In 1995, a decade ago in fact, I was asked by Jean Underwood to write a chapter for a useful book she was preparing about ICT and learning. jean has a great track record of producing just the books that are needed and has been a huge influence in helping teacher education get to grips with the impact of technology on learning. Like myself she was an early pioneer of the Information Technology in Teacher Education group (ITTE) that still thrives today, with a good and readable Journal.
Looking back, the chapter I wrote had some interesting bits - a short analysis of project "X" (promounce it "times") where we worked with children-as-designers to produce a "game like" software application to help them get to grips with multiplication tables. We discovered heaps about methodology of working with children-as-designers (and are still using it today in the design of learning spaces for example) but, blow me down, the thing worked too and they all learned their tables in very short order. No surprises really.
Also I'd been using an analogy for a decade or more about assessment - you turn up for your driving test and there is a horse waiting by the kerbside... it's good to see in in print too. ("Don't you start, we've always used a horse...").
Here's the chapter:
In the mid 1990s there are few more contentious words than either Multimedia or Learning. Learning has a long history of impassioned debate and currently learning productivity, flexible learning, distance and autonomous learning and learning with many other qualifiers is at the heart of much current educational controversy. Multimedia has a much shorter history but as we attempt to seperate the hype from the hope, the rrality from the rhetoric, it is no less controversial. Multimedia, of course, describes the possibility that a computer might at last be able to deliver all the elements that we take for granted in the rest of our everyday lives: speech, text, graphics, video, music, sounds, data.
Around the world is it not surprising that we find education itself at the heart of much impassioned debate, when, as is currently the case in almost every education system in the world, we speak of making change happen in schools, colleges and universities. A chapter title that encompasses multimedia, learning and change might expect to offer, or at least confront, contention. However, as we have focussed our gaze on obvious technological and pedagogical change the real revolution has been in our children and their everyday lives. This chapter is centrally concerned with that change and with the need for education to recognise, and offer strategies to progress, the emergent capabilities of our young children of the information age.
Multimedia of course is a strange word; media is already a plural and adding multi to it didnt help much. Integrated media might have been better but the word has a very brief life and has already burned brightly in its supernova stage before being consigned to the same bin as many of the other techie words that once seemed so important in our computer lives. Multimedia only seemed imortant as a word when few computers offered the capability that the word seemed to describe. When every computer offers multimedia capability (as will rapidly become the norm) the word will die for ever. No one seriously describes life as a multimedia experience, although it is, but we do have special words to describe our lives where key information elements are missing - sensory deprivation, blindness, deafness, dyslexia. In the same way, a text based, command driven computer might well be described as visually impaired and mute. In our everyday lives, missing any of the multiple media components that comprise our normal information channels will be characterised as exceptional. In our computing lives (in 1994 at least) the multimedia computer, with most of those multiple media components in place, is seen as the exception, worthy of special terminology.
Because of the concept that multimedia is somehow exceptional, when we come to consider the computer and learning, the debate focuses on the occasions when adding video, sound and other elements might be useful. What extra contribution might video make? How might auditory icons offers the signification of cues and clues that characterise good interface design? Logically it would be more sensible to assume that, as is the case in our everyday lives, all these elements would always be present. We might then ask in what circumstances might it be appropriate to leave something out (when should we exclude text, or when might video be abandoned for example), to good effect. If life is generally a multimedia experience, our normal, computer based, learning environment should be too.
As an illustration, in the Playground Physics section of the early and pioneering Visual Almanac computer driven interactive videodisc, learners watch a sequence showing a merry-go-round changing speed as children move in and out from the centre. Initially the video sequence of a merry-go-round moving is played with a soundtrack where pitch, but not tempo, offers clear clues for the initial observer. Later in the same module the music is abandoned in exchange for a real time graphical representation of the merry-go-round plotting speed against time. Careful design decisions had been made to exclude some of the rich variety of multimedia channels available to focus children in their learning. The discipline for the designer was what to leave out rather than what to include. Curiously, although we have had multimedia around our learning environments for something like a decade it seems often that, with a few honourable exceptions, the debate about multimedia design and application has been characterised by discussions about what is technically possible rather than by what is pedagogically desirable and in what context.
