Stephen Heppell's Weblog

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Ages ago, for a TES keynote at the 2000 BETT Show in Olympia, I proposed that we create a Children's Charter as a way of ensuring that they get a fair deal in their learning when ICT is part of the equation.  
 
People keep asking for it again, so it must have left some kind of impression.. so here is the meat of it, again.... 
 
 
The pioneering Microelectronics Education Programme has just passed the 20th anniversary of it inception. MEP was active from November 1980 to March 1986 and under its director Richard Fothergill was responsible for the development of high quality curriculum materials, software and in-service training for teachers. The Labour government had actually planned to start the scheme in 1979 but lost the election and the plans were put on ice until '82. 
 
20 years on, much of the anticipated impact of the vision from that pioneering project remains tantalisingly elusive, yet the children who started primary school as Fothergill took up his post are now in their mid twenties with a full school career with perhaps a university degree and the beginnings of a career behind them. The education system seems to have been remarkably patient as a score of years have tumbled past. Each year a scapegoat was found to explain the lack of progress: we needed more computers than one Spectrum for a class of children, we needed better software, we needed better staff development, we needed meta data to organise our content, we needed broader band connectivity, we needed.... so many excuses but the years have rushed by and so many children have missed out on the opportunities to enjoy the seductive, delightful, engaging learning environment that we know computers help to offer. Looking back on the optimism of those 1980 visions it seems incredible that in 2001 some school children will still be stuck typing up best copy of their handwritten work on-screen or using the computer as a testing machine, drilling rather than thrilling. They deserve far better and in some but not all schools they get it. 
 
Perhaps it's time to stop the excuses and start from a model of entitlement for all children that serves as a litmus test for our school curriculum and organisation. This set of entitlements might be expressed as a Children's eCharter so that school children in the next 20 years might see clearly where the education system had delivered and where it had prevaricated. What might such a Children's eCharter include? Obviously there is need for a national debate but here are nine top nominees for inclusion, to start that debate: 
 
• Children might expect to be offered progression and continuity for the many and diverse ICT activities they have collected on their way through primary and secondary school. This should not be translated into a soul destroying attempt to reduce experiences to the least set of common capabilities ("I'm sure you do have you own website Alison but not everyone in this room is as lucky so we will work at this cut and paste exercise until we are all starting from a level playing field") 
 
• Children might expect that the new "cool" things they discover that they can do with computers would be allowed a place in the curriculum, but only when their teachers can show that "new" is "better". This simple entitlement carries some substantial hand baggage with it: teachers will need to be better valued as action researchers, the sterile search for "learning productivity" (faster or cheaper learning) will need to take second place to a search for creativity and we will need to embrace the uncertainty that will result.  
 
 
• Children might expect that computers would be used as a tool to extend their learning opportunities rather than as a machine to test learning achieved away from those computers. Learning tools not testing machines. They might further expect that examinations would allow them to harness and show the skills and techniques that they have developed with computers. After 20 years of word processing it probably isn't unreasonable to expect that they might be allowed to word process in the examination room, but there is far more to ICT than word processing in the 21st century and the exam boards need urgently to awaken from their slumbers and stop penalising children for being ICT capable. 
 
• Children might expect a broader definition of literacy that recognises the media rich world they live in, and will work in. They might be supported, where resources allow, in their creative work with new media: sound, video, web pages and more. With governments all around the world (and perhaps especially in the Pacific rim) embracing creativity and the computer's contribution to it this is also a key economic entitlement that our future national income will depend on. 
 
• Children might expect that their personal choice of information and communication technology would be respected. The history of education's relationship with new technologies is littered with imposition, confiscation or standardisation. Many teachers are of a generation that were banned from using a ballpoint pen ("it will ruin your handwriting"). Today's students find their mobile phones or PDAs banned whilst the policy on personal laptops in school is usually muddled and rarely starts from an entitlement debate. Some universities expect students to abandon the familiar computer that got them through A levels computers and buy something "more suitable"; how arrogant. 
 
• Children might expect that work they do outside of school would enjoy an audience inside school. This was hard before, but suddenly, as they used to say on TV, we have the technology. The entitlement here is for children's work outside school to be valued, accredited even, and offered some progression. All teachers will tell the story of the child they taught that unexpectedly turned out to be an expert on something (badgers, bookies odds, brass rubbing). The entitlement here is to reduce the "unexpectedly" bit, now that we can. 
 
• Children might expect software that is built on an understanding of learning rather than a model of business practice. Businesses need finished documents, learning needs to record processes and an office word processing or administration suite is not ideal for delivering learning outcomes. MEP authored and sponsored the development of some ground breaking software and gave it away to learners; that public investment in public goods is needed again. 
 
• Children might expect that, now we have the means, their work from previous years might still be on tap somewhere. One great sadness for many children is losing the record they had of their "brilliant Viking Project" and not being able to show it to their new teachers. This is especially galling when the new teacher insists on doing the same work all over again which is neither the teacher nor the students fault. It is a communication problem. We could be braver yet and suggest that children might be able to re-present revised versions of their previous work, building on past successes rather than starting with a clean sheet every year. After all, this is what so many companies do. 
 
