Dome, Sweet Dome

The reviews, posts and tweets about Learning Without Frontiers 2012  (or LWF12 as it has become better known) that have already started appearing are, as one would expect, all busily documenting and commenting on what various speakers at LWF had to say. So of course I’ve decided to be different. Indeed I’ll admit that this year I didn’t go primarily to listen to the speakers – and in fact I would have heard more of them had I just stayed at home and watched the free on-line stream.

So why did I go? Well partly for the ‘networking’ and catching up with old friends opportunities, but mainly to see the inflatable domes and, would you believe, the signage system?  It makes a change for an organisation to invest in the design of the conference environment, and, for me anyway, it made a real difference.

Up on the balcony of Olympia’s National Hall, the main conference area was surrounded by an encampment of what were called ‘pop-up’ domes, pods and salons – futuristic inflatable structures – to house trade shows and locations for breakout presentations by various organisations. At long last, the Space Age we were promised in the 1960 and 70’s seems finally to arrived – well at LWF anyway!

During my visit I was lucky enough to be accompanied by Carla Turchini of Turchini Design who had created the conference programmes and the signage system for the event – that all-important necessity that ensures you end up in the right place at the right time – or not as in the case of many conferences I’ve attended. She told me…..

‘For LWF12 the brief was to design and produce very large wall panels to welcome, inform and direct the visitors to, about and through the Conference and the Festival events. The white inflatable domes and pods would be lit only by coloured lighting so we decided to merge the big wall panels into the surrounding darkness by using black as the background colour, allowing the big bright orange or white lettering to come through the darkness. A subtle dark grey outline representation of a dome on the black background, visually linked the wall panels to the futuristic structures in view beyond. Meanwhile all timetable signs outside each pod, dome or the main conference theatre were designed for maximum legibility with a white background and alternating light grey and white rows.’

The event may or may not prove to determine the Future of Learning, but it certainly showed the way ahead for 21st Century conferences!

And if you do want to learn more about what was said in the main conference, here are some good places to start:

iAuthor: mind over machine

Apple’s announcement today of their entry into the on-line textbook market is generally being greeted by educationalists – and the media – all over the world as an exiting, positive move forward, even though in many cases it will be some years before all their students actually have iPads, let alone iPad textbooks. Educational publishing is indeed an industry in need of disruption – but has Apple got it right?

Now before continuing I had better state that I earn most of my living writing, editing and designing educational resources, so I’m not exactly neutral on this matter!

The original vision was that Apple would employ the best textbook writers to create content that would then be provided for free. That I would have no problem with, but it now seems the reality is that it’s more of a collaboration with existing educational publishers. And as such it’s certainly not going to be free! At the same time, Apple probably doesn’t realise is that over the past ten years the educational publishing industry has been severely squeezed: author’s royalties have been reduced, permanent editorial and design staff have been laid off, and marketing budgets slashed. As a result, the overall quality of many textbooks is now less good than it was in the 1990s. Although of course for the publishing industry the potential savings of an eBook in terms of paper, printing and distribution – which make up the main cost of a book – will be substantial.

The fact is that as a result most of today’s existing textbooks may be filled with facts and figures and the occasional photo, but the quality of authorship, editing, layout and illustration and overall pedagogy is generally poor. Text is often a jumble of unstructured knowledge, understanding and activity and lacking in clarity and conciseness. Artwork is cheap, and usually not that cheerful. The imperative to turn the page to find out what happens next is rarely evident.

Meanwhile  the majority of multimedia CD’s and websites produced over the past ten years are little better, if not in many cases worse. With a few notable exceptions, adding novelty animations, confusing navigational routes and electronically marked multiple choice questions has done little to improve the quality of learning. A well prepared, easily digestible ‘static’ text together with closely related and skillfully executed artwork and photographs can be just as ‘engaging’, if not more so, than any so-called multimedia interactive experience. The most important interaction needs to be with the mind, not the machine.

Ah – but then there’s the new iBooks Author. So now teachers will find it easy to publish their own resources -assuming of course they have the time, and a Mac with the very latest version of OSX.  Great. I expect some will even be quite good. But the rest will be rubbish. Ask any educational publisher and they’ll tell you that most unsolicited submissions from teachers are little more than photocopied worksheets or bullet-point Powerpointless presentations they’ve produced for their own classes, which may work well when they are present to fill in the gaps, but don’t make a lot of sense when they are not. And the fact that the provided templates look like more of a glorified, unimaginative and corporate Word file isn’t going to help. The initial titles appear to be a long way from being any sort of ‘magical experience’ that today’s highly media-literate children are going to get very thrilled about.

Maybe the real breakthrough that would really make a difference would be a suitable Help! file entitled ‘How to prepare a high quality educational resource‘?

So Apple’s announcements today have not made me go ‘Wow!’. They do little more than automate the existing idea of a traditional textbook or a multimedia CD. Where is the integration with social networking, the access to collaborative learning and on-the-fly e-portfolios? In its present format I don’t see them having a substantial or disruptive impact on educational publishers, or on the way teachers teach and learners learn. It’s yet another case of New technology: old learning. Let’s hope future upgrades are more adventurous and herald real change.

Have you tried turning IT off and then turning IT on again?