Learning and its analysis, of course, has a far longer history of debate. We can be reasonably clear from a vast weight of research that elements like need, intention, creative participation and delight may be key components in successful learning for many children whilst self esteem, clear goals, autonomy and supportive critical friendship may be key motivators. However, looking at much multimedia courseware as a learning resource it is too often impossible to derive any intended learning outcomes and still more difficult to see how users may participate creatively, with delight, by these new learning environments. Worse still, the needs and intentions addressed by the software are often, sadly, those of the designers rather than the intended users. In short: over a millenium or so we have developed a variety of fairly clear ideas about some of the components of successful learning but there is little evidence that many these have been absorbed by other than a few commercial multimedia designers.
How children learn? is complex enough, but computers have added a new urgency to debates about: what do they learn?, how do we know that theyve learned it? and what do we assess?. At present some national education systems are struggling with the dimensions of these problems, while rather more countries are struggling to be aware that they are issues; none yet have solutions.
A simple analogy is illustrative. Imagine a nation of horse riders with a clearly defined set of riding capabilities. In one short decade the motor car is invented and within that same decade many children become highly competent drivers extending the boundaries of their travel as well as developing entirely new leisure pursuits (like stock car racing or hot rodding). At the end of the decade government ministers want to assess the true impact of automobiles on the nations capability. They do it by putting everyone back on the horses and checking their dressage, jumping and trotting as before. Of course, we can all see that it is ridiculous, yet in schools all round Europe we are arming children with spreadsheets and assessing the same old mathematics capabilities, we are arming them with collaborative, mutable writing tools, like word processors or desk top publishers, and then assessing them individually as writers through a typically linear writing form that is increasingly frustrating for them. In the UK we have even gone as far as to ban some of the powerful tools from the assessment process - having supported writing, appropriately, with spelling checkers and thesauruses we then remove them at the point of assessment. In terms of our analogy we take away the car and put them back on the horse, in time for the test. Patently foolish. Allowing children to author multimedia essays and assessing their performance with a handwritten summative test is equally foolish.
Whilst much of our focus on multimedia has been essentially a technical one, we have at least noticed the rate of change of technological platform that is supporting our young learners. ULTRALAB houses the National Archive of Educational Computing and browsing the archive it is impossible not to marvel at the progress from teletype to 24 bit screen, from punch tape to optical media or from solitary beep to 44khz stereo sound. There has been real technological progress in two short decades and power per price has dramatically improved at the same time. This progress has become a topic of interest in its own right; throughout Europe TV programmes offer weekly presentations of technological progress and we regard ourselves are technologically literate if we can simply keep up with the key milestones of progress. But, as we marvel at the rate of change of the hardware and software we bump up against surprises that we fail to understand or interpret: children seem unable to focus continually on a TV screen for an educational broadcast, seem less willing to be absorbed by literature, find no place in their lives for narrative radio. Typically we interpret this with a deficiency model of the child - they have become information grazers, their concentration threshold has collapsed, they have accelerating levels of illiteracy, parents send them to school unexposed to textual culture, and so on.
Similarly, whilst we are absorbed in the debate about what children learn and how we measure it, we focus too often on deficiency - nations publish endless reports contrasting (unfavourably) the arithmetic skills of young learners with previous eras, or with other cultures, but in doing so we again fail to notice, or log, changes that are occurring in ordinary children. Might it be possible that children are developing new emergent capabilities as information handlers? Might we be seeing not a decline in their capability but a change in the skill set that represents that capability? If so, we might hypothesize that it is not in hardware and software but in normal lives and in normal children that we will find the real revolution that is changing our learning and multimedia futures.
What might some of those changes in normal lives and in normal children be? In the 1950s, in Europe, television was unusual. It was the Radio Age. The generations that currently dominate our teaching professions were the children of this radio age. They retained the habit of reading too, as an important information and entertainment source. Cinema was not an everyday experience and was most significant socially, as a night out. This radio generation were fed linear narrative information in a largely passive form. Families would gather round the radio and listen to favourite programmes together. TV, when it finally became available for mass consumption, needed darkened rooms, offered a tiny grey and white picture and was again a primary narrative source. As TV developed, many houses evolved their social rooms to give the television a central focus. TVs were often built into a massive piece of furniture with all chairs facing towards it. Advertisements and programmes were dominantly narrative in form.
