeable reporting in the Brazilian mainstream media about education. It acts as a furiously productive editorial office that produces daily stories about global and regional innovations in education that it makes freely available to the mainstream media under Creative Commons licence. The organisation runs workshops for journalists and lobbies mainstream media from newspapers to radio to television and online to carry insightful reportings on educational innovation. The objective is to engage both the general public and policy makers in the discourse about educational transformation.

 

It is here that I believe the world can learn something. So often “education” is regarded by the public as something that either doesn’t interest them, they have no voice in or is just plain dull. And yet in many countries we hand our children over to the state apparatus without a question about its purpose or whether the outcomes are, in fact, relevant to their childrens future or the well-being of their nation state.

 

Porvir’s vital mission then is to change that and it’s already bearing fruit for its labour by providing journalists and editors with a resource that enables them to understand the meaning and impact of education and insights from global thinkers and activists.

 

As a news resource for educators everywhere Porvir is worthing following.

 

NAVE RioWe then headed down to Rio de Janiero to visit the NAVE Rio School which has won numerous plaudits for being one of the worlds most innovative schools. Thus our expectations were high and we weren’t disappointed.

 

Literally hidden away in Tijuca, built in to an existing telephone exchange building the school is a partnership between Brazil’s largest telecommunications corporation Oi via their Institute of Social Responsibility, Oi Futuro, and the state departments for education of Rio de Janiero.

 

The school is a public, state school for students aged 16-19 and is a exemplar of how public schools could be in Brazil given the necessary level of support and vision from the private as well as the public sector. Competition for one of the 500 places at the school is fierce with some 5000 applications for the 120 places available each year. But also the demands placed on students is also fierce. Given that the school is compelled to meet the statutory demands of the state education department but at the same time is striving to provide students with marketable skills in the digital domain such as coding and design students work a 10 hour day, 5 days a week.

 

I spent much of my day with a group of students who showed me their school and took me to lessons. Like High Tech High in San Diego the school features a strong project based learning ethos where cross-disciplinary subjects are merged to solve particular challenges with the results being exhibited within the school building.

 

School in a Telephone ExchangeAnd what a school building it is. Policy makers who assume that architectural enhancements to learning are a folly should take note. The environment at NAVE Rio is one of the key’s to its success. Like High Tech High and the offices of IDEO in San Francisco the building is a design space full of collaborative common areas imaginatively decorated and lit. The inside of NAVE Rio looks more like the inside of a corporation like Google than the sort of schools that resemble prisons. In discussing this with the students it’s clear that this environment is key. Like employees of Google they are expected to spend long hours in the building while being able to meet the demands of the day, staying sharp, social and creative. Whilst both the students and teachers would like to see a shorter day, which may actually come to pass, the environment was compelling rather than oppressive and in my mind answers the question about environment when so many policy makers see it as an unnecessary luxury at least from the benefit of their leather chair in a luxurious government office 😉

 

The basis of the school being a private/public partnership is similar to the charter schools in the US and academies in the UK so I was cautious about the motives behind the investment of Brazil’s telecoms company Oi in this venture. Was it intended to simply be a training camp for compliant future employees willing to work 50+ hours a week?

 

Carla BrancoI put this question to Oi Futura’s Industry Liaison Head, Carla Branco, who explained that whilst mine was a natural suspicion the initiative was “not intended to create future employees for Oi but to stimulate local well-being and independent wealth creation within the community itself. If Brazilians are doing well then so do our businesses.”

 

What is key, Carla told me, “is that students from NAVE Rio generally gain entry to the state-funded universities which are far better than the private ones’. This statement was also roundly supported by the students who all have ambitions for future careers and not necessarily in the digital industries.

 

3 days in Brazil can never be enough, it’s a complex country with a booming economy but with a restless population demanding better public services as the treasury begins to expand. Unrest and dissent is the reality and indicator of a healthy democracy and one can be optimistic that without external interventions that Brazil can capitalize on its relative stability and growing wealth provided that it is distributed. If it can do this then it will genuinely have become independent and make 2022 a year really worth celebrating.

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Outside it’s America

Airplane LondonWe spent an intense 10 days in the USA on what was an ambitious schedule of New York, Cambridge, Rhode Island, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego then back to New York before heading to our next destination in Brazil (see next post).

 

Whilst at the time it felt madly ambitious we only missed one flight, which left me sleeping in a motel that looked like a rendezvous for Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, we visited some really impressive people and organisations.

 

This post, like the others before it, can only be a brief summary of our activities. For the rest you’ll have to wait for the book 😉

 

First up in New York we visited Quest to Learn, a school that one of the 14 year old students told me was the school that everyone’s heard of apart from New York. By this she meant that Quest to Learn receives a constant stream of visitors from all over the world and yet many of her friends haven’t heard of it. Designed from the ground up by a team of teachers and game designers based on 30 years of learning research it is a bold initiative that redesigns the curriculum and teaching practice taking influence from the way young people engage with games.

 

Quest to Learn SchoolBy games they don’t specifically mean video games and indeed despite being known as the “game based learning” school in the popular media there is little evidence of what we typically think of when we think games. As co-director Arana Shapiro tells me “people expect to see our students sitting around playing video or board games and whilst we do use such games from time to time the reference to games is in the mechanics we deploy within our teaching and learning strategy.” To get an idea of what’s happening here I visit their “Mission Lab” which is a design studio within the school where teachers work alongside game and curriculum designers to design flexible learning experiences for their classes.

 

One of the principles of the teaching style draws heavily on the gaming concept of simulation where learning is placed in applied context rather than simply memorising things by rote whilst employing cross-disciplinary skills to solve a particular problem or challenge. Students are actively encouraged to work in collaborative teams which effectively act as self-organising learning environments in between teacher directed segments of a given class.

