Saturday, June 15, 2013

Not an interview with Steve Wheeler

Steve Wheeler may have had a monopoly on interviewing keynote speakers but I have had all the luck with fortuitous meetings: coffee with Anna Kirah at her inspirational Making Waves office; conference dinner with Marci Powell; and a delayed flight with Sugata Mitre. 

As it happens, I also bumped in to Steve Wheeler on the stairwell and asked whether he'd thought of interviewing an EDEN Young Scholar to provide contrast with what must therefore be EDEN's Old Scholars. Of course, this is the stupidest thing I've said all week considering that I'm terrified of being in front of a camera and, naturally, interviewing me was the first thing that Steve suggested. Conveniently, I had a flight to catch but, Steve, with a little more bravery and time on my side, these are some of the things that I might have said:

My main takeaway from EDEN 2013: The education system of today is not moving quickly enough to prepare for the incoming generation of tomorrow. If you haven't gathered by now, I have two pre-school children. In the context of this blog, they represent the incoming generation and I am driven by their cause. Against this background, my conversations with Anna, Marci and Sugata have exploded like Hiroshima in my brain. When I search through the rubble, I'm not sure how many old notions still have relevance in the new reality that is reconstructing before me. It's like I've woken up in a Carlsberg advert: Probably the best education in the world. 

In their own ways, each challenged me to think about what school adds to children's lives. This is not the same as challenging the benefits of learning. In other words, are school and learning synonymous. I think not. We talk about 'lifelong learning' and I'd like to coin the phrase 'daylong learning'. I pose this notion to (working and not working) parents who find it convenient when learning is contained in the school day and does not interfere very much with mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays. As Sir Ken Robinson said, a key driver for education is to enable children to become economically independent. When a wealthy parent gifts their children money, this promotes economical dependence. In resistance to this model, I gift my role as home learning facilitator. 

Now, as it turns out, home learning facilitators have plenty to consider. During a discussion about Sugata's Ted Prize-funded literacy experiment in India, he asked how my 4 year old learned to read. I started singing the praises of Ruth Miskin's phonetic system known as Read Write Inc when Sugata announces, "This phonetics stuff does not sit well with me". I'm thinking this guy is crazy but then we talk more. I lamented on my experiences of traveling in Kalimantan, Arnhem Land, Aceh and Laos. In all these places, children are fluent in Pop English: "David Beckham, I love Manchester United!" and "Britney Spears is so pretty!". By the time we boarded our flight, I comprehended the significant value of Sugata's point: Do we really need to teach children to read? 

Sugata's emerging philosophy is self-organized learning. If we leave four children in a group with a Manchester United shirt and a Britney Spears poster, can this not be the start of a decoding game? I am left wondering whether decoding could be an enjoyable part of the literacy journey through which children could develop a suite of additional life skills. Furthermore, it is not beyond comprehension that children born in to the lucky sperm club could soon be Sugata's under privileged children in India. With a projected 1.8 billion additional people on the planet by the year 2050, I wonder whether there will be enough space to build a school for my grandchildren or enough teachers to attend adequately to every pupil. It has dawned on me to the extent that Sugata's self-organized education is visionary. 

If Steve Wheeler was to ask me what EDEN 2013 has changed, I would say that I've left silos in the rubble. When Marci described an eight year old and a fifteen year old learning together on a bench, I realized that too much emphasis is placed on primary, secondary and tertiary silos. Likewise, when she explained how Polycom technology enables a classroom of kids in Wales to take a virtual field trip to Te Papa Museum in New Zealand, I realized that the transition between physical and virtual learning worlds needs to become a lot more agile; the new normal. In other words, last week, I was looking in pigeon holes for answers; this week I'm looking at the approaching tsunami wave in the sky. I guess that's what Luskin meant by focussing on the doughnut and not the hole. 

On an office door at Making Waves is the quote: The best way to predict the future is to create it. Anna Kirah and Marci Powell have engaged me in this challenge. So, Steve, in response to the question, "what next?", I need to figure my way to help create this future that is unrestrained by archaic boundaries. I have the privilege of a scholarship at the University of Bristol to undertake doctoral research and I aim to do something small but significant towards this goal. One thing for certain is that Anna Kirah has given me the confidence to pursue the people-centered approach, which aligns strongly with my professional experience to-date. On Anna's business card it reads 'Chief Experience Officer'. I think that I would like mine to read 'Learning Experience Officer'. 

Sugata Mitra - Charlatan or genius?

'It's quite fashionable to say that the education system is broken - it's not broken, it's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it any more. It's outdated.'

These are the radical thoughts of Professor Sugata Mitra, the doyen of innovative education and a figure of some controversy. Sugata Mitra recently won a $1 million TED prize to develop his ideas around his 'School in the Cloud' and building on his notion of minimally invasive education. Mitra told me the phrase 'minimally invasive education' came from his interest in medical procedures, where keyhole surgery was the least invasive method for surgical intervention, and caused the least amount of trauma.

What if, he argued, we could do the same thing with education? Well, many people now know the answer to that question, because he has disseminated his findings, and whatever the detractions and arguments against the Hole in the Wall projects, it has to be said that this bold experiment has some striking outcomes. Not least, claims Mitra, children when left to their own devices (in this case a computer screen and touch pad mouse in a wall) and when they are in small groups, children will teach themselves an extraordinary amount of new skills and knowledge. Whatever your views on this shade of auto-didacticism - and there have been some vociferous criticisms, do watch the video interview I did with him at this year's EDEN conference, and then make your own mind up. Is he a charlatan, or a genius?

