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lead sponsor: the UK's Department of Children Schools and Families DCSF

charrette 1: computer science and engineering
event date: 19 - 20 february 08
location: Tower Bridge, London

rapporteur: bill thompson reflects

Putting the cart before the policy
A report on the Horizontal charrette on the future of computer science and engineering with a view to what it means for policy and learning.

The Charrette

A charrette (pronounced [shuh-ret], often misspelled charette, sometimes called a design charrette) consists of an intense period of design activity, a collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.
So speaks Wikipedia, and so it was for two days on the third floor of the North Tower of London’s Tower Bridge as our group of technologists, educators, policy-makers (and policy-enactors) and futurologists assembled to consider how the education system of the UK would be affected by the technological innovations of the next decade and what an education system might offer in 2020.

Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, I was a participant observer, one of the team but also charged with the task of reporting on its deliberations. And like a good ethnomethodologist I have refrained from imposing an ideological framework on the events I observed, choosing instead to accept that we were each bringing order to the encounter in our own way and that any overarching framework would of necessity distort and misrepresent.

This report, partial and brief though it is, aims to give an understanding of the process, the people and the paths followed. It should be read in conjunction with the video reports on the collaborative activities which took place during the two days. And it should be appreciated as one person’s view of a rich, complex and multi-layered interaction.

Not quite Chatham House

We were not present under the Chatham House Rule, and indeed the names and affiliations of those present are a matter of record. However there are confidences to be preserved and corporate confidentialities to be respected and so little of what follows is tied to particular individuals. Since the goal of the charrette is to encourage the free-wheeling exchange of ideas in pursuit of a solution in the identified problem space, I do not think this diminishes the value of the report.

The Players

Those present with Stephen Heppell were

Doug Brown: DCSF; Becta (arrived late on day one, left early on day two)
Dominic Flitcroft: DCSF
Alan Greenberg: Apple
Bill Gibbons: Futurelab
John Naughton: Open University; Wolfson College, Cambridge
Jamais Cascio: Institute for the Future; Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Lys Johnson: heppell.net
Chris Thomas: Intel (day two only)
Colin Holgate: Funny Garbage
Jerry Fishenden: Microsoft
Bill Thompson: unaffiliated
[see the outputs page for more]


Like Prospero conjuring up the Tempest that assembles the cast and puts the plot into motion in Shakespeare’s play, Stephen Heppell began to weave the spell that brought us to Tower Bridge two years ago in discussions with the Department for Education and Skills. He persuaded policymakers to worry about the technological changes that were visible on the horizon, scanned by the futurologists but little-regarded by those with schools to run, budgets to allocate or crises to deal with.
We are here to reconnoitre the future and report back, to provide intelligence to underpin policy at a time when change happens too rapidly for innovations to be preceded by a period of experimentation, a period in history when there is often too little time even to formulate the policy before it is out of date.

We are here to ensure that the vision that drives policymaking and practice can be grounded in a clear enough appreciation of the direction of technological innovation to remain intact as the future arrives.

We are here to consider the shape of tomorrow’s education practice in the light of our understanding of the direction of technological process, and to find ways for those in charge of the education system to do the best they possibly can for the children whose futures will be in their charge.

Thus are we assembled on a cold February morning in the neo-Gothic Victorian splendour of the boardroom in the north tower of Tower Bridge, nourished by plentiful supplies of coffee, cake and that peculiar energy that comes from being with a group of like-minded people who feel that their task is both important and achievable.

A Beginning

We begin at the beginning, with Stephen offering us a timeline of technology from the 1970’s through to tomorrow, noting how the mid-decade marks the point of major innovations. In 1975 it was the microcomputer, ‘85 saw desktop publishing and CDs, ‘95 was the point when the Web went WorldWide and in the middle of the current decade user-generated content went mainstream and challenged the media industry with the vision of ‘the former audience’.

He admits it’s a broad-brush picture, one intended to get us thinking as much as anything else.
Doug then outlines his – and DCSF’s – interest in technology scanning, noting in passing that technology is now so widely used that there may be no specific funding for technology initiatives in schools. The discussion here is part of a wider programme to debate – and argue about – big ideas within government, a general shift in the way Whitehall looks at major issues.
Stephen moves on to position this particular discussion, outlining a model based around the idea of ‘inbetweenies’. Innovation is happening in the spaces between ‘now’ and ‘not now’, ‘me’ and ‘you’ and ‘broadcast’ and ‘viewer’, but at the moment the gaps are generally filled by private services rather than public sector offerings.