However, TV in the 1990s provides an information window in a much greater information context. Children watching TV in 1993 might have a Nintendo Game Boy in hand, a photo-magazine on their lap and even, inexplicably to parents, be watching whilst listening to their Walkman headphones. Of course, all this will be with the channel controller nearby and often with a vast number of channels on offer which are stepped through at frequent intervals. Children seem to graze information and TV production companies, hoping to retain the interest of the youth viewer, seek to build programmes with little narrative structure, but with complex information dimensions - text, voice over, video edited with great rapidity, separate background projection, music and graphics. Watch advertisements aimed at children for any number of convincing examples. Interestingly, market research and evaluation seem to suggest that for the adolescent viewer problems occur not with the complexity of this programming style but only when the content delivered across these complex information dimensions is too bland and unchallenging!
In schools this manifests itself as a crisis in educational broadcasting as children find it increasingly difficult to sit for 50 minutes and offer their undivided attention to a single information source with no other choices and no video controller. This is not a collapse in concentration thresholds as the deficiency model of the learner would have us believe, it is the result of childrens hunger for information autonomy, for their right to focus information attention where they choose. Of course, teachers and parents ahve changed too; it is equally uncomfortable for their teachers now to sit around a radio, doing nothing else, and listen to a single aural source, although for any born before 1950 this was once a normal part of family entertainment. We have all changed our media habits and our capabilities as media consumers. A group of children were asked for suggestions about ways of makng prison less attractive and more deterring (a common focus of interest in the politics of 1990s Britai8n!). Amongst many ideas was one from a young girl who suggested that to: give them black and white TV and no way of changing channels, would be as close to hell as she could imagine; there is no shortage of similar powerful anecdotal evidence of the extent to which the climate of expectation that we bring to our media lives has changed in some 25 years.
There is considerable irony in this for multimedia. We have struggled technically to be able to deliver the full screen narrative form that TV so clearly represents - one hour of full screen full motion video has been a multimedia holy grail for so long! - and yet just as we appear to be able to deliver it, we find that what learners seek is something else anyway. They need a browsing, grazing environment where learner autonomy is fundamental, where the model of information represented is crucial to that browsing function, where metaphor and interface design are of primary importance and where sound bites, video snatches, auditory icons and text labels offer a complex and participatory environment that challenges the learner and recognises their increasing sophistication as information handlers and creators. Our normal information lives have changed without us noticing and the implications for multimedia and learning are complex and significant. The many publishers seeking to provide electronic books and narrative CDs are seeking to generate product that is a generation too late, as the age profile of buyers clearly indicates.
And what of other changes in ordinary childrens entertainment lives? Computer games are of real cultural importance to this information generation and games have now developed the same short fashion lives that pop music once had. From parents and the print media today computer games get the same sort of critical press that 60s pop stars and the rock generation once got: children cant read because they play too many computer games or watch too much TV. The games allegedly immerse them in violence and gender stereotypes as virtual heroines queue up for actual rescue; children become hopelessly addicted, social misfits, trapped in an electronic never-never land. Children have fits, are exposed to pornography and truant from school. Or so we are led to believe by the same deficiency model of children that is applied to their learning lives.
Ironically, many of these wild and improbable claims are made by the same generation that was, in its own youth, supposedly corrupted and debauched by Mick Jaggers antics in the sixties. They ought to know better and, just as our focus on technology neglected crucial changes occurring with information consumption, so our focus on what is wrong with the games has led us to neglect important and valuable emergent capabilities, and new expectations, in the children playing them.
Games can provide a challenging problem solving environment where players observe, question, hypothesise and test. Games can offer a vehicle for collaborative endeavour and, crucially, they have changed the climate of expectation that surrounds childrens computing experiences. Children expect delight, mental challenge and a role that is evolving from interactive to participativel. Everyone acknowledges anecdotally that children are competent and astute computer users. Few designers of educational software for young learners begin from this premise. If multimedia learning environments are to offer challenge, provide delight and deliver real learning outcomes they must first recognise the emergent capability of learners and respond to the climate of expectation that those learners bring to their computer screens.