• And finally children might expect a rather less naive view of what equity means. Government rhetoric sees the information have nots as those without computers, or maybe those without internet access but it is more complex that that: an internet access (like ADSL) which "delivers" information to you but offers little return bandwidth for you to "upload" a contribution disenfranchises a student as effectively as refusing to hear their contributions in class. ICT is information COMMUNICATION technology and the entitlement to communicate, rather than just receive, is central to social equity and to learning. 
 
What is interesting about this list is that these are common sense entitlements that teachers have been pointing out for some years. The big change now however is that an economic imperative is pushing them to the fore. Without these entitlements the children that graduate from our schools will find themselves in a low wage, low value economy, despite all our investment in ICT.  
 
They deserve better. 
 
 

© Stephen Heppell 2000  
 
 

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Creativity is tough to define, but every teacher knows it when they see it. In the 1950s we sought conformingly uniform children, for the conformingly uniform jobs of late industrial Britain. Any creativity was strictly extra-curricular. But as the mundane tasks have moved overseas, or become tasks for robots, creativity has replaced conformity. Schools have noticed. Children are designing the robots! 
 
Type "creativity" into Google and you find an unsurprising 90 million or so hits. About a third mention schools. Almost every policy paper from progressive (and progressing) countries around the world mentions creativity in learning. Some, like Japan, have whole policy documents dedicated to it. So, how many mentions does the word get in the "Higher Standards, Better Schools for All" White Paper? "Standard" is mentioned 144 times, "fail" appears 53 times. Rather surprisingly, the words "creativity" and "creative" are not mentioned at all, probably uniquely for an education policy paper in the 21st century. Someone has taken their eye off the ball, haven't they?  
 
But where the White Paper has failed spectacularly to notice creativity, our teachers, students and parents are embracing it, armed with some very useful new tools. All around the UK schools are seeing remarkable levels of engagement and effort resulting from a quite specific focus on creative activity. Now that computer connected cameras are so affordable a mass of really imaginative video is pouring from our schools, and has been for some years. The BBC has a TV programme, Blast! dedicated to video work by children for children. In Blackpool they fill a huge seaside cinema with primary children who show each other their short movies on the BIG screen, before voting for their favourites; the quality is remarkable. Annually BAFTA celebrates the breadth and diversity of children's creativity with the annual DfES supported "Be Very Afraid" event which this year included a kinetic "garden" of optic rods representing a student's communications with friends and family, and a primary school adventure spanning mobile txting, books and web-site. 
 
Apple did some really useful pioneering work in the early 90s where they paired school children with cinema icons like Ken Russell and music stars like Brian Adams. The results were stunning and since then they have supported a regular showcase for creativity annually at BETT. and much teacher development. With software tools like iStopMotion or FrameThief on the Macintosh or Anasazi Stop Motion Animator, TePee Animator or MonkeyJam on the PC the fun of animation is wonderfully accessible too. To see a group of 12 or more children, each animating their own plasticise character or object, on a complex stage in line with their storyboard, it to witness the power of creativity to engage and delight. And the end products are eye-swivellingly complex to watch. You can see why Apple are majoring on their iLife studio, to make easy movie, photo, DVD, music and web-site integration. 
 
And with the whole BSF agenda challenging our ideas about what creative school might be like, there is no better way to hear the learners' authentic voice than to arm them with the wonderful (and cheap) cross platform "SketchUp" 3D architectural tool - used by professional architects too - to let them model and then "fly through" their own view of future schools. You can also see why Microsoft's web-site lists over 13,769 references to "creativity". This is a major battleground for the big companies and as users we gain from the competition.  
 
So, schools are innovating, the tools are affordable, professional and easy to use, the children are terrifyingly confident and ingenious. Creativity matters. Maybe the next White Paper due soon, on Further Education, will notice? Don't hold your breath. 
 
 
Professor Stephen Heppell heads his own policy, research and practice consultancy, Heppell.net, at the heart of a network of innovative collaborators worldwide. 
 
 

© Stephen Heppell 2006  
 

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Oh dear... I was asked by the Guardian to contribute to their rather fun "Don's Delight" short column in which academics (quite a distinguished lot as I recall) were asked for an account of the "book that changed their lives". 
 
Now academics are a funny lot (aren't we..) and some were writing more to enhance their reputation (shall we say) then with an eye to veracity. Some pretty unlikely tomes were thus claimed as pivotal.  
 
Inevitably I came to this a bit tongue in cheek and rather than saying The Aeneid of Virgil or whatever, I wrote the short contribution below. To a large extent it is true too - the book did empower me in an unexpected way and started me, as it did so many others, off along an interesting journey that I'm still enjoying.  
 
Curiously enough it generated a heap of interest too and a lot of correspondence that explored how today's computer users are relatively disenfranchised - they are tool users rather than tool makers...  
 
 
I am an inveterate reader with a passion for reading that started early and shows no sign of diminution today. My reading was and still is eclectic. I read anywhere and everywhere and for a professor steeped in new technology have retained an unlikely love for the texture and smell of printed paper.  
 