 

The designers and directors of the school have learnt a lot since it opened in 2009 and an important lesson has been in the role of the teacher. Arana is candid when she explains that “initially we imagined that teachers would essentially be content specialists supported by designers but it soon became clear that there was far more to teaching than simply knowing the subject specifically their ability to engage learners by being engaged themselves.”

 

We left New York for Cambridge, MA where went to MIT to visit Noam Chomsky, Mitch Resnick and Eric Rosenbaum.

 

Noam Chomsky & Graham Brown-MartinNoam, unimpressed that I had hardly been home in months, suggested that I needed a good shave and looking in the mirror that evening I think I’d have to agree. To receive personal grooming tips from someone I regard as one of todays greatest living intellectuals was quite a moment for me. We’d arrived to take photographs for the book to supplement an earlier interview I’d conducted with him but during the photo session we discussed a variety of issues such as a comparison of the education systems of Cuba and Singapore as well as Noam’s childhood experiences of attending Oak Lane Day School that was regarded as an experimental when it was founded in 1916 upon the principles of honouring a childs individuality in a setting that fosters intellectual, creative, academic and personal growth in the Dewey tradition.

 

Well, I think the proof of the schools efficacy is in the results!

 

I asked Noam how we would reimagine learning and this is what he said.

 

Next, we moved on to another building at MIT to visit the people behind EdX, the non-profit partnership founded by MIT and Harvard with an investment of $60 Million to increase access to students globally, improve campus education by bringing online technologies in to the campus and perform research around learning. It’s the latter parts of their mission which I feel separates them from the almost embarrassingly over-inflated EdTech bubble that is MOOCs.

 

I met with Johannes Heinlein, Director of Strategic Partnerships at EdX and like him immediately as he immediately dismisses all the hyperbole around MOOCs and sticks with the facts that MOOCs are still work in progress, that they don’t replace the vital social, interpersonal and collaborative engagement that a physical meeting place provides and whilst access is key they are using this opportunity to improve the quality of learning on and off campus. He tells me that EdX students are forming meet-up groups and that nearly 30% of the EdX subscribers are of high school age effectively benefitting from the lack of any entry requirements to begin studying degree level material. I ask him about the potential for educational colonialism as a result of exporting MIT or Harvard degrees and he agrees that this was a concern so they have made their technology open so that international partners can participate in this programme with their own materials.

 

Mitch ResnickWe moved along to MIT’s Media Lab and the Lifelong Kindergarten where we met with its leader and Professor of Learning Research, Mitch Resnick. Mitch amongst other achievements is regarded as the father of the Scratch programming environment for children and the building bricks that became the basis of the LEGO Mindstorm kits. I’ve been a long time fan of Mitch’s work and he tells me that the thinking behind this group at MIT was based on the inspiration he gets from the way children learn in kindergarten where they spend lots of time “playfully designing and creating things in collaboration with one another”. Mitch believes this natural creative learning instinct becomes eroded by the time students reach high school where the learning is more geared towards listening to lectures rather than experimentation rather than develop as creative thinkers. So Mitch’s group explores and develops techniques and platforms to prepare young people for the kind of tasks that he believes are more needed today where they are able to take on new challenges with confidence. That said Mitch is concerned that kindergartens today are becoming more like our schools in that you can now find young children now filling out worksheets on phonics and working on spelling flashcards.

 

Working in the same group as Mitch and in fact one of Resnick’s PhD students is Eric Rosenbaum, co-founder of Makey Makey.

 

Makey Makey calls itself an invention kit for everyone and is a programmable circuit board that allows you to control things and get feedback. Sounds techy but it’s child’s play and you can be up and running making the contents of your fruit bowl into a musical instrument – yes really! Makey Makey is to programmable control boards like Arduino what the Scratch programming environment is to Python it’s an easy point of inception that gets kids engaged, building and creating quickly. It’s also a fab present for the upcoming holiday season (or so my daughters keep reminding me).

 

John MaedaWe then take a 2 hour drive out from Cambridge to Providence and the Rhode Island School of Design and meet the team lead by Provost Roseanne Somerson and President John Maeda. I asked John why he thought STEM subjects had become such an apparent priority amongst education systems to the detriment of the arts and he explained to me that “it’s because we believe that technology innovation creates new economic opportunities in a way like back in the 1960’s the Moon shot required a significant expansion of our knowledge in maths, science, physics etc. But the reality was that it was influenced by creativity and design. Somewhere along the way we become more interested in the “what?” rather than the “why?”. This creates a problem in that you can be a good testing nation but you can’t invent or innovate which is why we seek to put the ‘art’ back into the STEM education conversation in what we call STEAM”

 

I had a really stimulating afternoon with the RISD team and learned far more than I can write in this blog so looking forward to putting altogether for you in the book. But speaking of books Roseanne kindly gave me a copy of her recently published book which is not only beautifully produced but also very thought provoking so I recommend you take a look. It’s called “The Art of Critical Making”.

 

Sir Ken Robinson & Graham Brown-MartinOver to Los Angeles and we meet with the one and only Sir Ken Robinson. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Sir Ken for a few years now and I’ll admit that I feel a couple of inches taller and a bit more determined after spending an hour or two in his company. We meet in his very trendy offices in Westwood Village to film our interview before heading across the street for a very good cup of coffee and some photos. If you’re attending or watching the livestream of the WISE 2013 Summit you’ll catch a small preview of our interview but you’ll get full access to the whole enchilada once I’ve had a chance to edit it down and prep it for, well you know, the book 😉

 

We had a detailed discussion about the role and potential of digital technologies within the learning experience and Ken compares them to the role that many tools have had in our past to extend what we are capable of, not just of doing but of thinking about. Ken tells me that “as soon as you have writing systems you don’t just extend your ability to spread a message you affect the very nature of the message and what you can conceive and all great transformative technologies have done that. They’ve not just let us do the things we did before just differently but let us do things we haven’t conceived of before and that’s what’s happening with this new wave of digital technologies”.

