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.