However, picking the book that changed my life from the many that have simply made a contribution is not a trivial task; there have been so many books that one way or another nudged me in a new direction: Enid Blyton left me with an unquenchable thirst for adventure and a completely misplaced optimism that all would be well in the end that I retain today, Shaw's Prefaces awakened my political soul, the dismal circles of Dantes Inferno cautioned me against futility, I adore Chaucers Canterbury Tales for the sounds and rhythms, Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull encouraged me to strive for (elusive) perfection, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man convinced me change could be made to happen whilst Ransomes beloved Swallow and Amazons fed my love of sailing and my childrens' a generation later. Together with a thousand other books they helped make me what I am, warts and all. 
 
But the single book that really changed my life was one that showed me how to harness and tame technology; it convinced me that people, with the right tools, could be part of an information and communication revolution where they could actively control what was on their screens and swap their passive lives as couch-potatoes for creative lives as contributors. 
 
The book? Sinclair ZX81 Basic Programming Guide by Steven Vickers. It came free with my Sinclair ZX81 and was the only book in the box. It probably still is the most boring book in the world and, looking back at a copy here in my computer archives, largely incomprehensible. It contains advice about peeking and poking, RAM and ROM and other previously implausible pairings. But in the depths of its turgid prose ("you will find you can use X$ as input data without any trouble") lay the key that liberated me through technology in a way that the great cluncky mainframes of my student days never could. It literally changed my life and began a people's revolution that is running yet. 
 
 

© Stephen Heppell 1999  
 
 

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I wrote this for the Times Higher Education Supplement at the end of 2006. To be honest, I don't know what to do about universities - they seem to have sooooo lost direction. There are heaps of good people inside them, but they are lions led by donkeys in many cases, sadly. I've tried (and am still trying) to help, this piece is just part of that effort... 
 
The article signalled some of my concerns, making some fun comparisons between HE in the UK today and the UK motorcycle industry back in the last century. 
 
I was astonished by the level of warm support that this all triggered - my mailbox was awash with VERY supportive correspondents - from current lecturers and students to now-retired vice chancellors. Interestingly they all said "yes, yes, yes!".  
 
History confirms that, without exception, any industry with this level of dissatisfaction across employees and customers has very little time left. Perhaps we should all turn our attention to what we build instead. 
 
My two-pennyworth is that whatever we build to supercede them ought to do a much better job on inclusion and access... and quality. I can't see why we can't achieve at least 66% participation rate for example.
 
 
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The UK has a knack of losing wonderful assets. No sooner do we have something world leading, than we begin a gentle journey of complacency and poor vision that too often misses key trends and leaves us sidelined. We invented skiing and football, but struggle nowadays to compete. Our sports car industry was once the toast of the world; now just crumbs remain. In 1908 we topped the Olympic medal table, in 2004 we placed 10th. As we move towards the end of the 21st century's first decade it is alarming to find higher education exhibiting all the misplaced confidence and poor vision of these illustrious previous failures. 
 
Contexts, cultures and conditions change. Sadly, numbers are dropping fast: in 1971 we had 14.2 million under 16 year olds, by 2033 we have less than 9 million in a growing population. Chidren are scarce in the UK and in schools the policy mantra is, quite rightly, that "every child matters". One response of course is to look overseas for university students rather than boosting partcipation rates at home. Last year, the British Council anticipated that demand for higher education places from overseas students could spiral over the next 15 years from around 270,000 to more than 800,000 by 2020. By looking outside Europe income from overseas fees is expected to increase from £1,125m in 2003/04 to £1,621m in 2007/08 with considerable growth beyond. But ominously the growth of overseas students in Chinese universities grew by 43% between 2003 qnd 2004 and China expects to rapidly become a net importer of students.  
 
There is time, just, for a fresh look at UK higher education today. The 21st century is emphatically not the 20th century; then most of our economic success stories might be characterised as "building big things that did things for people", from a national railway network to the National Curriculum. Content was king, education was delivered, wisdom was received. Encyclopedia were sold door to door and knowledge was valued. It was all one way. But in the 21st century all the success stories, from Google and YouTube to the huge growth in our voluntary sector, can be characterised as "helping people to help each other". In economic terms knowledge has become a free good; encyclopedia are remaindered. In this symmetrical world of peer to peer endeavour, companies are discovering the power of agile, collegiate structures with organic project teams. They embrace collaboration and communication above all else. At precisely the same time, our universities appear to be rushing headlong backwards into the 20th century inventing 1970s hierarchies of pro-vice chancellor upon pro-vice chancellor, personal accountability and stultifying accounting procedures.  
 