 

Ken was generous with his time and has made a terrific contribution to my work. I asked him the same question as I asked Noam Chomsky about how he would reimagine learning and he said this.

 

Our work completed in Los Angeles we left for San Francisco, not to visit the homes of the digital technology companies that have so much impact on our lives (although we did ask – see my earlier post about Silicon Valley’s false consciousness), but to meet with Sandy Speicher, the education lead at design consultancy IDEO.

 

Sandy SpeicherIDEO designed Apple’s first mouse for the Lisa and Macintosh computers, the Palm PDA and work for a range of well known brands. They have been championing the approach of “design thinking” and more recently applying it to education. Sandy explains that IDEO take a human-centred approach to their design work which really means adopting a process that begins with people and that leads to a desired outcome that takes into account the desires and needs of the people working within that system. Sandy believes that by adopting design thinking approaches to education we can create better learning experiences and environments where teachers and learners are designers of this physical and mental spaces. Sandy has already instigated some useful resources for those interested in learning more about design thinking as it applies to education. There’s the free “Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit” and hot off the press the “Design Thinking In Schools” which is a partnership between IDEO and the K12 Lab Network at Stanford d.school both established by IDEO co-founder David Kelley with the aim of helping people of all ages and background build their creative confidence.

 

I happened to be at IDEO’s offices at the launch of Tom and David Kelley’s book “Creative Confidence” and was given a copy. It seems like everybody is writing a book these days!

 

We then headed over to San Diego to visit High Tech High and the force of nature that is Larry Rosenstock, their CEO. High Tech High is in fact 11 schools in the San Diego area comprised of 2 elementary schools, 4 middle schools and 5 high schools. They are “charter schools” which means that whilst they must adhere to a set of state standards they have greater freedom in how they teach. They are state schools and deliberately attract a socially and culturally diverse student population selected by lottery.

 

Larry RosenstockDespite the name the school does not deploy or rely upon any significant about of digital technology. It is there but it is not the focus, the name comes from the schools origin as a response to the high technology corporations in the region that were becoming frustrated with the skillset exhibited by students coming out of traditional schooling. The schools DNA is configured around a high level of personalization, adult-world connection, common intellectual mission and the teacher as designer.

 

Larry explains that “teachers as designers means that they are creators of new knowledge and not just churning stuff out of books”. He says this with such conviction that you wouldn’t want to argue with him. There is such a rebellious streak in him that I am immediately caught up in the bonhomie but with good reason for this is one of the most exciting schools that I have had the fortune to visit.

 

The interior of the school is almost identical to the design studio of IDEO in San Francisco, part swanky private members club of the Shoreditch House variety and part creative design studio with nearly 500 students. It’s difficult to define where classrooms finish and social collaborative areas begin for in effect they are one and the same. I am guided around the school by a student and invited to speak to any student or member of staff that I wish. Without exception every one that I speak to is knowledgeable, interesting and interested.

 

Jeff RobinThe school is almost certainly the leading exponent of “project based learning” guided, defined and installed by resident art teacher and ships mate Jeff Robin. I’m not going to say anything more about Jeff here other than if you want to put a zap on your educational world then visit his website that is full of resources that he has created to share with the community. I mean just visit it, like right now!

 

The project based mentality that is at the heart of educational practice within High Tech High means that the walls and common areas within the school are adorned with the outputs of the students projects where the goal for each student is to complete their project to the point where it can be displayed to share with other students. Trust me when I say that much of what I saw would not have looked out of place in a high end design store.

 

I’ve a lot more to write about High Tech High but I can say that this is as good as transformation gets within the confines of remaining within a system that demands a set of standardised tests at the end.

 

Larry has a coffee mug that states his aim of “nurturing creative noncompliance” which pretty much sums up the exciting learning environment he & team have created.

 

Here’s Larry’s words on how he would reimagine learning.

 

Finally, we head back to New York to the offices of TED, of the conference and talks fame, to meet Logan Smalley the head of TED’s educational initiative TED-Ed. The goal of TED-Ed is to find the worlds best lessons and combine them with great animation and production so that they can reach a bigger audience. TED-Ed uses an open nomination system where anyone can nominate either themselves or an educator they respect for consideration for the TED-Ed program. So far in the 18 months since they started they have created nearly 300 lessons worth sharing that have been viewed about 36 million times.

 

Logan SmalleyLogan says that a key motivator for teachers to get involved is the reach of the TED-Ed platform, he says “that they have worked with teachers that have given a lesson in a class that may reach perhaps around 500 learners a year but on TED-Ed the same lesson is reaching more than 100,000 learners”. He continues to tell me how “exciting it is to hear the voice of great teachers amplified”. Logan cautions however that “video is not teaching, it doesn’t have the body language or the sixth sense that teaching requires but it delivers content in a way that can be used by teachers and learners.”. Logan explains that the purpose of TED-Ed is to ignite curiosity and compared to other video based flipped classroom approaches he feels that its geared towards the why? of education rather than the how? By this he means learning, for example, why Pythagoras Theorem is useful as opposed to just learning the formula.

 

This is what Logan said when I asked him how he would reimagine learning.

 

So that was our excellent adventure in the USA. If the truth be told there was certainly a book’s worth of material just from that 10 day trip and I will do my best to distill it down into a useful essence when I come to the full writing and resource editing part of this project.

 

Here’s another musical interlude:

 

Next up Brazil!

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Silicon Valley – Open Up

“I can tell you what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like. Terrible food, worse style, and no sex. And lots of apps”

 

Umair Haque, Harvard Business Review

 

Apple, Google, Facebook. These and other corporate religions from Silicon Valley exert a disproportionate amount of influence on our civil society yet are unaccountable, unelected, undemocratic and rarely questioned. What does this mean for the world of education?