What might we conclude from all this?
Firstly, as we look to engender real change by harnessing multimedia technology in our learning environments we might be more aware of the cultural change that has already occured and might seek to move forward not from a deficiency model of the changing learner but from a position that seeks to recognise and value emergent capabilities.
Secondly, acknowledging, identifying and progressing emergent capabilities of learners might lead us to look through fresh eyes for new learning outcomes. Again, real change is likely to occur not by trying exclusively to deliver old learning outcomes with new technology but by looking for new learning outcomes that can only be delivered by that new technology.
Finally there is much that we already know about good learning and it is incumbent on good software designers to reflect more of that understanding than has so far been the case. It does appear that our young learners can actually serve as critical friends in the design process and part of our ackowledgement of their capability might include involving them, the users, better in the design process as well as the user testing (see case study below).
In 1993, at ULTRALAB, we were interested in the fusion of ideas that might result from asking children, teachers, parents and our own software team to design a piece of software. What would the children look for? What good experience might teachers bring? What did parents want? What could learning theory contribute to make it all work better?
As a test we took a very simple learning outcome - remembering the multiplication tables. This was a "know that" rather than "know about" learning outcome; it was very discrete as a target but it was easily tested too and children, teachers and parents are motivated by any solution which delivers a faster learning of the tables. Multiplication tables offer the key combination of need with intention.
What happened, and how did "X" develop?
Firstly, the childrens input. They already had (as is typical) good experience of computer games and other 'home computing' activities. This had developed a 'climate of expectation' amongst them. They knew what motivated them, what delighted them and what held their attention. They were very aware as software critics and full of good ideas.
• a high score record - they were particular astute Nabout the need for the score to allow their peers to compete when multiplication capability varied between individuals.
• colour, sound and great graphics.
• an interface that it was obvious how to use - they suggested that opening screens of what to do text would be uneccesary if the screen was designed well.
• pressure to keep them on task but also because 'racing' against a pressure environment was exciting for them.
• good rewards - something that said "well done" and had a bit of variety in it. They wanted "well done" but they didn't want it to get in the way of their 'playing' and slow everything down.
The children did not want:
• delays - anything that got in the way of performance was unwelcome.
• loads of 'how to use it text. They could see from their own prior experience how a game worked and wanted "X" to be equally obvious to use. This was very important to them.
Parents were less ambitious in their requests, but they did want:
• the software to work and actually help children to learn their multiplication tables. Parents were very goal focussed in this respect.
• some way of allowing children of different ages to compete against each other even if one was on the 4 times and another on the 9 times multiplication tables.
Teachers had long experience of teaching tables. They wanted:
• the software to achieve its learning outcomes (!) and actually help children to learn their tables.
• some clear indicator of which numbers were being multiplied on the "table grid" for reinforcement.
• the random asking of the tables so that children could not step through by adding for each subsequent answer.
• an opportunity to explore the grid first before being tested on it.
• some easy way to stop and give up if things were going badly
Teachers did not want:
• better sounds for "wrong" than for "well done" (too many programs that they had seen rewarded failure with the best sounds and animations!!).
Of course, ULTRALAB is concerned with learning and learning theory suggested that:
• children needed visual and aural cues and clues to help reinforce the memory task.
• if the clues and cues are created by the children, 'ownership' will help them learn.
• intention and need are both important. Children have a need to learn their tables. They need this learning to deflect the pressure that they suffer from not knowing them. Almost universally they are tested at school on their multiplication tables retention. If we could combine this need with personal intention then the siImple learning target might be achieved very quickly. Personal motivation can be developed from the delight that a 'games' environment can offer.
Taking into account this good advice from children, parents and teachers, we developed "X" as a Hypercard stack using QuickTime for its music and animation.