Meanwhile our schools are producing a newly broad portfolio of potential success: children are podcasting, YouTubing, blogging, performing and animating their way through their learning together. A seductive wave of effective and gender flat performance based science teaching is storming through from Eastern Europe, while project based work is evidencing remarkable ambition and achievment both earlier and faster. These and other global trends like personalisation are pushing the old "delivery" model of learning, with its one-size-fits-all, aside. The result is a generation of ambitious learners worldwide, running way ahead of their criterion referencing; confident, ambitious, achieving and diverse. Faced with this onslaught, universities already look like structurally declining industries. Standards have been confused with standardisation, quality control has been confused with quality assurance. If 21st century learners have a fault, it is their impatience. All round the world they love the progress they can make and are ambitious to do better yet. They will not "power down" to come to school, nor to university. 
 
Currently many universities simplistically look only for productivity gains from technology. Their basic web applications with rudimentary chat forums and pdf notes are emphatically NOT learning, they are delivery. They are a million miles from the complex peer to peer environments with their rich granularity of discourse and temporal sophistication that characterise the world our learners inhabit. If HE is to survive in the UK it will need to radically alter its cost base, to properly embrace inclusion, to vow never to waste another learner, and to be ambitious for improving standards. Really significant assumptions need to be tested (we may not need campuses, but we will need a sense of collegiality). 6% of every university's turnover should be devoted to learning research. Learning is what they all do and they need to do it much better to survive. The now collapsed British mororcycle industry didn't think it needed to research the emergent needs of its new customers. If I say that in 2006 the UK university sector looks like a Triumph, you'll know exactly what I mean. 
 
© Prof Stephen Heppell 2006 
 

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I wrote this for Merlin John's always excellent section of the Times Educational Supplement back at the end of 1998, to be in the TES issue for the huge annual BETT Show in January 1999. Since then I have done simply heaps of work on school design and potential school futures. What does pedagogy look like in ten years? What schools should we build, organise and design? And so on (see elsewhere in this RetroBlog). Anyway, there are two rather jolly future scenarios here, both from the teachers' eye view. Sadly, I rather regret that the "productivity" model that Hitech High offers us is the one that has been built, despite the horror of scenarios like these.... oh bother. 
 
Some years before that, with a group of friends in Bangor (like Roger Keeling, the first ever chair of ITTE and Dave Siviter from MAPE), we had enormous fun exploring some future school scenarios. I will try to find them and serve them up for this RetroBlog. Mind you, nobody listened to our wise words of caution then, I'm not sure they will now!
 
 
 
Teachers, teaching and technology in the new millennium. 
 
One way or another, half the teaching population leave every decade or so. But half don't. Thus the current focus on teachers' professional development with ICT will be arming many teachers well beyond 2010 and colouring the expectations of many more new entrants. It is too trite to observe that the only certainty facing the profession in the next decade or two is of uncertainty. Necessitated by that uncertainty are clear choices for the the future of teaching and learning. Those choices mean that the simple equation of children plus technology plus government enthusiasm offers many potential results, not all desirable. We are not so much in a sprint race with countries around the world to to be the first to build a world class education system as facing an orienteering challenge: never mind how fast can we run, the bigger problem is which direction to take. 
 
Ultralab houses the National Archive of Educational Computing and the short history of computers in schools offers an interesting insight into what has, and hasn't worked in the past. For example with professional development the archive is full of in-service support for the mechanics of technology. How to: connect a dot matrix printer, centre a heading in Wordwise on a BBC B, change fonts printing from a 480Z, master tables in Word, achieve text wrap around graphics in.... well, you can imagine. Sadly there is very little reflection on the changing processes that these difficult-to-master-technologies support. Clearly the issue is not "how do I make it work?" but "what can I do with it?" and this points to a real issue at the heart of all our learning futures: are computers teaching machines (to be mastered technically), where the answer to "what can I do with it?" is to use it for the standard and predictable delivery of a static curriculum, or are they learning tools (to be mastered pedagogically) where the answer is less certain, as computers take children not only further and faster than we expected but to areas we never anticipated at all. 
 
The two scenarios offered here suggest two realistic futures and offer a contrasting view of the impact that ICT might have on teachers and teaching in the future. Both are possible; it is time for a clearer national debate about which is desirable. Now that the work to repair two decades of neglect of literacy and numeracy is well under way, maybe it is time for that debate to begin? 
 
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Scenario 1: HighTech High 
 
It's 2010. Rachel is a recently qualified teacher at HighTech High (motto "We aim high to hit our targets"). Rachel needed to be highly capable at using a computer in her specialist subject Geography at university and was able to do some highly original and complex meteorological modelling as part of her PGCE project. None of this though has proved to be particularly useful in her teaching career where vast suites of networked computers are dominantly delivering a tightly tested curriculum, from a vast commercial question bank, to individual students. With each child's performance and aggregate scores linked to their homes Rachel's main need for expertise is as both a technician keeping the teaching machines running and as a communicator. Most days she fends off disappointed parents ("but he is so confident at Scouts and swimming club, it's as though this printout is for another boy...") and parents who object to the American curriculum run on the network ("I'm sorry Mrs Vijage it's part of the deal we bought into with our local provider, the software is so much cheaper and they all love Robin William's voices..."). 
 