 

Be Ready

As if irony knows no bounds we spent 2 days in Silicon Valley during the US leg of our world tour to discover innovation in learning but didn’t meet with a single technology company.

 

One might think that for the Learning {RE}imagined project to deliver a book and digital media about the impact of digital technology on learning this might be an oversight but it wasn’t. It was expected.

 

Over a period of many months prior to our trip I invited Apple, Google and Facebook to participate in the project by way of granting a short interview. Invitations were sent at the highest level I could muster, after all I hobnob with CEO’s, Vice-Presidents and PR bunnies, but despite my silver tongue and persuasive charm I was politely declined. I even invited celebrity educator Salman Khan to an interview but unfortunately the not for profit superstar, who will charge $75,000 to speak at your next conference, was unavailable for the 20 minutes it takes to go in front of my teams camera.

 

So what happened here?

 

Well, normally when I meet with these companies it’s 100% on their terms. It is a carefully constructed experience that is designed to deliver “The Message“. Absolutely no deviation from “The Message” will be tolerated, none of the individuals within these organisations are allowed to speak to the mortals outside their fiefdoms without ensuring that they are completely on “The Message” of “The Brand“. Critical thinking is regarded as a mortal sin that will ensure that invitations to future gatherings that celebrate “The Message” according to “The Brand” will be withdrawn. They also like to ensure that “on the record” meetings are so rare that even respected members of the mass media will prostrate themselves before them. One only has to read the fawning non-stories splashed across the planets mainstream media when one of them hosts an “Event” to launch a piece of unapologetic plastic to realise that something has got seriously out of hand here. If an alien species visited Earth during a product launch they would assume we’d discovered the cure for cancer.

 

The level of control that these organisations have over “The Message” makes the Jesuit movement seem like party.

 

The reality is that I knew these organisations would decline the opportunity to participate in this book but I wanted them to have the chance just in case. Now, before you go thinking that I’m suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder (do you know who I am?) I realise that it could just be that the WISE book and community just isn’t important enough for them in the grand scheme of things and perhaps I just don’t have enough pull. So go ask any technology or political journalist when was the last time they got a senior representative from these organisations to speak on the record about something that wasn’t to do with a new product and that wasn’t 100% managed by a member of the Marketing Communication Stormtroopers.

 

These are private companies who, in theory, have only to answer to their shareholders so why do I think it’s important?

 

Well, for a start these companies manage communities. that have populations the size of continents. They also have revenues that dwarf the GDP of many nations as the untaxed income from overseas and the money that used to go to the physical economy fills their offshore banking arrangements. The world it seems is becoming a smaller place and the wealth being distributed to an even smaller number of organisations and individuals. But these aren’t really my chief concerns.

 

AppleWhat I’m concerned about is the influence, intended or otherwise, that these corporations have on the way we as a society learn about our world for we have unwittingly allowed this world to be mediated by algorithms designed by a handful of computer programmers that dwell in the Valley of the Digital Gods.

 

Excuse my act of heresy but I suggest that these algorithms are not pure and that they are not democratic. I would also suggest that whilst the Internet brings us together it is also driving us apart.

 

If we are to assume that children of today and tomorrow will increasingly gain knowledge from digital devices then I believe we need a greater understanding and awareness of how this knowledge is mediated and the biases these algorithms hold.

 

What do I mean by bias?

 

There’s a common belief that “The Internet” has a culture and that its rules of apparent openness and ways of working are sacrosanct and should now be applied to nearly all aspects of human society. But my gambit is that we should start questioning this and practice some much needed critical thinking.

 

Some simple examples to illustrate my point.

 

Today’s search engines have lost the notion of metaphor and thus we title or books and reports in such a way to reflect this in order that they might be more advantaged towards discovery. Journalists, writers and publishers engage digital manipulators to game search engine algorithms to optimise their articles to appear at the top of search engines with the result that whilst the internet is in theory a window to all of the worlds information and knowledge the majority is obscured. Commercial digital publishing is typically supported either by paid wall gardens or advertising that is paid on a per click or impressions basis. As we move to a world of intense personalisation where information is held in content farms matched to relevant advertising, stories that would typically appear in the general public in what the digerati would consider as the inefficient publishing of print no longer appear thus our news becomes increasingly superficial.

 

Likewise the things that we think are news, for example, on Twitter are more like the reporting that we might expect from the Fox News network. Twitter use their own proprietary algorithms to determine what “trends”. Trending doesn’t mean that something is the most talked about rather it is a spike across a community that is wider than your own. Once something begins to trend the fact that Twitter’s algorithm identifies it as trending effectively makes it trend. Thus the algorithm is effecting the outcome. Additionally Twitter’s algorithm is optimised for these spikes rather than something that is discussed by an equal or greater number of people over a longer period of time so it favours spikes over consistency.

 

All of these algorithms can be gamed. It is now relatively straight forward for marketing agencies or other forces to hire low cost labour through, for example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, to enter enough search terms, back links or mention certain subjects to encourage them to trend or appear in search requests.

 

Google

Memes, those things that seem to appear spontaneously as a result of the crowd are more often than not manipulated by advertising and marketing agencies who leak information to smaller blog writers and then social media before it is eventually picked up by the mainstream.

 

For more information on the manipulation of search engines, social media and memes read Ryan Holiday’s “Trust me, I’m Lying“.

 

I did this myself last week, albeit with good cause, when I published an accurate screen shot of cigarette advertising on a child’s iPad game with the result that British American Tobacco pulled their entire online advertising.

 

If any of this interests you I urge you to read Evgeny Morozov’s latest book “To Save Everything, Click Here” which takes a long and overdue critical look at the technoutopia prescribed by the technosolutionists of Silicon Valley.