The software does MOST of what was asked of it by the teachers, parents and children; it offers visual cues which can be painted by individuals as they work their way through the software, but it doesn't yet offer aural cues and clues because we wanted to find out how well th0e visual ones worked first. It doesn't offer printouts because we decided that the learning outcome was table capability and that was what children took home or into school. We did not want to focus on the pictures as an end in themselves, they were only a means to an end.
Initial testing suggest that X seems to work rather well. The combination of children, teachers and parents as designers showed that they all had something to offer 'learning'. As a case study it throws interesting light on the process of software design and the role of children in the developmental process.
An interesting by product of this small project was to discover that the traditional rote way of learning multiplication tables masks how few sums actually need to be remembered - after the easy 1 to 5 and 10 times tables have been removed and allowing for commutativity (2x4 and 4x2, etc.) there are really only 10 'hard' sums to remember and four of those are square numbers that children seem to find easier to recall.
Parents (and teachers) found it useful to help children realise from the outset that commutativity exists and that the whole task of remembering multiplication tables is manageable with only 55 sums in total to be completed. Because of the way that children traditionally learn their tables, for many there is simply no understanding that 3x7 is the same as 7x3. Ask a child who has learned their three times tables what three sevens are and they will usually say "I don't know". "X" makes commutativity explicit and for many children simplZy realising this seems to halve the task they have in front of them. It's a great morale booster!
X has been made available on ULTRALABs Insights for Teachers and Parents CD ROM for Apple Macintosh computers.
|@ August 24, 2005 9:16:17 AM BST ( )|
When UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown stepped of a platform in he mid-eighties he offered what was generally percieved to be a throw-away comment that their ought to be a university for industy.
The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) set uip two pilots of this concepot, one "on the ground" so to speak in the University of Sunderland and one virtual online version, the OnLine Learning Network at my then lab, Ultralab. We debated long and hard about what might be possible - clearly just a heap of online courses missed the opportunity to build a community of practice where the practice was diverse, rich and nationwide. Josh Hillman led things from the IPPR end and money was pretty tight.
Good friend and valued colleague Leonie Ramondt (are there many in the world who better understand the potential of online learning than Leonie?) led the project. She and I spent a lot of time winning hearts and minds to a remarkable model of learning which, in the rush for numbers was not the model adopted by the embryonic UfI that formed after our research. We did remain though in useful contact with the UfI team for some time.
This paper, "Online Learning — Implications For The University For Industry; A Preliminary Case Study Report" was first published in Journal of Education through Partnership and was wqritten in 1997.
It's here as a pdf, as severaal papers in this section will be, to remain faithful to original layouts and typograhy.
|@ August 2, 2005 8:08:25 AM BST ( )|
I wrote this back at the end of the 90s (and can't remember what journal it was for... I'll edit this when I find out, if I find out), posting to a webpage in early 2000 as well.
It was quite an early use of the elearning term, (although I think I had also bought the domain m-learning.org by then as well...!). Interestingly the page recieved a huge number of hits and I only move it here because the server it is on has been archived and will be swithced off shortly. Re-reading, it is hard not to be depressed by the lack of progress that has been made, and I'll be reflecting on this going forwards, in a forthcoming podcast.
Anyway... enjoy this and chin up... we WILL get there!
eLearning underpins learning with technology, but that in itself is not new. The information that people learn with, and the conduits through which they communicate that learning, have always been both liberated and, paradoxically, constrained by technology. From the earliest primitive forms of writing through to the coolest pocketable digital media this holds true. On the one hand we are given new opportunity for contribution and expression, on the other hand we bump up against absolute limits to what can and can't be achieved with whatever the current technology is.
Early handwritten manuscripting presented an opportunity for those who could do it, but precluded the mass circulation of textual material. The egalitarian paperback heralded literature for all, but printed stories locked sound and moving image out of storytelling. The Internet appeared in the middle of a multimedia decade, but initially offered only a textual revolution. The mobile phone brought communication ubiquity, but with the barren screens of a basic interface. However 'wired' we might be, sometimes it is hard to see through the short-term technological failings with enough clarity and vision to appreciate the opportunities ahead. Thus even Microsoft failed to spot the potential of the Internet for some considerable time saving itself with a late, but vast, refocussing.