Just over a month ago if someone had told me that by mid January, both D&T and IT would have been let loose from government control I wouldn’t have believed them. In fact I’m not entirely sure I do now, even after Mr Gove’s recent announcements. Meanwhile it must be galling for teachers of English, Maths and Science who have faithfully done as they have been told for the last 20 years or so to learn that technology teachers are obviously all so clever and trustworthy that they can just be left to get on with it, and that somehow just through the means of social networking they will magically lead us into a new golden age of prosperity.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. No technology teacher under the age of around forty has ever been in the position of having the freedom to determine their own course content, and suddenly asking them to do so is a little like sending a domesticated animal out into the wild for the first time. I suspect most IT and D&T courses will in reality stay well within the safe confines of exactly where they are now. The lack of expertise in the current workforce means that there’s going to continue to be a lot of working in Wood and Word for some time yet.

In a few schools there will be outstanding exceptions, and enlightened enthusiasts will form collective departments that use the time to create new schemes of work that imaginatively merge IT and D&T to explore the creative processes of designing innovative electronic products, services and systems that are easy and satisfying to use. It is these schools that are likely to provide the future programmers, developers, interaction and games designers that can potentially save the country’s future economy and global standing. But there are unlikely to be many of them.

Meanwhile the responsibility for defining the technological curriculum of the future would now seem to be in the hands of the examination boards. No school is going to offer a course in Technology that does not lead to a GCSE or equivalent recognised vocational qualification at 16+. And at the same time, those boards will have to face up to the challenge of providing a format for examinations which can be seen to effectively assess technological capability – a three hour written or multiple choice question paper taken in the school gym just isn’t going to reveal evidence of the ability to undertake creative and collaborative open-ended problem-solving.

Now that the current Technology curriculum is about to be switched off, there is a potential opportunity to create something new and exciting, and finally provide a grounding in what are frequently referred to as 21st Century skills (or more accurately, the late 20th Century skills that were never provided).  The question is how?

And, one wonders, was Mr Gove given an iPad for Christmas and at some point needed to be told to try switching it off and then on again?

Breaking News…. ICT ‘deleted’.

“We have ways of making you learn”

Herr Gove announced today that from September, the National Curriculum requirements for teaching ICT are to be scrapped from September 2012. Schools are free to do what they want.

“Our school system has not prepared children for this new world. And the current curriculum cannot prepare British students to work at the very forefront of technological change….Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum.”

It would seem to be extremely naive of him to believe that just by ‘deleting’ ICT lessons in schools we are going to somehow move to the forefront of technological change, especially as last year nationally only three teachers with a computer science degree became teachers, and many traditional subject teachers would still rather not have computers in their classrooms.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the long-term. Presumably what will emerge will be a great muddle, sorry, diversity, of provision, with some schools going overboard on coding (which many kids will find even more boring than current ICT lessons), and others ignoring IT all together, or specialising in just one area, and with very little sense of continuity and progression. Some really good, balanced, coherent guidance and CPD is needed, but in the current economic situation this seems unlikely to happen?

Comments please!

Teaching to the techno-test

Now if only I spoke French…

The other day the all-important official figures were released of the most-played tunes of the last decade.

1. Can’t Get You Out Of My Head (Kylie Minogue, 2001)
2. Toxic (Britney Spears, 2004)
3. Angels (Robbie Williams, 1997)
4. Superstar (Jamelia, 2003)
5. Just A Little (Liberty X, 2002)

Ever heard of any of these so-called tunes?

And any idea what’s Number One in the singles chart this week?

It’s hard to imagine that a track such as ‘Superstar’ will be being re-released in 50 years time as a classic Golden Oldie. Or rather I hope not. Especially as the unbearable ‘Angels’ (which I don’t think would have even charted in the 1960s) is already 15 years old.

Increasingly, most of these successful ‘techno-pop’ songs are written to something closely resembling a mathematical formula, closely informed by up-to-the-minute data analytics based on what the purchasing public are currently downloading and listening to on the radio. Other factors based on media exposure, celebrity gossip and what’s currently trending also play an important part. Meanwhile sites such as provide real-time tracking through Facebook and Twitter, peer-to-peer and websites matched against related real-world events such as gigs, album releases and TV exposure. Each word of each song is carefully scrutinised to ensure it is suggestive enough, without being explicit, reinforced by the moderately seductive, if predictable videos. As a result there is very little creativity and limited melodic, harmonic, structural or rhythmical complexity. The lyrics are little more than banal.  It’s about giving the general public what they are most familiar with, without challenging them or opening them up to new sounds and musical experiences. And all to ensure that the record companies get the maximum payback from the minimum investment.

Now of course, something like all this couldn’t possibly happen in education could it? The idea of a mathematically derived series of on-line videos and multiple choice question assessments and scores informed by a global database of learner inputs and successes and failures would surely not appeal to anyone who truly understands that education involves more than formulaic learning with a limited range of repetitive techno-test predictability all done to get the maximum payback from the minimum investment?

When the long-overdue education revolution finally occurs, there’s no guarantee it will actually be an improvement. In our rush to embrace the exciting potential of new and emerging technologies it is more than ever important than ever to ensure that the potential to improve the quality of learning is not subverted by savings in the cost of learning that reduces it to a Toxic, mindless set of facts that you just Can’t get out of your head. We could be so unlucky. If we are going to make Just a little progress we’re going to need an Angel or a Superstar to guide and help us.