The ‘not quite synchronous’ communication of Facebook status updates, the ‘not quite broadcasting’ of YouTube all give us an idea of the potential of these new technologies to challenge and perhaps replace other ways of operating.
As services like Twitter and Seesmic, sites like Facebook, technologies like live video streaming all emerge in the online world things may be changing too quickly for any policy to emerge or even to be glimpsed.
Perhaps we can look forward, consider what might happen and be prepared for some likely scenarios. We see a great deal of creative use of technology in teaching already, in medical school for example.

First thoughts

Alan asks about risk management, about how we evaluate the impact and therefore the possible downside of untested ideas – a theme to which he (and we) will return from time to time during the day with no real resolution.

Stephen asks us to consider what will happen in the new spaces we can see emerging online. Jamais asks for broader thinking, noting the tendency to locate the new technologies in old settings – our talk of education should not be institutionally bounded, for example, as schools are not the only way of delivering teaching.

Jamais introduces the idea of ‘fuzzy synchrony’, considering how our engagements with technology – and the services provided by the newer technologies – permit ‘casual stickiness’ and the establishment of ongoing relationships with others whose transactions are mediated by the same service, creating an environment that encourages continuous partial attention, and allows for continuous partial interactions/transactions.

Stephen notes the need for collegiality and community, the need for contributive media that encourage collaboration, but admits that current structures in education do not really provide this.

Doug comes back to the idea of risk management and notes that DCSF is not about risk taking, as we see in the conservatism of the national curriculum. Perhaps the things we are talking about will have to happen outside school – although, as Jamais notes, schools are not safe either.

Stephen reminds us that innovation is happening in other countries, and that the safe places may simply not exist in future even if DCSF would like them to.

Doug makes the meta-analytic point that having this debate is at least as important as its outcome as a way to promote wider discussion and encourage the department for children, schools and families to at least see that this is a real issue. DCSF has a real challenge ahead in learning how to engage with complexity, and this takes time.

And Stephen expresses his life’s philosophy and driving principle when he tells us, yet again, that ‘we can make a difference’.

Our Journeys

We are to begin with a brief testimony, describing how we arrived here today. And this is not an opportunity to meditate on the transport system of London.

With twelve people, none of whom is noted for their shyness, modesty or reticence, this process takes up most of day one and spills over into day two.

This period is the core of the event, since each person’s biographical overview quickly spins off into a discussion of the themes and issues which led them to be invited here, and quickly becomes a dialogue between intellectual history and current concerns.

What emerges are both individual histories and broader themes. And since it is the themes that matter for the wider debate they are addressed here – the histories can be left in the room.

Observations and Insights

The space for our discussion must encompass the ‘inbetween’, the liminal world (or worlds) between you and me, producer and consumer, online and offline. These spaces are already being explored, developed and exploited, and we should ask how educators can make use of them and shape them as they grow.

An education system must consider how non-traditional learning spaces are developed, enhanced and made available to students and teachers.

The scope of our thinking, and how we avoid limits of which we are unaware. How we can ‘read the global unconscious’ and genuinely innovate.

We have to take account of the global context for UK education. Part of that is a necessary acknowledgement that the environment within which education takes place is already irretrievably altered. Technology – especially online – is no longer added on but defines the space, and education needs to adapt.

We cannot just look at what’s happening in schools because the environment matters. This may be a consequence of the new complexity of the environment within which learning takes place but it requires policymaking to be based on a wider understanding.

The impact will be felt at all levels.

Access and empowerment are important and must not be neglected. Technology can overcome barriers, reduce inequality of opportunity and help those who might otherwise be unable to access resources (including education itself). We must not forget this.

How does the market affect what is possible, feasible or desirable? Most of the technologies we are interested in will not be developed specifically for educational use, so what importance does their educational utility have for their providers?
The private sector is often characterised by dynamism and impetus for change and growth while the education system too often fails to show any imagination.

We must not forget that education is about engagement, and that it relies on a connection between teacher and learner, on people understanding other people. The technology can help in this process, but the learning and growth of understanding must remain central.

When computers and other learning technologies were coming into use they were rare, and often certain tools were restricted for use with certain age groups – the older pupils get the more powerful, advanced computers, for example. This is no longer feasible: now that ICT is everywhere students at all levels expect – and are offered – access as soon as it is available in the wider world. Teachers have to find ways to use the latest technologies, and they are not equipped to do this.

Managing the risks is vital, especially as education is risk-averse, largely because each child gets only one experience of the system. How we can be risk-averse without limiting innovation is a fundamental challenge for our thinking.
The audience for educational content is far larger than those in schools or even institutions – Apple’s iTunesU shows this clearly. Our thinking should reflect this broader context, finding ways to put material into circulation and let communities pick it up, offering support where needed.