 

One of the mantras of the Internet-centrists, as Morozov call’s them, is the notion of “openness” in fact it’s a founding tenet of Web 2.0 from open government to open education but we should ask what this really means when the very architects of this new digital world remain closed to our questions.

 

In our quest for efficiency and our fetish for digital innovation we might consider what the unintended consequences of MOOCs and flipped classrooms will be. What would happen, for example, if a dominant provider of MOOCs appears like the equivalent of iTunes in the music industry where ultimately all of our information, media and learning comes from a single mediated source governed and tracked by algorithms? What does an algorithmic society look like and will this ultimately slow down innovation and obstruct creativity.

 

With this in mind why has there been so little dissent from the educational community? Could it be that our educational evangelists are so reliant on the crumbs that fall from the masters table that they are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds? It appears that we lack the very thing we are trying to instil in our children and charges, to critically think and question the status quo.

 

Now before I burn all my bridges with the digital companies with whom I’ve spent a career nurturing relationships with I should point out that I am not suggesting that they are malicious however neither am I saying that they are neutral. The suggestion that digital technology is merely a tool and is neutral is a dangerous fallacy. Unlike a hammer these platforms have unconscious biases that have the potential to impact human consciousness and the ‘open’ discourse around these platforms, especially when we consider their impact on the education superstructure, is overdue.

 

As I mentioned in a post some 2 years ago, and in several keynote talks, our society moved from an agricultural economy defined by the windmill where the feudal lord was the master to an industrial economy defined by the steam engine where the industrial capitalist ruled. Today as we move towards a digital economy we should consider who are the masters and for whom we till the fields.

 

There are executives in Silicon Valley who think they can fix global education, they can’t & you shouldn’t expect them to. Equally there are educators and policy makers who think they can maintain the status quo, they can’t either.

 

Something we can all agree on is the importance and value of education and our ability to learn and relearn. Digital technology has the potential to have a transformative and liberating impact within this domain but as we have seen from recent revelations about global surveillance using the very tools intended to liberate they also have the power to enslave.

 

Here’s a musical interlude:

 

 

Naturally I will be covering some of these issues in the Learning {RE}imagined book in 2014 but stay tuned for the next post which will be about some of the amazing people and places that we visited during the US leg of this tour.

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Brazil

Jet LagI am writing this latest post in full knowledge that I already owe you an update documenting what I saw and learned during my recent whistlestop tour of the USA. Have no fear, I will be writing this up and posting it within the next week. I had an amazing time meeting even more amazing people but I also learned that trying to make so many meetings and recording films in the USA in 10 days was much more challenging than I had at first thought!

 

I had hoped to write up my USA post on the 10 hour flight from New York to São Paulo but the reality was that after nearly 2 days without sleep I passed out on the plane after the obligatory offering of inedible chicken or pasta. I arrived in São Paulo refreshed but then probably over-indulged in the local hospitality resulting in a lost day in my hotel room. Well, it would have been rude not to really!

 

Those of you who have been following me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram will have a feel of what I got up to in the USA but you can also find some short audio interviews with the likes of Sir Ken Robinson and Noam Chomsky via my AudioBoo page.

 

So the Learning {RE}imagined team are now here in Brazil where we will be meeting the folks at Porvir in São Paulo and then  NAVE (Núcleo Avançado em Educação – Advanced Education Center) in Rio de Janiero.


PorvirPorvir means “future well-being for all people”. Porvir the organisation is a São Paulo based communication and social mobilization initiative that promotes the production, disseminationand exchange of content on innovations in education to inspire improvements in the quality of education in Brazil. It won’t have escaped your attention that Brazil has been developing very rapidily in passed years with it’s economy beng one of the fastest growing in the world currently at number 6 and heading towards 5. Those in the know attribute this growth to measures that have liberalised and open the economy, boosting it’s competitiveness and providing a better environment for private-sector development. Well, that’s what the money people say at least. The point however is that in this growth there are a lot of very wealthly people and many more poor people here and this division remains noticeable as one travels into a city with its favela districts outside. Economic growth implies a need for skilled and talented people so one must expect that a transformed education system is one of the positive levers in this regard and we look forward to learning more at Porvir.


Oi FuturoNAVE is a programme conveived and enacted by Oi Futuro focused on the research and development of educational solutions using digital platforms in schools that will prepare students for professions in the digital sector. Developed in partnership with the State Departments of Education of Rio de Janiero and Pernambuco, the program is structured on 3 pillars : the provsion of vocational education integrated into the schools regular state objectives, development of activities and research innovation, the dessimination of methodologies and practices developed by the program. The Nave River school was chosen by Microsoft as one of the top 30 most innovative schools in the world in 2009. So we’re going to have a look to discover how they are innovating in learning.


Follow us on the usual channels to find out more as it happens!

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United States of America

The Learning {RE}imagined team now have an epic tour of the US ahead of us where we’ll be meeting thought leaders and original case studies from both the East and West Coast from Noam Chomsky to Sir Ken Robinson with numerous inspirational thinkers and doers in between. If you have any questions or comments for the people we’re visiting please feel welcome to add them in the comments section below.

 

Over the next two weeks we will be visiting:

 

Katie Salen and the Quest to Learn school in New York. This school was designed from the ground up by a team of teachers and game designers, and firmly grounded in 30 years of learning research.

 

Social and political theorist, Noam Chomsky, to learn more about his insights on the purpose of education and whether technology can have a liberating role or one that automates.

 

edX logoAnant Agarwal, the President of edX, a non-profit venture between Harvard and MIT with the objective of bringing the best of higher education to students around the world via MOOCs and interactive online classes.

 

Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT Media Lab. Under Resnick the group developed the “programmable bricks” that became the basis for LEGO Mindstorms and also the Scratch programming language that makes it easier for kids to create animated stories, art and video games.