But worse yet, in our learning, commercial and social lives, at each moment in technological time, there are those who see the current state of technology not as a step on an evolving path of progress but as the epitome of progress, a pinnacle of achievement to be preserved and optimised in sacred trust for future generations. Those most closely wedded to the established order inevitably squeal the loudest ñ they have most to lose. The early church, for example, fought to protect hand illumination and scripting ñ and the power it brought them ñ from the coarseness of print, although that print gave us the novel. The print industry fought a rearguard action against the 'ugliness' of desktop publishing, although DTP brought a great critical awareness of the quality of printed material. Schools normally react to technological change by confiscating it to protect the past: ballpoint pens to save our handwriting, calculators to save our arithmetic, digital watches to save our analogue timekeeping, mobile phones to save our... er, well just because they are new.
These rearguard actions are fought with a passion that is all the stronger because there has been little critical awareness of the failings of current technology. For example, despite the evidence of widespread dyslexia, there is little critique of notational forms ñ text, the music stave, even notation in dance ñ as being technologically derived.
We prefer to see the learners as deficient rather than critique the medium. This is not to say: 'The past is dead, long live the future,' but to plead for an awareness of what is inadequate in the past, because of the inadequacy of past technologies.
In the commercial world, those fighting to preserve the status quo are eventually overtaken in their own sectors or organisations by 'new entrants without the blinkers of the established order Opportunities are grasped, profits made and the new technology becomes embraced as mainstream. In 1939, the New York Times' said of the emergent TV technology: 'The trouble with television is that the average American family will never find time for it!' Today, the newspaper advertises on TV as a way to reach those who don't think they have time to read papers.
Sometimes that space between denial and adoption is measured in decades, sometimes in months. What is clear is that between those two phases lies opportunity. It is that space in which real progress is made and where we find the relatively few organisations exploring eLearning ñ developing the concept in a rapid and arguably quite subversive way.
The ground-breaking anthropologist Margaret Meade suggested that we should 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.' In the space between denial and adoption lies the opportunity for that 'small group of thoughtful, committed people' and it is my contention that in a technologically-advancing world, the most fertile moment for change lies within that space. Therefore, may I introduce with due humility, Ultralab's Law: 'With new technologies, between denial and adoption is the space for innovation and that is where radical progress is made.' On the Internet this moment was found in those early days after the world wide web protocols became public and before the monster mergers like AOL Netscape Time Warner EMI ñ between 1993 and 2000.
All this is fascinating in the context of learning and education. Education moves slowly. It is conservative in nature because real children and real lives are precious. It consistently und ervalues the ability and ambition of children with the result that, at best, it coasts along, while at worse it regresses. As nations increasingly compete through the ability of their education systems to deliver creative and productive economies, the ability to take best advantage of the innovative space indicated by Ultralab's Law becomes critical. Miss that opportunity and the engine of learning is shunted into a siding - worthy, quantifiable, but stagnant and stultifying.
On the other hand, the resolute pursuit of change for the wrong reasons can rush the system so far down the wrong track that there is no opportunity to return, as those few US universities built entirely on the 60's technology of multiple choice questions - cheap but reductionist - are finding. The problem is, of course, that the (appropriate) conservatism of education reacts so slowly to the opportunity of new technology that the Ultralab's Law moment can easily slip by and opportunity is lost as we confiscate rather than innovate. In a world economy, this loss may prove fatal.
At Ultralab we have a number of illustrative projects developed within that fertile moment of innovative opportunity. From 1993, with Nortel, we ran ñ and are still running ñ Learning in the New Millennium (LiNM). It allowed us to link primary and secondary school students together with scientists and engineers in Nortel's laboratories in an ambitious on-line community. In the earliest days of the worldwide web, children had the freedom to innovate with their learning and they found that, unsurprisingly, young and old worked well together, that individual identity mattered, that the teacher's role remained pivotal and much more besides. This one project had a greater impact on policy and practice than any other, because it began at the most fertile moment for innovation.
