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...


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...


    David Jennings said...

    Hi Dan, Thanks for a great, comprehensive record of the day (including the bits where my attention wandered!). Yes, it was Khan Academy that I mentioned -- I also included it on my slides, but evidently I whizzed through that slide too quickly, sorry...

    As far as "feral learning" being less corporate-friendly, I guess it could be in a hacking-the-corporation sense, but we all know that if corporate employees went on a work-to-rule and only learnt things via approved channels, things would fall apart pretty quickly. The feral bit is partly the improvisation outside those channels that people have to do to make everything work. It's also the random and serendipitous learning that people do, possibly completely away from the workplace, that sometimes happens to make them more effective employees (other times, it may just make them more rounded, fulfilled human beings, but hopefully that's not a threat to the corporation ;-)

    Dan said...

    Thanks for the comment David. You may have had it on a slide - my head was in my book scribbling furiously (not taken notes like I did that day for a long time). I'll get around to transcribing my notes for the other 8 speakers at some point I hope.

    Your point about "work to rule" is kind of on the point that I was seeking to address. Corporations, and by extension their L&D deparments (and corporate risk depts etc) seem hell bent on only conceptualising learning as taking place via ascribed, approved channels, and damn anyone who tries to encourage it otherwise. "Informal learning" as described by Jay Cross was intended, I feel, to address the same issues you describe and in the same fashion, ie improvisation. But the term has been picked up by others (do I mean vendors?) almost as if "informal learning" is another channel that can be engaged and controlled.

    I like feral as a term as it is less cuddly and so while an L&D manager might be able to talk to the board about staff being informal, being feral is less likely to meet with approval, and by extension interference. Thus leaving it where it needs to be - with the learners.

    ("The Corporation" described here is something of a straw man I'll admit, but it characterises a standpoint I see people mention they are up against fairly frequently)

    David Jennings said...

    >>>"Informal learning" as described by Jay Cross was intended, I feel, to address the same issues you describe and in the same fashion, ie improvisation. But the term has been picked up by others (do I mean vendors?) almost as if "informal learning" is another channel that can be engaged and controlled. <<<

    Yep, couldn't agree more!

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for your lovely review. By the way, my surname's "Balkan" :)

    Dan said...

    Sorry Aral! Duly noted and corrected.