 

MIT Media Lab LogoEric Rosenbaum, co-founder of Makey, Makey which bills itself as “An Invention Kit for Everyone” and is essentially a set of easy-to-use invention kits that pretty much anyone can use and make stuff with.

 

John Maeda, President, Rhode Island School of Design. An advocate of STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering ART and Math), John’s work in design, technology and leadership explores where these fields merge. We will also be meeting a number of John’s colleagues at the RISD.

 

Sir Ken Robinson, regarded by many as the worlds pre-eminent thinker on creativity and learning. His talks on education reform are amongst the most popular and accessible in the world. His talk on “how schools kill creativity” is the TED organisation’s most visited with nearly 20 million viewings.

 

ideo logoSandy Speicher, who leads the education practice at IDEO – the global design consultancy who have taken the lead on promoting “design thinking” solutions to some of the worlds most challenging problems including education. Sandy was the person behind IDEO’s free “Design Thinking for Educators” toolkit available here.

 

Jaron Lanier, computer scientist, artist, writer and virtual reality pioneer. Given that, perhaps in light of recent privacy allegations, both Apple and Google declined our kind invitations to visit we thought a meeting with Jaron to discuss his ideas around the shift from a physical economy to a digital one would be relevant and perhaps more enlightening.

 

High Tech High, San Diego. Not to be confused with the dystopian High Tech High described in our 1989 predictor of education 2010 but a charter school with a focus on “teaching students to think deeply about content and then do something with their knowledge, not just race through a textbook” and where students “can play video games at school as long as they made them”.

 

TED-Ed logoLogan Smalley, Director, TED-Ed. A former teacher and TED Fellow, Logan heads up the concept, design, outreach strategy and overall execution of TED-Ed, the education initiative of the TED organisation.

 

Altogether we’re looking forward to an “excellent adventure” in the USA meeting some amazingly interesting people, asking lots of questions and learning a lot. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and please feel welcome to post any questions that you’d like us to ask our participants!

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The Equinox Summit – Learning 2030

Perimeter InstituteFrustrating, stimulating, exhausting, exhilarating, infuriating and inspiring – that was my week spent at Canada’s Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics which hosted the Equinox Summit presented by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative. The theme of the summit was Learning 2030 and was the second in a series of summits designed to tackle and provide solutions for the near future. The first summit, Energy 2030, hosted last year was intended to tackle future energy challenges with bold but achievable solutions.

 

Emboldened by the success of the first summit the organisers at WGSI decided to tackle the subject of Learning given that if we don’t get that right any chance of solving any of the worlds future challenges would be virtually hopeless.

 

The summit brought together 40 people from 6 continents all with different backgrounds and included a group of young leaders aged 18-22 who had either dropped out or were in full time university education. It’s fair to say that I was amongst the most concentrated group of smart arses that I have had the privilege to be associated with in quite a while. Many were opinionated and self-important – just like me. Together we were given the challenge of living, eating and working together to define the challenges for the global education systems in 2030 and beyond, then propose flexible, context and culturally sensitive solutions that would act as a foundation to define new systems. At times it felt like we were participating in an intellectual version of the Big Brother reality TV show.

 

Robot ThespianI wondered if the organisers might as well have called the summit “Religion 2030”, invited the leaders of the worlds religions and told them to agree on a new religion within 5 days.

 

I’d argue that whilst solving the worlds future energy requirements is an audacious goal it is a somewhat easier challenge than learning on the basis that energy was at least quantifiable. The problem can be expressed in hard numbers as can the solution. Not so with education and learning although many continue to try. I don’t think we even agreed entirely upon what the problem was let alone what the near future might look like. This rendered the solutions somewhat challenging in the absence of a defined problem to solve but this was the genius of the process and the week.

 

I had wondered many times during the summit whether trying to quantify the unquantifiable was the result of a process largely devised by theoretical physicists who couldn’t spot the differences between solving a challenge like energy versus a challenge like education. But then I remembered something that Sugata Mitra told me when I interviewed him a week of so earlier. Sugata isn’t an education specialist but a theoretical physicist so I persevered with the process.

 

The process consisted of closed but filmed sessions of work and discourse that were held under Chatham House rule combined with open public plenaries where the general public were invited to join physically or virtually via the live stream. Each evening the local television station TVO, who had been running a series around the Learning 2030 theme, would broadcast live from the event as part of their leading current affairs programme, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, where members of the summit would take part in discussion broadcast to the nation and streamed to anyone watching without so much as a 5 second delay. The recorded shows can be found on YouTube.

 

The challenges and solutions were broken down into chunks then worked on by groups who’s membership was fluid as members left one group to join another at will. For me it was counter-intuitive as to how we would arrive at the weeks target of delivering the publication of an agreed communique from the summit that would form the basis of a blueprint for Learning 2030.

Tests and Entrepreneurship

The hours were long where each morning we started at stupid o’clock and worked through to the evening. Late nights socialising were hardly an option given that most participants were exhausted by the early evening and repaired to their rooms to mentally prepare for the next days mental gymnastics. Either that or it was our accomodations uncanny resemblance to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining.

 

It was tough, it was hard, there were tears, at least one participant may never speak to me again, and yet I learned a huge amount in what was a very short time. The process was buoyed along by our ever cheerful, optimistic and skillful facilitator Dan Normandeau (who in my mind was a dead ringer for Dick Van Dyke) with the participants and programme curated by renegade scientist, Dr Michael Brooks, author of the epic book “Free Radicals” (if you’re interested in teaching science please read it).

 

Whilst sometimes consensus felt like attrition and collaboration like compliance the fact is that by the end of the process I felt like part of a team where genuine, as opposed to socially expected, respect for my fellow cohort members emerged. I didn’t think we’d get there but we did arrive in the closing hours with a communique which, whilst the detail remains to be worked over in the public domain, identifies key issues and direction for radical reform that includes the decoupling of high school level education from examinations and grades so that teachers can focus on innovating for learning rather than getting kids through a set of arbitrary exams.