Shortly after LiNM began, we embarked on School OnLine (SoL) with the support of the Department of Trade Industry and a host of companies from the digital electronics sector: BT, Intel, Motorola, Nortel, Digital, Apple, IBM, RM, Mitsubishi, Acorn, EDS and many others. The project was built on database technology. Pages were generated by a combination of context and identity. Once it was clear who you were and what you wanted to do, the pages were 'bespoked' for you.
At one early stage we were criticised by one education quango because the database-driven model was 'not standard' and 'not how you are supposed to do it'. The forces of darkness were trying to clamp down on innovation, but it was too late, the project had demonstrated considerable success and won a number of awards, moving policy and practice forward as it did so. In particular we held confidential briefings for the project sponsors and it is clear, with hindsight, that those who attended have flourished since, whilst those who didn't have gone to the wall. This is not to suggest a causality, but that those companies open to new ideas and suggestion are most likely to be the survivors in a game built on the certainty of uncertainty.
A particular strength of the SoL project was the emerging evidence that to trust members in a virtual community, it helps not only see what they say about themselves, but also to observe what the various tasks and activities they are engaged in illustrate about their interests and predispositions. This was something we went on to embed firmly in our University for Industry pilot with Josh Hillman at the Institute for Public Policy Research the following year.
By 1997, it was clear that if we trusted students and expressed that trust by giving them great software tools, then we could be very ambitious indeed for what they might achieve. With Tesco and others we built Tesco SchoolNet 2000 (TSN2K) featuring a vast server filled, as we euphemistically suggested at the press launch, 'with opportunity' and fuelled by an absolute faith in the creative ability of UK pupils.
Again the siren voices of established interests suggested that we should do better to fill the server with 'content' and worried about the quality of work that children might produce. Their top-down delivery view of learning had little basis in theory or common sense and showed no understanding of the vast swathes of content already spread across the Internet. We ignored it and Tesco's faith never wavered to its considerable credit.
Of course, children produced stunning work. Given the task to research their own communities, they poured across the UK with laptops and notepads. Asked to write 'after the style of' their favourite author, they produced ñ often at 9 or 10 ñ work of the highest quality, delighting those authors as they did so. TSN2K has gone on to feature in the Millennium Dome and to be accredited in the Guiness Book of Records as the world's largest Internet learning project.
The clear lessons from all these eLearning projects have informed some of Ultralab's current projects, including Notschool.net, a virtual school for those many children not formally at school for various reasons, often beyond their control, and Talking Heads, an online community of new UK headteachers. Both projects have full Department for Education and Employment support and funding, and use the set of online learning community tools we developed with Oracle which became the Think.com project.
The maverick projects from the early days of the web had illustrated their worth and created opportunities for mainstream projects firmly within existing educational policy structures. The moment had been seized effectively, learning had become a little more delightful. But Ultralab is still a small research centre. What is needed is the ability of the whole educational sector to recognise the space between denial and adoption so that the whole sector can seize the moment safely and to continue to seize it as technology moves on.
First, if national educational policy is to move forward with confidence rather than hope, we need better meters of progress. Our bedrock of UK quantification, criterion referencing, has itself been a significant drag on progress. Naturally, it is seductive to define criteria and then observe education's ability to deliver progress, but this assumes no underlying technological progress. For example, we observe children's creative writing, set criteria, arm them with better tools ñ word processing, for example ñ and then are pleased by a small, say 5 per cent, increase in their performance. But, as we have observed over the past decade or two, word processors unleash substantial gains in productivity and creativity so that we should anticipate a substantial increase in performance, by 25, 50, or even 100 per cent. Thus our 5 per cent criterion referenced progress is in fact hugely underambitious. The consequence is children coasting, unstretched and disengaged.
Criterion referencing forces us to 'do that which we did before', resulting in the most innovative of children's work being pushed into marginal areas of children's learning ñ often outside of school altogether. In a Formula One race no one is impressed when a car performs better than last year's model, because technology has advanced. What is impressive is beating the other new cars in this year's race. Education, too, is in a global race, and 'better than last year' won't win it.