Like her partner, who spends most of his day analysing the diagnostic information from an engine analysis computer at a car dealership, Rachel's skill is in looking at the tables of moving aggregates and intervening by prescribing remedial before school courses. Rachel already has a string of certificates (many already out of date of course) testifying to her capability as a network engineer, and as a data diagnostician and she represents a considerable investment by her employers but her real aim is to move into a more creative job. 
 
"Teaching can be satisfying" Rachel reflects, "Sometimes out shopping I meet children that I manage and I can remember all their numbers, but it's not the career I expected it to be somehow; I hope to move on up to a post with my partner at the garage". 
 
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Scenario 2: Apollo Community School 
 
It's 2010. Hilary is a returning teacher, attracted back by the ethos of tiny Apollo Community School, just down the road from where she lives. As a returning teacher Hilary had no experience of either the few big workstations scattered around the school corridors, nor of the huge variety of cheap and cheerful Java based tablets that most children had in their backpacks. On the other hand she can see that the children are confident and capable with actually making their technology work, but what they need is her help and advice with their learning. Hilary's original expertise was in English, with a particular soft spot for Metaphysical Poetry. She could see immediately that whilst the product of creative writing hadn't changed much, the processes involved certainly had and Hilary immediately needed help exploring some of them before offering formative advice. She was cautious about the new "Finessing" function on their server's word processor for example and had already volunteered to be part of a small project evaluating the impact on her children's writing. 
 
So much to do, so many paths to explore, the children constantly surprising everyone with new capabilities. Hilary takes her shared role as action researcher seriously and has developed a special relationship with many of the families around the school. Thanks to a vigorous and well populated community of fellow English specialists in a virtual corner of the Internet she is also able to both contribute to and learn from the rapidly evolving subject area that she loves. Her professional development is informed by colleagues all round the world. As a teacher returner, Hilary might not recognise much of the current broad definition of literacy but learning hasn't changed much and she still loves every exhausting minute of making it happen. 
 
Does it all fit into such a hectic week? "Ah", says Hilary, "Had we but world enough and time...". 
 

© Stephen Heppell 1998  
 

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Website design for schools 
 
I wrote this for Education Guardian back in 05/05/00 and posting it thought that it still, in 2005, has some currency, especially the words about fast loading in a world where the banmdwidth on pre-3G phones is pretty small. "Kids hate to wait" is still a useful mantra if you are designing for phone based browsers.  
 
But it also occurs to me that not much of what appears below has been noted by the many "e-learning" web designers busy "delivering content" and pretending that they are contributing to learning.  
 
If content was king we'd have built libraries not school, wouldn't we?
 
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Back in 1992/3 anyone who could get a world wide website working was immediately feted as a veteran. Now, with a wide range of web authoring tools to choose from anyone can be a web jockey and, just as schools discovered at the dawn of desktop publishing seven years earlier, once the task is easy excellent design differentiates good from bad. Unfortunately where desktop publishing had a rich history of high quality typography as a starting point, with the web some of the most sumptuous and expensive websites are amongst the worst examples of design anywhere and corporate often is synonymous with ghastly. Teachers and students are thus left to plan from first principles and above all else to do so with their common sense turned on. Luckily teachers are communication professionals which is why education boasts so many great websites. Here are eight simple rules to start you thinking: 
 
Firstly bad web designers always love to put rich graphics and complex Java onto their "showcase" front page and fake the demo by running the pages off-line. You know better and must chant the mantra "children HATE to wait". Elegant lean fast design takes skill and imagination. Test your pages with the same slow phone connection and poor computer that many users have. Your front page should be less than 25k, including everything. Graphics are more compact if their colour palettes are limited to three or four colours. 
 
Second, leave your guests with a clear model of the website's navigation. This doesn't mean filling half the screen with a contents table all the time. Book and architectural metaphors are SO last century and surely you can do better, but remember your audience will include children. At Ultralab when we tested children with some icons from adult life they surprised us with their misunderstandings; faced with a no entry sign they took it to mean "smoking allowed" (there is no diagonal bar through what they took to be a cigarette!!). 
 
Third, do remember that as many as one in five are poor or reluctant readers. A text heavy site with complex phrases and adult grammar will repel many but where you must use text add simple icons to aid recognition. Remember to complete the "Alt" tags that label images and help visually impaired users to at least get a spoken description of the images. Text alone is rarely seductive and remember that on a poor screen tiny anti-aliased graphics are hard to read. The computer screen is not paper. 
 
Fourth, be aware that there are many permutations of computer, operating system, browser and service provider all hoping to persuade you to develop sites that support their monopoly by excluding others. Our largest Ultralab projects regularly count over 50 such combinations accessing our servers and you should test your site on a variety of them; why would you exclude anyone by design? Stick to open standards.  
 
Fifth, think hard about how your site handles time. It is not enough to say "This page revised on 9/5/00" (was that its birthday treat, or is it revised weekly?). There is a world of difference between a site that you expect to stay comfortingly static (the complete works of Shakespeare for example) and one which you hope would change hourly (a News site). Be sure help expectations by indicating which of these your page is and remember that there is great merit in pre announcing forthcoming events and in summarising after closure. Time matters. 
 