Upon reflection the process and the output reminds me of a summit that I was invited to in 1989 hosted by Bangor University in Wales themed Education 2010 where we accurately predicted the rise of personal mobile devices and public private initiatives leading to academies supported by commercial interests designed to get students through tests as efficiently as possible (High Tech High). That event too was full of robust debate, disagreement and minor fallings out but nevertheless left everyone with the satisfaction of producing something meaningful and indeed the work was commonly found within teacher training programmes within the UK and further afield. That document had an impact on the discourse around learning, teaching and education and I’m confident that the work that my fellow participants and I contributed to over the past week plus the work that must now be done by the wider community will have an even bigger impact.

 

My congratulations to WGSI and the organisers – I was genuinely impressed and found the entire experience valuable, thanks for having me.

 

It’s good to talk but even better to do!

 

Resources from the Equinox Summit can be found online here.

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Canada – Learning 2030

Equinox SummitI’m delighted to be in Waterloo, Ontario having been invited to be a participant in the Equinox Summit – Learning 2030 presented by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative.

 

The event brings together a multinational, multidisciplinary and multigenerational group of experts to explore best practices and most promising initiatives and innovations in education that are focused on amplifying students in their creativity and potential.

 

So in essence I will be spending the week with a fabulous and fascinating cohort of thinkers, doers and activists “re-imagining learning”.

 

Themed around the year 2030 because a child born in 2013 is expected to graduate from high school in 2030. But what kind of skills will they need? What will our society look like? What will be the basis of our economies?

 

Various reports from international agencies cite all kinds of shortfalls in our global education systems that indicate that we are ill-prepared for the future. But the future isn’t a place, it hasn’t happened yet and we can’t be entirely certain that it will look like the vision held by today’s technological or economic determinists.

 

The future is genuinely what we as species and as a global society make it. Will we continue to walk blindly into a digital future where an ever smaller minority of individuals and corporations control the wealth and ultimately human consciousness?

 

Will we simply accept the rapid decline of the physical economy for the digital that has been sold to us as the holy grail of employment and national well-being?

 

I’m seriously looking forward to some stimulating, robust and good hearted debates around these subjects where any and all sacred cows are for the slaughter.

Learning 2030

I’ve also been invited to participate in a live television debate that is part of a nightly series on Canada’s TVO station and their leading current affairs show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin“. I’ll be on Monday evening with a discussion about “Disengaged and Excluded” students. I’m told it will also be available online for those outside of TVO’s broadcast reach.

 

My own personal sense is that our species is at a crossroads. The generations of today and tomorrow face significant challenges and a societal shift that is no less seismic as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Everything has the potential for change provided we empower our children to do so.

Beyond 2030 

You can follow the discussions at the summit on Twitter and other social platforms via #Learning2030 tag.

 

Live stream and media assets via TVO

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From Beirut with Love

Eastwood CollegeTo be honest I could have easily spent a lot longer in Beirut than the 48 hours allowed by my publisher. I was left wondering how I’d missed the pleasure of visiting Lebanon for such a long time and vowed to return. Although as it happened it was necessary to return home and then onto Spain to attend an urgent family matter that cast a shadow over an otherwise insightful visit.

 

Lebanon, like many countries I have visited both on this project and others in my life, came loaded with expectation as a result of reckless and inaccurate media reporting. It’s a shame because if you wanted to find a nation where Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East genuinely converge to create their own special culture then Lebanon and specifically Beirut is where you would find it.

 

The country has a heady Mediterranean feel replete with bad drivers and a party atmosphere that boasts a population who look like they’ve just landed from a Milan fashion parade. That the Beirut Art Week was running at the same time of our visit added to this vision given that the nightlife palpably bubbled with regional and international artists, designers, filmmakers and photographers as well as the well-heeled fashionistas. Difficult to reconcile this with the Foreign Office warnings that only essential visits to Lebanon should be ventured and media reports of an exodus of foreign workers. The population of Lebanon is around 4 million but this number has swelled by the addition of nearly 1 million refugees from Syria meaning that nearly 1 in 4 people in the country will be Syrian which lends a human dimension to the realities of conflict in the region. Like Jordan, Lebanon does what it can to support this draw on its resources and that includes its schools. The immediately visible impact of negative media coverage of Lebanon is a massive reduction in tourism where many of the restaurants, bars, hotels and clubs are undersubscribed.

 

We were kidnapped at the airport by members of the Khoury family, founders of Eastwood College and were quickly whisked from arrivals to the harbour side restaurants and cafes of Beirut for a meal which can only be described as both opulent and delicious. Certainly a welcome treat following the diet of economy airline food that my team and I have been sampling during this project!

 

And this was the Khoury family that we got to know over the next couple of days. Passionate, generous, caring and above all incredibly open about their experiences and efforts to constantly improve their school.

 

Amine KhouryEastwood College was founded by Amine Khoury in 1973 when he was just 19 years of age with Ms Hazel St.John MBE. It was founded on a Christian basis as a private K12 international school. Since 1973 the school in its various incarnations has been bombed, as collateral damage in various domestic and non-domestic conflicts, and reconstructed 3 times, ultimately relocating to its current location some distance from the “demarcation line” of past sectarian disputes. Today the school is effectively multi-faith supporting a cohort of students from more than 40 nations as well as locals. The school also has an intake of students recently joined from Syria as a result of the recent diaspora.

 

It’s a relatively small school with around 300 students from kindergarten through to K12. Small classrooms with small learning groups of up to 15 students in a class. The school operates what appears to be an American based curriculum within the context of the Lebanese Baccalaureate.