Second, we need to focus on process ahead of product. As technology marches forward the task for children of delivering product targets ('finished' work) becomes easier and easier, breeding complacency in education. If we are to offer formative advice and to support progression, we need to look at how they complete tasks rather than what they have completed. A good example of this missed opportunity is seen at the crossover from primary to secondary school where, nowadays, records of performance are exchanged, but the processes adopted by confident and often autonomous top juniors are not. The resulting disaffection is immediately apparent from the many, many children for whom the first year of secondary school is a backward step and often a first step away from their love of learning.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, primary school pupils were doing extraordinary things with the programming language Logo. Their problem solving was sophisticated and well documented, but secondary schools saw only the product of this complex work ñ geometrical pictures of flowers and cubes, for example ñ and not the underlying process. The result was that these confident and sophisticated little programmers were offered computer painting packages to 'move them on'. They produced better pictures, but could see this missed the point and that their abilities were undervalued and misunderstood. Any model of learning would view this as a disaster.
Again we observe the combination of children's ability to harness emerging technologies and education's inability to value or progress that capability ñ a key contributor to disenchantment, in this case at 11 years old. The irony is that new technologies allow us as never before to capture process, to archive consequent and subsequent drafts. Make no mistake, the refocus from product to process is an assessment revolution of considerable magnitude. We need it urgently.
Third, we need to value creativity above predictability. It is now well understood that standards do not mean standardisation, although in some countries around the world standardisation is misunderstood as progress. In 1996 the Japanese group Keizai Doyukai1 ñ similar in role to our Confederation of British Industry ñ took the cue of their under-performing economy to take a careful look at their education system. Where were they tending and culturing the inspiration that had produced the Walkman and all conquering gam es console? They found that good effort had been expended in testing Japanese school students and in comparing their scores to their peers around the world. Japanese education could be honourably presented as 'world class', but something important was missing. They concluded: 'The post-war education system in Japan sought to eliminate deviations in students and deliver an equal, uniform education throughout the land. This was effective in reaching the goal of catching up industrialised nations. Now however, the nation is in need of highly creative and independent individuals. Fostering individuals with these characteristics will require educational reform starting from the elementary level and taking at least 10 - 20 years to be effective.'
Their new focus on creativity began, characteristically, in that same year. What is interesting in their change of direction is the understanding that, as technology brings us more and more capability, our creative ability will become increasingly valuable. Seizing the Ultralab's Law moment between denial of the impact of a new technology and its widespread adoption requires us to have a clear view of what will continue to have value and need preserving. Of the many things children do at school or at home, the one least likely to be replaced by future technology is creativity.
As we look around the world at the children of those developers and researchers who are closest to the cutting edge, it is perhaps not surprising to find encouragement from parents to explore performing arts or art and design. Those most clearly able to view what is coming next are also best able to see what is worth keeping, so we might do well to note what they do with their own children. This is the beginning of an interesting cycle: technology pioneers see that a substantial part of their wealth and progress lies in an ability to harness and evolve creativity; they emphasise these attributes in their children using the generous resources at their disposal and presumably their children will often follow in their footsteps. For policy, it means we, too, need to embrace the uncertainty of a creative curriculum and build a national dynasty of creativity to power our economic success.
Finally, we need an honest technology audit of our existing education system. What are the elements of organisation and the curriculum that exist as a result of past - and superseded - technologies, and which are of value in their own right? Large schools built on the economies of scale of transport technology, same-age group class structures adopted because of the inadequacy of communication and organisation systems faced with the post-war birth boom, written examinations that grew and displaced oracy because we were unable to capture oral contributions for external moderation, and much much more will need an honest assessment. This process will have to be ongoing, for as long as technology advances. It is very hard to stand back far enough to be objective about such things, but it is necessary if we are going to be able to spot the places where new technologies might offer us the best progress.
eLearning has given us a great excuse to look again at how we manage and evolve our learning. If we establish the habit of continuing to look and time our innovations appropriately, our coasting curriculum might make the progress it needs to seduce learners back with real ambition for their capability. And this will leave us, literally as well as emotionally, on top of the world.
1 As quoted on the Keizai Doyukai website at www.doyukai.or.jp
|@ September 13, 2005 8:08:27 AM BST ( )|