Sixth (and this is a lesson many sites never seem to learn), the content on your site will always struggle to be up-to-date and seductive if it all has to be handled by a 'web team'. Imagine if everything on all your school display boards was produced by just a couple of people. Don't build a bottleneck for others' creativity. A successful alternative, always, is to empower everyone to be able to make a contribution. At its simplest this might be a place on the network where they can find, and complete, standard templates but at best it is a website built entirely on a database so that contribution and editing is a geek free activity. Children's work needs to be authentic, rather than perfect, just like the work on classroom walls. 
 
Seven, be clear that frames are ghastly. People who use them probably can't even spell design. Just say no. 
 
Eighth, dust off your learning theory; no one ever learned by watching, waiting or scrolling. What is your page for? Think hard about the activities that your website supports: what will users do, can they post the results of their efforts on the site, how will they be rewarded, supported, applauded? Schools are for learning, not for publishing. 
 
Finally, be comforted that many sites that should know better fall regularly into all the traps above: the EU's European SchoolNet site has no "alt" tags in any language, the Science Museum's new 3D pages are optimised for one computer chip and don't work at all for many, the front pages of TES On-line has a strange use of frames to limit the screen size, currently the Open University's news pages have had nothing new added since 2nd March and so on. In schools and colleges we know about children, communications, inclusion and design; don't be afraid to trust your own judgement. 
 

© Stephen Heppell 2000  
 

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I wrote this for the Times Educational Supplement back in October 1998. It refelcts on how universities might change to reflect the incoming capabilities of a new generation of students.  
 
Looking back, I don't think universities, in general, have made any of these potential steps forward and indeed a little later, in 2001/02 after a discussion with the Financial Times, I asked Mark Constable to survey all UK universities (which he did very creatively and well) to see to what extent they were offering progression and continuity to this new generation of technology capable students. To say the results were bleak is an understatement and it is now clear that universities, with a few honourable exceptions, now stand as a huge barrier to the progress we might make with ICT in learning.  
 
A virus of 1970s managerialism (with its dated emphasis on standardising, on planning by budget, on input-output and on disaggregation) seems to be rushing through HE just when we need the collegiality and agility that used to characterise the sector.  
 
Probably the only hope now is to establish a host of new tiny, agile, focussed, new universities... but more of this elsewhere.
 
 
Developing students' ICT skills  
 
All universities in the UK (and most around the world) are currently dedicating resources to the task of advancing their students' capabilities with computers. In many cases those resources are very considerable indeed. So, what is needed?, what are the choices?, what works and what doesn't work?, what other strategies might be adopted to make the most of this investment? 
 
Before starting it is worth reflecting that software and hardware both change rapidly and this change will continue, accelerating even. There are two consequences that result from this pace of development: firstly, in the three years of a typical undergraduate's life vast changes will occur (where were on-line learning communities or pocket Java tablets back in 1995 for example?) and for this reason it is always wisest to focus on the meta skills that transcend the simple operation of any one particular package. It is substantially less important that a student can work on a unique software application (for example, a particular version of WordPerfect) than that they are able to understand the defining functions of most word processors and apply them to their writing. Secondly the capability of incoming students is advancing as rapidly as the technology and this applies to both those arriving straight from school and from those mature students arriving from the workplace. Yesterdays roomful of wide eyed computer virgins learning a suite of standard applications has gone. Students enter higher education with a wide range of technical expertise, with a diversity of hardware and with a multiplicity of mail service providers. Students coming directly from school have a curriculum that prescribes these levels of capability with precision for example. 
 
So, what strategies work in these new and changing circumstances? Just as agreeing a book list with the library well ahead of the semester start is essential so agreeing the software packages essential to complete a module and ensuring that adequate training resources are in place will be essential too. At the departmental or faculty level if there are essential tasks or applications (for example building 3D animations in architecture, or exploring AVID cards in media degrees) there will certainly also be strong one on one training materials available for students to use in their own time, at their own pace. Some software comes with ts own comprehensive help built in, often with complex "Help" options to illustrate the power of an application; the availability of good support material should be a deciding factor in any university's software purchase decisions - what use is cheap software if the cost of learning to use it is astronomical? 
 
Beyond these "in the box" help solutions other training materials vary from largely ineffectual video examples (watch me and learn...) to bespoke CD-ROM products that offer "at your workstation" support for both basics and advanced techniques. Key2's excellent Training on CD series offer full scale screen recordings of how to do everything from basics to what they describe as "cool stuff" and "masterclasses". These individual materials provide student capability at minimal cost to either the students or to the faculty but a necessary organisational detail is the provision of (ideally) 24 hour access to the computer equipment to fit in with individuals needs and schedules. CD-ROMs tutorials can be borrowed on short loan tickets of course, just like library books. 
 
Many universities have found that a mentor system will allow existing undergraduates to trade their support of incoming freshers for better access to a computer suite. As with the infamous pyramid selling student capability widens at an almost exponential rate, again at minimal cost. A combination of self help materials and mentor support will yield really rapid results. 
 
