Monday, January 24, 2011

A BETTr type of conference?

It's an interesting time to be involved with education in the UK. The government is hacking wildly at the structures that have been familiar for so long; results from UK schools seem to be slipping sharply; the industrial education model looks to be broken.

And where can we find solutions to these problems, to bring education in this country back on track? Matt Jukes thinks it's in the hacker mindset that we'll find answers so he put together Be BETTr, a sideshow conference running on the third day of BETT, across town in Holborn. Sold as "a conference about 'hacking education'" I couldn't say no - especially as tickets to the day long event were only £20 - and that only if you missed the early bird and discount prices (psst, Matt, you should have charged more!)

So, nearly a fortnight on, here's what I remember of the event - excuse the excessive bulleting, a lot of this is from my copious note taking (quite unlike me) and I haven't the time to write it back in to a coherent narrative. I'll stick up the first bunch of speakers and add the others later.

Paul Miller - School of Everything
  • we find it hard to think of a different model to the one we grew up with (applies to lots of things, not just education) - this explains the persistence of the industrial learning-factory school model.
  • Groundbreaking research in the East End of London in 50s documented the importance of communities - captured in the book Family & Kinship in East London by Michael Young* (founder of OU, later Baron Young)
  • The information layer of the internet is only now becoming interesting - precisely because it is becoming boring and mundane - now we are at the point where we can start to do interesting things with it.
  • School of Everything (SoE) links people with something they can teach with people who want to learn for face-to-face learning sessions - the Internet can only take you so far and getting contact time with an expert can be really beneficial.
  • Not only 1-to-1, but also used to create study circles - peer groups self tutoring.
  • In Sweden some 300,000 people are thought to be in regular study circles - and that's in a country with a much smaller population than the UK.
  • What are universities? Yes, there are some features like libraries, but at their heart they are communities with a common set of rules focused on a campus - SoE want to become a "code campus".
  • Accreditation - SoE appeals to adults not too fussed about accreditation (music, languages are top subjects) - perhaps there could be room for micro-accreditation in this?
The SoE website wasn't responding when I wrote this, so here are links: Paul was interviewed by the Grauniad in 2009 and blogs here.

David Jennings - Agile learning
Immediately David came on to the introduction of "agile learning" I had an inkling that I knew where this would be coming from...
  • The book DIY U lists three groups in the learning area: artisans - changing the academy from within; merchants - changing it for money; monk - learning nerds who simply love knowledge.
  • LMSs (VLEs, virtual acadamies, call them what you will) hamper learner access. Google beats the LMS every time.
  • Google empowers "feral learning" where people "forage" for the knowledge they need.
  • Concept of foraging explored in Jennings' book Net, Blogs and Rock 'n Roll.
  • (DR - feral learning looks and sounds a lot like informal learning, but less corporate-friendly, less amenable to vendor take-over and more learner centric).
  • (David mentioned something that sounded like "carn-academy" which I mistook to be some meat-eating variant on knowledge foraging, but actually might be Khan Academy which looks like something in the open learning field - like a not-for-profit iTunes U or OU LearnSpace. Worth a look)
Mohit Midha - Manga High
  • Manga High is a games based learning tool for maths, originally aimed at UK nat. curriculum but now expanding in other markets - big in US.
  • e-learning for K-12 needs to be effective, relevant, engaging - all three, you can't pick any two.
  • Manga High has maths at the centre of the design philosophy - the maths MUST be relevant to the game play, not a tatty add on or window dressing.
  • Uses an adaptive quiz engine that adjusts level to learners (like any video game does)
  • Demos showed that the games actually require use of maths as a function of game play; maths essential for play, rather than getting in way of the game (rather than my experience of "games" in elearning as a tawdry, embarrassing thin visual layer over MCQs - like the "answer games to move your car in the race" type nonsense)
  • nomenclature important: teachers set "challenges" not homework.
  • Sophisticated LMS inside the website provides lots of statistics for teachers - to the learner the experience is no different to logging in to any other website (DR - LMSy CMS origins are NOT on display here!)
  • Gaminess extends at a higher level - badges for completion of work, first to complete, high scores and so on (think Kongregate rather than Moodle) this social layer allows for competition between classes and even schools/regions etc.
  • Arguments for in schools are that the system frees teacher up for other things, rather than simply marking. Good metrics enable the teacher to see the feedback they need to help students who need help. Multiple representations of the data make it clear.
  • Meets with some resistance - parents/schools can't accept that such pretty games can be educational - but soon won over.
Aral Balkan - Teaching programming to kids

Man, if teachers had half the enthusiasm for teaching that Aral Balkan has, ICT education would not be in the parlous state it is now.
  • Do we want to teach programmers or secretaries? (Hint: it's the former)
  • School IT basically teaches Microsoft Office. That's secretarial skill. That's why there is an IT skills gap (DR - I'd heard about this but didn't really believe it - later stats scared/disappointed me)
  • There is no career path in education for IT. IT support in schools is amongst the lowest paid in IT industry, goes nowhere - so get very low skilled or inexperienced people.
  • Cyber-stalking pedo scares mean schools do not even grasp the great ability of IT to put things on the web for people to see.
  • Kids are immersed in technology - phones, iPads, tablets, consoles - but they are basically told computers are dull - they don't have to be.
Aral managed to fit in to his talk a demonstration of some BASIC, a great visual programming tool Scratch and also the beauty in simple code with some lovely effects in HTML and CSS. So simple, and something that could easily fire the imagination of people not inclined to think of themselves as potential programmers.