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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Sugata Mitra - Charlatan or genius? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Bubbles by Stellajo1976, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by Stellajo1976

Day 2 of the conference ended in a euphoric high with the closing keynotes. However I would like to take a step or two back and reflect on a remark from a session I attended. There's been a lot of talk about tsunamis, revolution, disruption and other radical terms of major upheaval in education. But let's just remember that we've been here before several times.

At the end of the 1990s the dotcom boom was in full flight and e-learning was on everyone's lips. It was going to completely change the education system and large scale online universities started springing up all over the world and established universities rushed to start offering online courses and degree programmes. Then came the crash and online learning got more integrated into the traditional system and we returned to business as usual, though with a few new elements and a few lessons learned. The system got a fright but then the innovations were absorbed and the threat of revolution was averted.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that we are in a period of exciting change and see the promise of a new focus on learning with technology as a powerful tool. But I also think it's dangerous to underestimate the power of tradition and that we're challenging established business models that will fight back. Already the openness of the mainstream MOOC market is being diluted as they develop into franchising deals for digital course material with full copyright on everything. The truly open and innovative initiatives such as OER University, Peer 2 Peer University and the original connectivist MOOCs are virtually never mentioned though they all continue to operate within a limited but enthusiastic and creative community.

We need to feel inspired and euphoric as we did yesterday but we also need to question and test our ideas critically. We need to remember not to put too much trust in big name companies whose aim is of course to provide return on investment. Coursera and all the others are still evolving and the model is clearly that of freemium, not free. You give away a bit for free to persuade people to buy the premium version. Let's remember the past and beware of bubbles.

England, What's Going On?

This morning, June Breivik highlighted the archaic nature of exams as proof that learning has occurred. I recently moved to the United Kingdom from New Zealand, which coincides with the announcement in England that GCSE assessment is to take a backwards step and again become solely exam focused. I nearly fell off my chair at the news. Fortunately, I moved my family to Wales where the system is different. For example, in the primary years, the Welsh system values experiential learning to a much greater extent than the English system, which is hung up on making grades from a very early age. 

I reflected heavily on June Breivik's comment relating to the relevance of conventional education in a world where knowledge is being re-written no sooner than it has been created. I once knew a university Professor who was in the process of writing a text book; perhaps more accurately, a brick. I witnessed the aforementioned sweat blood and tears but, meanwhile, I couldn't help but wonder how long it would be until his lifetime's work would be redundant. Nevertheless, this was my concern, not his. The Professor's view on digitally mediated knowledge creation was, "codswallop". 

In juxtaposition, I was privileged to undertake research on behalf of a visionary Professor who was interested in the development of non-technical skills among veterinary students. Without doubt, it is important for veterinary students to memorize certain content because it's tricky to ask Google when one has their arm up a cow's ass, which incidentally is what large animal veterinarians spend most of their time doing. However, a student does also need to develop the skills to communicate with clients and explain why their beloved pet cat needs to be put to sleep. 

Returning to the reason that I nearly fell off my chair is because I am a child of England's assessment-completely-by-exam system of the 1990's. Reflecting on that time, I have often described myself as an exam monkey. In other words, I was very good at memorizing the information that old exam papers told me would be important and then forgetting that information the second that I walked out of the exam. Good school grades kept me on the train to a Russell Group university, from which I graduated at 21 years old with a BA(Hons) and a completely empty brain. 

So, June Breivik propelled thoughts of static England back to the forefront on my mind. While EDEN experts are talking about the new Digital Age mindsets of 'disruptive education' and 'chaotic learning', policy makers in England appear to be using Industrial Age mindsets to promote archaic static education. Unless this situation changes, I will be keeping my children on the Welsh side of the border. 

First day in pictures

Before the storm
Kristin Halvorsen, Norwegian Minister of Education and Research meets Morten F Paulsen, EDEN President

Still relaxed
Anna Kirah's presentation stirred some discussion

People-centered approach by Anna Kirah
Anna is a really inspiration live

Anna brought a surprise: 6 young students working on their own start-up: Kono

Keynote session on Thursday

Kono presented by Anna Kirah's students

Grainne Conole's workshop in action

And we talked more....

...and more...

and more.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Norway’s education minister Kristin Halvorsen opened up the conference by stressing the promise and potential of technology in education. She ticked nearly all the boxes the EDEN delegates are concerned with; the advantages of openness in education (OER and open access), the potential of MOOCs, the flipped classroom and the need for professional development for teachers. These signals from government level are vital if we are going to change our education system. After so many years of grassroots development it is essential that this energy is complemented by some top-down commitment and of course funding. The example of student-driven initiatives to change schools showcased by Anna Kirah in her keynote was a fine example of the need to link grassroots creativity with some encouragement from above.

The role of technology in education has finally made the front pages and landed on the agendas of educational decision makers and I think we have to thank MOOCs for this. Whatever you think about MOOCs they have succeeded in putting e-learning on to the mainstream agenda. The reason is not so much the MOOC concept as such which has been around for several years but the fact that the world's most high status universities are leading the way. Reputation matters and gets you noticed.

Alan Tait developed these ideas in one of the afternoon sessions by examining the battle of ideas currently raging within education. There is a tension between radically different views of education; between private or public, open or exclusive, commodity or tax-supported, market forces or basic human right. Even if we seem to be opening up education there are strong commercial forces that see this openness as simply a way of repackaging the traditional model. Quality in education has so far been linked to exclusiveness but that notion is now under threat. However the move from seeing higher education as an exclusive activity for the chosen few to an open mass market has taken with it too many of the ideas from the exclusive elite form. You still have to adapt to the university and its demands rather than vice versa.

Finally I was impressed by the cavalcade of impressive small scale innovation projects that were spotlighted under the session run by the VISIR project. Well over a hundred micro-innovations in the categories higher education, schools, workplace and informal learning. Have a look at them.