Beyond this immediate support at faculty level there are three cast iron rules of thumb that minimise the problems universities face with improving student capability: 
 
Firstly, do anything to encourage regular use and activity. Many universities find that the simplest and most effective strategy for increasing the ICT capability of incoming students is to place an ethernet socket in the bedrooms of halls of residence, advertise the fact well in advance of student arrival and wait. Regular daily use breeds capability. Similarly 24 hour access suites are dramatically more effective than 12 or 18 hour access. 
 
Secondly, motivate student use. Simply requiring students to word process their essays will neither change the world nor their levels of capability. On the other hand offering a first 'rough mark' of word processed drafts which can then be refined and 'finessed' will immediately and dramatically improve motivation and capability and demonstrate where the real pressure for open access areas lies. Similarly making an email debate between students a key precursor to a face to face seminar with the tutor will dramatically turn around the students' capability with email and, as many universities have found, also signal an early warning of poor motivation or shallow engagement. Make it part of the course and capability happens. 
 
Thirdly, reward student capability. Many universities now offer a computing "driving test" but tying this into the minimum pay rates offered by university student employment agencies is massively motivating in the current impecunious climate. Students with computer capability can and do attract better part time work. Advertise and support this. 
 
A substantial student group, that cannot be addressed by self help materials, or by the carrot and stick rules of thumb above, are those mature students who have minimal exposure to computer technology. They often report fear, stress, alarm, despondency and worse of all a loss of their fragile esteem whenever they are sat near a computer. However research suggests that it is not a techno-phobia at work here but a simple lack of vocabulary. Not knowing what the 'proper name' is for the components of a computer screens display leaves an underlying fear of 'making me look a complete fool' and this is at the root of the stress and fear. For this group a quiet series of sessions around a large projection screen literally becoming comfortable with the vocabulary of computer life is the most effective capability builder. Armed with the right words, asking for help from peers in an open access lab is far less daunting. 
 
Finally it is worth remembering that many universities come at the whole problem from the wrong direction. Students by and large these days are ICT capable. But that capability is often with some other application, some other computer or some other mail system to the university's "standard". Standardising university procedures and systems to minimise training problems only exacerbates the difficulty. The more you prescribe, the more students fail to fit that prescription and are then in need of support and training. The opposite is more likely to provide a cheap strategy that will be future proof. Design systems on the basis of student diversity and the need to support or develop student capability will be immediately diminished. A large number of network points, a university policy wedded to Internet protocols only and individual choice will get by with a lean resource of self help materials and enthusiastic mentoring.  
 
And that is cheap and achievable for all of us. 
 

© Stephen Heppell October 1998  
 
 

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In New Zealand I was interviewed on the excellent Kim Hill Show, then a radio programme. Kim wanted a few "think pieces" to read before the interview and, true to her word, had read everything I posted for her. She was witty and incisive. One of the bits i mailed over to her was a short article I was asked to write for CGI magazine and I've posted it below. Re-reading, it is always interesting to find words like: "Looking ahead it is starkly clear just what the future holds." when they were written in 2001 (!) but I'm pleased with what i wrote then and, of course, it has all come true... hasn't it? 
 
As the cool tools of the creative industries get paradoxically hotter and hotter a key question is whether public sector organisations can keep up. Such a question presumes some direction to the headlong rush of technology and further assumes that the direction is forwards(!). This may not necessarily be the case. It's a curious thing that as technology moves faster and faster the failed ideas and misapprehensions of previous technology eras seem to come round quicker and quicker, whilst great ideas from previous eras don't seem to re-emerge with anything like the same tenacity. Why should this be? History may have some lessons for us, to explain why. 
 
One enduring misapprehension throughout technological evolution is that what people want from their equipment will only ever be the delivery of "professional" content, quality assured from the centre, to consume passively at leisure; content, we are led to believe, is king. Of course any fool can see that what people actually do with technology is find new ways to communicate, collaborate, commune, annotate, participate and narrate with others. Good content matters but is only an increasingly small part of the jigsaw. Content will always be deposed by communication and community. 
 
When telephones first appeared, London owners were able to "enjoy" broadcasts down their phone lines. The early pioneers saw no prospect that individuals would have much useful to say into their own phones which were not seen as symmetrical devices; you listened, but you didn't contribute. Of course to a telephone owner a 'phone was quickly perceived to be an opportunity to participate, something that you spoke into because you had plenty to say and thus a world of telecommunications was born. It's good to talk. The same misapprehension, that everyday people had no useful contribution to make, underpins "Let nation speak unto nation". The reality of course is less grand; it is that Kirsten in Canvey shall speak unto the rest of her county as she warns about trouble on the A12. People participate. In the 60's radio waves were "subverted" as pirate radio stations, anchored in the North Sea, broadcast content that was neither quality controlled nor centrally originated. A less likely subversive than Tony Blackburn would be hard to find, yet at the time he and his colleagues were seen, implausibly, as a threat to national stability; in practice the pirate radio stations had simply confirmed that the newly accessible technology of radio was less about broadcasting and more about contribution or annotation as zany "DJs" risked all by airing their views across the ether. 
 