Interestingly, Aral also eschewed Key Note and just presented from whatever the OSX equivalent of file manager is, popping up images with his ideas on. Very neat, very engaging. Helps that it's on a Mac mind you...

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So I'll add speakers 5-12 later, when I get a chance. Worth it though as I am enjoying revisiting my notes from the day.
    * There's alot to be said about this guy - founded OU, the Consumers' Association, coined "meritocracy" - all offset by inflicting Toby Young upon the rest of us...

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    A good BETT

    Each year I go to Learning Technologies and see the posters for BETT and curse that I've missed what is billed as "Europe's biggest educational technology event". Given what drags me to Olympia every January, I've always suspected that something at BETT would interest me too, so I swear to myself that I will go and renew that vow a year later, as I walk to LT20xx and respy the next round of forgotten posters...

    But this year, reminded of BETT by the somewhat smaller BETTr conference being run by Bristol's Matt Jukes (more on this to follow), I actually got my act together and managed to attend. And wow! Glad I did.



    Though the terms learning technology and educational technology may sound like synonyms, the difference is that educational technology means all the technology in schools, so the remit is very much larger. Adobe is the big ticket brand at LT; at BETT it's the likes of Dell and Microsoft. Around this nucleus of very large companies aiming to sell their hardware and software to heads and education chiefs are hundreds of companies competing with their software aimed at K12 and schools management; science education and ABCs; projectors and milling machines - simply if it's got wires or needs wires and it might end in a school, it'll be there.

    So this of course means that the vast majority of what is there is of little interest to corporate L&D types. But a fraction of something that big still constitutes a fair amount and in my position, working for a company with a primary focus in ILT, the classroom presentation hardware was a primary draw.

    Based on what I saw, here are a couple of observations:

    Visualizers - the overblown and fancy brothers of the humble webcam - have dropped in price substantially in the last couple of year - basic models are now comfortably under £300 and even top featured ones are in the region of a grand. This is a lot less than the few I saw a couple of years ago at WOLCE. Interestingly, a lot of the competition seems to be from Chinese companies now looking to sell direct under their own names rather than regionless rebrands as you find with consumer electronics in supermarkets.

    If you want to add live product demos to your online seminar or VoIP conference, or to shoot clear video of items for elearning, you'd do a lot worse than to look in to this technology.

    • Example - ELMO helpful bods, established model range and good usability.

    Projectors - you might hate the presentation, but I'm sure your company colleagues still love 'em. There has been development here too. "Ultra short throw" projectors are more common, so no more straying in front of the screen only to have your retinas scorched by the 800W bulb shining directly at you. Fixed projectors now need be no more than a foot or two away from the wall, directly above the screen so that there is no risk of your shadow ruining the view - a whole lot easier than having to organise back projection.
    • Example -  Hitachi seemed to the one recommended

    Interactive whiteboards - still not sold on these. I've seen two or three of these at companies but never seen them actually used. The principle innovation here is that there are now a couple such devices that do not require an expensive hardware whiteboard - advances with some projectors can use light pens and do what whiteboards do on any old surface. Actually, you can even do this yourself with a regular projector if you are more creatively minded, as this 2008 TED story demonstrates (details here).

    Audience participation devices AKA the ask-the-audience gadget have been around for a few years now. Not sure that I saw much development here but I still would like to see these used more often. Never had a chance to develop a course to take advantage, but I do feel that they could offer some of our tutors a boost when trying to gauge understanding on some of our intense courses, especially when dealing with mixed-cultural groups who may not all get stuck in with pushier British students, or where language barriers mean reading a question might be easier than simply hearing it.
    • Example - Quizdom have been doing this longer than most.

    Classroom furniture may not be a big issue to you, but we at my company have been thinking about how to make computers available in our learning labs in a way that would not take up space for other activities, and sure enough, BETT threw up a couple in interesting solutions I hadn't seen before. Where, in my experience at least, corporate training often seems to go for a clear elearning or ILT distinction, K-12 education is far more likely to use PCs in an ILT setting for moments of self directed learning, so little PC islands that squeeze a lot of computers in to a small space, or desks that conceal IT equipment within are potentially very useful. We've identified a definite case for something like this when we rebuild our training centre in the next couple of years.

    Okay, so probably not a great revelation to you if you are still regularly engaged in ILT, but these were new to me, and I suspect that I would struggle to see anything like the range on display at a purely L&D event as they simply aren't what the majority of the market are interested in.