 

Michel KhouryIt’s on visit to the school that I begin to see how the seemingly disparate locations and contexts of my various visits on this project begin to connect. Eastwood College already has an enviable reputation in the region which is by no small measure due to the efforts of its founder and driving force Amine but the recent return of his son Michel and daughter Joelle to the family concern after periods of higher education and high level careers in the USA are an attempt to maintain the schools success and relevance well into this century.

 

It’s here that we discover strong links, regard and sharing of knowledge with Essa Academy, the school that we visited during our UK tour and it’s clear to see some similarities of approach as the younger Khoury’s work to transform the learning and teaching in the school.

 

Like Essa, there are no interactive whiteboards (IWB’s). Instead, each classroom is fitted with flat screen HD televisions and walls that invite being written on. Every teacher and student has an iPad and inexpensive Apple TV devices in every room allow material from any iPad to be shared with the class. Extensive use is made of the free iTunes U software where the school has already created a wealth of material, some of which we saw being shared at Essa Academy in the UK earlier in the week. The software allows teachers to present materials, set tasks and provide students with almost 24/7 access as well as out of school hours email response.

 

Joelle KhouryI sat in on numerous classes and discussed what was happening in the school with different members of staff. The Khoury family were eager to know what I thought despite my reassurances that I wasn’t there to judge, review or compare with other schools. My reason for being there was to understand how they were approaching transformation within their own context. Where, for example, at Essa Academy broadband bandwidth was in plentiful supply here in Beirut bandwidth is tightly restricted immediately creating challenges for any school in the nation wishing to benefit their students via connected learning. The restrictions on bandwidth in Beirut aren’t as much for ideological reasons as for paralysis within government where policy decisions are either protracted or just never taken. Digital access just doesn’t seem to have been made a priority within Lebanon as an enabler for economic growth let alone education which seems at odds with other aspects of its forward thinking population.

 

I really enjoyed being at the school and had a genuine sense that the student cohort were enjoying their experience there making sufficient academic progress that meant that many go on to be accepted at Ivy League universities in the US or similar in Europe or in the region. In regards to the bold “digital transformation” programme initiated by the Khoury’s I believe that they will be successful but what I saw was what I’d regard as a moment in time, the first steps in the right direction rather than what might be regarded as an end result. It should be said that the end results based on the metrics of standardised testing with which we are familiar are very good so what is being attempted here is to keep the school ahead of the curve.

 

If I had to be critical I would say that what was happening at Eastwood College today was a transition that has yet to impact pedagogy in so far as the initial benefit is that the large number of print books that weighed down a students shoulders has now been reduced to an iPad. Like the example in Ghana this transition does not require a significant change in teaching practice and so is a low skills threshold approach to introducing digital platforms but nevertheless is a Trojan Horse for change.

 

Classes that I saw seemed somewhat reminiscent of classrooms + technology rather than environments where the technology was embedded within the learning. This is what usually happens when tablets and so on are introduced within a classroom. The teacher inevitably teaches to the platform. But my feeling was that at Eastwood this was a transition to a change in pedagogy, curriculum and timetable perhaps in a similar way to Essa Academy who had taken the benefits of time-saving and efficiencies as a result of technology to allow students and teachers the oxygen of time and space to transform.

 

TeacherI also felt that the small class sizes and 1:1 approach of Eastwood would lend itself well to the work that Sugata Mitra has been conducting in the field of Self Organizing Learning Environments where students could collaborate together to solve big problems and where the teacher switches from the guide on the side to the critical yet encouraging friend.

 

But all this is the unintended, unexpected outcome of my travels so far – I’m beginning to see the jigsaw puzzle where different people have different pieces that if we manage to bring them together there’s a chance that we will see the whole picture and change together.

 

The school motto of Eastwood College since 1973 has been “Children, Our Purpose, And Our Future“. I think this pretty much nails it within the school that I saw and the leadership, staff and students whom I met.

 

The founder and directors of the school mentioned the word “love” many times before and during my visit. Surprisingly, this wasn’t mentioned in the context of “love of teaching” in what has become a modern cliche use by almost anyone who talks about the teaching profession – does anyone ever publicly admit to hating teaching or hating children? Although I’m pretty confident there are a lot of teachers & policy makers who secretly do. No, the context in which the Khoury’s meant it was the creation of a loving, family environment within the school itself and I can honestly say that is what it felt like in the school. Its pretty hard to fake that sort of thing during an all day visit and I left thinking that the Khoury’s had indeed created something special and that the school would certainly be worth visiting in the future to see how their transformation programme has progressed.

 

Of course, you’ll have to wait for the Learning {RE}imagined book to come out in 2014 to find out more!

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Lebanon

Kids with iPadToday the Learning {RE}imagined team has arrived in Beirut in Lebanon.

 

Lebanon is a country full of myths and legends with a long history of trade, tourism and investment as a result of its convenient location on the Mediterranean.

 

With a population of nearly 4 million people the countries largest border is with Syria. The spoken language is Arabic but the Lebanese are often fluent in either French or English and quite often both. The country operates an democratic republic with a parliamentary system and cabinet of ministers. Its constitution is based on the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. The 128 members of Parliament are elected for a 4 year term. The country benefits from a typically Mediterranean climate with hot summers and cool winters with snow in the mountains.

 

We’re in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon and regarded as a link between Europe, Africa and Asia. It’s a modern city that sits on more than 5,000 years of history. It has been razed by 2 earthquakes, a tidal wave and fire. It has been occupied many times but never failed to regain itself and its position as the most important financial and commercial centre in the region.

 

We’re here to visit Eastwood College a K-12 school that was founded in 1973 and has recently undertaken a digital transformation programme to equip all of it’s students and teachers with tablet computers. It is the first school in the Middle East to replace its entire curriculum and books with iPads.

 

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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.