Still later the videodisc sought to bring another kind of revolution, this time to the screens in our learning environments. These huge silver platters offered yet more high quality content, but this time with the added feature of better navigation through their linear contents. As universities and schools struggled to afford these revolutionary players it was already clear that they would bomb. People wanted to have some control over what was on the discs, to be able to add value and to be able to author this new media. The cost of doing so was prohibitively high and the technology failed. People wanted more than to be passive viewers with a bit of interaction. The National Archive of Educational Computing at Ultralab houses hundreds of these discs, many in their original unopened cellophane; these unbroken wrappers tell all there is to know about videodisc technology. Thinking they should "keep up" public institutions tried to buy the players but by the time they had saved enough (with a few exceptions, Florida State for example) the technology was dead. The few successful Videodisc projects, like the BBC's Domesday discs or Apple's Visual Almanac gave users a role and an opportunity to contribute, but these markers for a better future were rare. At Ultralab (then the Learning Technology Research Centre) we were connecting computers to videodisc players to allow people to author their own work and being told that we misunderstood the technology. We didn't. 
 
After Videodiscs came an explosion of media storage. Of half a dozen CD "standards" CDi claimed to lead the pack and was touted as the next "next great thing". Again the personal authoring costs were prohibitive, again it bombed. This time public institutions were a little more circumspect and waited before saving up, let alone buying, but conferences around the world worried that schools and universities were missing the important new direction. In truth the really important new direction lay elsewhere; it lay in people becoming increasingly hungry to participate and it was delivery technology that had, quite literally, lost the plot. At Ultralab our first CD-ROM in 1989 was "Tools for Multimedia" to help people make their own CD's cheaply. Publishers phoned us to say that such democracy and cheapness would kill the market. It didn't. 
 
In the early '90s all this changed with the World Wide Web as a new collaborative, symmetrical, technology, designed for exchanging papers and research, exploded into our lives. The initial seduction of the web lay in the ease with which many could make, create and do on-line. As many "experts" including, famously, Bill Gates undervalued the democracy of this new "web" technology real people were having fun and building websites. At last a technology gave them an active role and the sites grew at exponential rates as many exercised that opportunity. Public sector organisations woke up to a real revolution and this time spent money as the National Grid for Learning became a sound bite to represent a huge real investment into schools. Some though were less easily persuaded. At Ultralab in these early web days we were running big database driven sites like our DTI Schools OnLine project with personalised pages for participants and later our biggest contributory projects, like Tesco SchoolNet 2000, were entering the Guinness Book of Records, but we were still criticised because "that isn't how the Internet should be" as one agency put it. But of course it was. 
 
As the web revolution gathered pace telecommunications companies, after a century of allowing people to make their own personal contributions one-to-one missed the whole one-to-many opportunity that the web had confirmed to be seductive. Instead they sought to use their empowering phone lines for video-on-demand. But, new technology or not, there had been no ripple in the gene pool and as before people still wanted simply to participate; it was never likely that broadcasting would replace conversation. After some spirited trials video-on-demand technology predictably bombed, but those enthusiastic for it scampered away to suggest instead that the future of broadcasting might be a choice of viewing angles via an interactive box. It won't be. As Video on Demand was bombing the real phone revolution, mobiles, was giving people more and more opportunities to make their contribution together with some interesting new ways (like the asynchronous SMS messaging) to do it. The worst technology ostriches by this time were wondering why Big Brother was so successful whilst drama seemed to be slipping away and dreaming about a Big Brother CD perhaps?. Someone should tell them, it's only kind to do so. In the lab we are currently working with annotated digital video that offers media redundancy and a non linear route to narrative. Siren voices (and they sound curiously familiar) are telling us we should be more into ADSL. "Is ADSL symmetrical?" we ask, impishly. "No" they say, "but people will be able to choose what they receive...". Oh dear. 
 
Looking ahead it is starkly clear just what the future holds. A string of new content delivery technologies ("wouldn't movies on a mobile phone be a great idea?". No!) will bomb as the same people keep returning, convinced that past failures were only due to lack of bandwidth, poor IPR legislation, immature standards (hah!), or a lack of "proper channel". In the 1980s when the desktop publishing revolution took off pundits dismissed it ("there is no substitute for a good literary editor"), the MP3 revolution took off as pundits dismissed it too ("there is nothing to match the skill of a good agent") but each resulted in more writing or more live music. Television will succumb. People will use the revolutionary tools like iMovie or Final Cut Pro and beyond to become video contributors and just as no child ever watches a DVD disc right though (they prefer to navigate to the best bits) so the ownership of narrative will pass to the viewer from the broadcaster. As this all happens pundits will be explaining that there is no substitute for the commissioning process and looking puzzled.  
 
At Ultralab we are using an eclectic and evolving mix of technologies to run vast media rich communities of practice for the UK's headteachers, for children excluded from school, for health professionals and for countless other groups. These successful projects use cool technology, but the shared constant is a simple understanding that people like to participate, enjoy a sense of audience, want to make a difference, need some facilitation, value being social. It's not about "keeping up", it's a people thing. 
 

© Stephen Heppell 2001  
 

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