I went a long to the Constructing Real Time Education #140conf London May Meet Up last Wednesday.
My main interest was in training and development, but I spent many months as a programme manager for a government curriculum change programme for schools a few years ago, so the focus of the meet up on school-based education didn’t leave me disappointed. I had also been talking about the development and potential of Agile Learning – how online tools and resources could be used in both education and training – so there seemed to be a lot of congruence.
Using a panel format, there were four short talks on different aspects of technology and its influence on education. First up was Bob Pinkett, who wanted to make two main points – firstly about the built environment and the potential folly of the previous government’s focus on the private finance initiative (PFI) bequeathing large debts for new schools to future generations (I’m not clear on the new government’s plans for PFI), and secondly about the divisive nature of the trend towards greater specialisation and selection, and the consequential effects on the environment (specialisation and selection require larger catchment areas for schools, and hence increased transport needs – Bob estimated that school students travelling to schools some distance away from their homes costs London £1bn).
Graham Jones said that schools are much more than the built environment: learning in school is a social activity. He reckoned that using new media provided new opportunities for social learning outside schools and across large distances, and that these would change the way we think about education – and possibly even the way children think.
Terry Freedman described the possibilities and opportunities for teachers and their need to prepare for the future. Terry described how many young people are grasping the potential provided by the internet and setting themselves up as entrepreneurs whilst still at school – he told of a school student he had met who had taken clothes she designed in a school project and set up an e-business to market and sell them. There is a rapid adoption rate amongst young people – they are at home using new technologies – and teachers run the risk of getting left behind. Terry reckoned that the focus on targets and the push for measurable results – usually in exam league tables – means that teachers often don’t have the space to think: using technology to provide this could actually catalyse some change, too.
Last up was Pat Parslow, who works in learning and collaboration. He spoke about the need for teachers to grasp the social issues that arise in a changing society, and the danger of meeting historic rather than current – or future – needs: the education and legal frameworks are probably not best to meet tomorrow’s needs. Pat gave the apparently popular practice of “sexting” explicit pictures between adolescents as an example: this breaches laws which could lead to underage children being placed on the sex offenders register. Society – that’s us – need to allow both students and teachers the space to make mistakes, in both life and learning. As well as risks, though, the huge amount of “distributive knowledge” and other resources represent a vast resource. When you can watch or listen to lessons by the world’s experts, why would you not? One of the activities that Pat felt most useful was the development of a personal learning network using online tools as a support for learning. [I have been meaning to write about PLNs for a while – but I am not sure I quite understand what they are – there seem to be so many alternate definitions that I just got confused! I should resurrect that and give it another go!]
These four short, very different, talks gave us the introduction to the broad area for discussion; but it was the audience discussion itself that really took off and made the evening so valuable. The participants (by this point we weren’t an audience!) had a lot to discuss, and the debate moved around lots of different issues, including
- the potential conflict arising from teachers’, managers’ and society’s desire to control and manage when social media and other tools push users towards freeing up learning, sharing and collaboration
- teachers’ reward systems and the ability for students to rate their teachers – but of course students may not know who the good teachers really are until many years after they have left school (and exam results may also be inadequate indicators!)
- the difference between learning and teaching; in the future, mentoring, curating or facilitating might be more appropriate verbs than “teaching”
- the university system was set up 800 years ago and carries a lot of structural baggage – Graham pointed out that professors have “chairs” because historically they literally had a chair, whilst the reader – a lower ranked academic – read out the professor’s words to a possibly illiterate audience
- the balance between the need to control to deliver whatever curriculum society thinks is necessary, mediated by management and bureaucracy, against the freedom the best teachers – “mavericks”, according to Pat – and their students need thrive
- the fact that whatever we – a bunch of (let’s face it) middle aged, middle class men and women – think, young people are going to be out there trying these things out for themselves [it was telling that of course there weren’t any school students at the meetup to tell us what it was really like…]
- they will also be able to do this wherever they are – the built environment of the school full of the classrooms in which learning takes place is probably a really outdated metaphor, because people can (and surely do) learn wherever they are, and, at least in developed nations with mobile communications, they can access this huge pool of resources and teachers
It was a wide-ranging, involving and exciting discussion, and we were rightly brought down to earth by the closing comments from a teacher who had for many years taught secondary pupils who were excluded from formal education for a variety of reasons. They were often illiterate – how would they benefit from this revolution in education? Even if they have ready access to the internet, they probably can’t read effectively and are not engaged in education – the future we had been painting involved self-motivated learners, and those who were left behind by today’s teaching methods would probably be further left behind by future methods, too.
All in all, it was a really good evening: challenging and engaging. But of course, there were as many questions unanswered as those that were tackled – we could have gone on and on. And whilst a self-selected group of interested people can discuss the wealth of issues surrounding education and the potential created by the internet, what can we actually do to bring about change in the education system? There was a desire to discuss this further, and someone threw out the challenge that if we really want to make a difference, we should bring Michael Gove along to another session and create some concrete plans. His ministerial email is firstname.lastname@example.org; now all we have to do is plan another meetup. Now that would be constructing the future of education!