Technology makes the walls of the classroom/seminar room transparent, dissolving the boundaries between the educational experience and other aspects of life. The model of engagement can be different – if we want it to be – with collaboration, interdisciplinarity and interaction all brought to the fore.

Our focus may need to shift from technology to the content, to what is delivered rather than how. That means considering issues of copyright and intellectual property, of mashups and reuse and rights, even though we may prefer not to.
Many of us have seen the future coming, but even though our predictions have been borne out there is still scepticism about our current models. How can we persuade the wider world to think that IT in schools is a great and vital thing – how can we get the Daily Mail to write editorials in favour of new teaching models? And how can we overcome the hierarchy in the existing education system, where heads of department can resist innovation and technology?

We should be suspicious of technological determinism and those who would allow technologies to drive education. The relationship between technology and society is interactive, a discourse. And as technology develops we have more space in which to make choices about how we use it and what we would like it to do.

In some cases the old questions no longer apply and we must let them go. Spectrum allocation, for example. Or bandwidth we have moved from scarcity to abundance of connectivity and the question now is how we manage abundance.
It is time to think about the media ecosystem. All of us in this room have grown up with the push technology known as broadcast TV as the defining element of the ecosystem. But broadcast TV is in inexorable decline, to be replaced by ‘pull’ media. We don’t know what the emerging ecosystem will look like but we do know that it is more complex so need to get the right tools. We cannot deal with it by simplifying/oversimplifying, but need to introduce new organisational behaviours and tools to cope.

We cannot avoid considering the shape of tomorrow’s network and should challenge the assumption that things will just go on getting better. The network could be controlled and managed much more tightly than it is today, and the golden age of the open architecture, end-to-end network may end – it has allowed freedom but also opened up the possibility for disaster through spam and spyware and botnets. If that happens then the rate of innovation will slow and many of the questions we ask will become moot.

Our dreams

These are the ideas we came up with in a fifteen minute standup session on day two.

Policy challenges

Paired up, those of us outside the administration are asked to define challenges that will face an education minister and outline a policy approach that could be used. We are to begin by considering a technological innovation and its potential consequences, and then describe a suitable – and smart – policy response.
These are available on the video report.

Seeking Closure

We conclude by attempting to sum up those things which are obvious to us and to assemble a set of questions which can be passed forward to the next stage.

There is – or seems to be – general agreement on two propositions.
Active students collaborating and using the web will learn more than passive students. Active students collaborating with teachers will do better than both.

The way in which schools' internet provision is paid for and obtained is medieval

Many questions remain to be debated, but we are too tired or perhaps too talked out to articulate more than eight. And so we leave these as the starting point for you, gentle reader:

Why pay for content when teachers (and students) are making and creating better anyway?

Why should schools provide email addresses / computer / software licence / bandwidth / etc when students (almost but not all) bring their own along anyway?

No student will want to power down to come to school, so why don't we allow everything to work? Every turned off device is potentially a turned-off child.

Why should school bags filled with dense heavy books be damaging backs when there are other ways to carry that information (including by fibre when they get home...)?

Is limiting access to any technologies - mySpace, Blogs, YouTube etc blocking opportunity and blocking students’ ability to evolve appropriate behaviours?

We have evidence that "new learning" works. We have NO evidence that much of what we are doing works at all (30 kids in a class born between Septembers...?) and education is not progressing as fast as hoped. Why then do we continue to ignore the new approach and do the failing things?

Which is greener - textbooks or laptops?

As education gets more complex, should government depts get more complex too, or should they recognise that they can't mirror life and rely much more on ad hoc groups with a focus on key issues?

I'll link in the footnotes below later - ed

Or at least, it did on February 29th, at HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charrette" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charrette, and that will do for our purposes.
HYPERLINK "http://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/CURRIC/soc/ethno/intro.htm" http://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/CURRIC/soc/ethno/intro.htm

HYPERLINK "http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/about/chathamhouserule/" http://www.chathamhouse.org.uk/about/chathamhouserule/ states that “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”
we are all old enough to remember The Goodies, but nobody sings the song
For me the most interesting thing was the synchronicity of standing up behind Colin waiting to outline my desire for screen paint, so that every wall could be used as a screen, and hearing him describe exactly the same idea.
something like this? http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6594202-description.html
It seems someone was listening in: http://www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def=news.story.page&obj_id=142659&speeches=1
Imagine teaching GCSE physics to students equipped like this: http://www.nerdshit.com/wordpress/2006/06/07/sixth-sense-from-an-implant/


back to charrette 1 outputs

horizonTAL - horizon scanning for learning from heppell.net

last updated: Wednesday, March 5, 2008 4:25 PM