Oak is a high density timber and is a common symbol of strength, endurance and knowledge. It grows slowly, but surely at its own rate. As a result of their size and longevity Oak trees are often associated with honor, nobility, and wisdom. In 1651, the future King Charles II hid in an oak tree to escape the Roundheads, or so it is told. Unsurprisingly therefore, it is used as the symbol of the supposedly ‘strong and stable’ Conservative Party.
Last Monday, the 20th April, ‘The Oak National Academy’ was launched. According to the decidedly weak and wobbly Df-ingE, who have funded it:
“This brand-new enterprise has been created by 40 teachers from some of the leading schools across England, backed by government grant funding. It will provide 180 video lessons each week, across a broad range of subjects from maths to art to languages, for every year group from Reception through to Year 10.”
Now in the current situation it could be argued that anything is better than nothing, and to be fair it has been put together in great haste. Initially there will be a lot of relieved parents and children directed towards its use. But the fact is that the on-line academy is pretty much a complete travesty of what on-line or e-learning, or indeed just learning, could and should be like.
Like the EBacc and National Curriculum it suffers from being highly academic and factoid recall-based, and thus is irrelevant and inaccessible to the majority of children. It’s largely dry and uninspiring, or as many children will come to describe it: ‘BORING’. Is it any wonder that apparently two-thirds of children have not participated in any formal on-line lessons since the schools closed? And the format is well known as an approach that has already been seen to fail with many university-based MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) showing massive drop-out rates.
The best academic teachers uses clever analogies and stories in an inspirational, passionate way that makes each lesson memorable and life-changing. They communicate at multiple levels to explain difficult concepts to the least academically-able, while at the same time pushing the most academically-able further. Sadly there is very little evidence of outstanding teaching being presented here. It’s also unforgivable that while there are lessons available for learning Latin, there are none at all for Music, Design & Technology, or ICT/Computing.
But the real shame is that as far back as the early 1990s, with the emergence of what was called ‘Multimedia’, many educational technologists were asking the question: ‘How can these more immersive computer technologies provide new and powerful learning experiences that cannot be achieved through traditional classroom teaching?’ And during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st Century many new research and development projects produced a number of products that pointed the way ahead, pioneering interactive animations and simulations, learning management systems, web-based e-portfolios and collaborative assessment systems, and, more recently, machine-learning interfaces that prompted students to think for themselves.
We’ve had some 30 years to develop the potential of the use of on-line learning in schools, but this appears to be the best we can do. In the months and years to come, sadly this, and other similar solutions, will be used to judge the potential of on-line learning, and will, at best, be seen to have been a failure: at worst, it might come to be adopted nationally in an attempt to reduce the need for real, live teachers.
Traditionalist academics and politicians have failed to understand that new technologies drive change and need to be used in new, more appropriate ways than simply trying to automate the past. They bring new challenges and opportunities that have the potential to extend and enhance our survival, if we use them wisely. Today, with the access they now have to knowledge and information from around the world, children should be learning how to learn for themselves.
As far as the current reality of on-line learning is concerned it’s as if early 20th Century film-makers decided that the cinema would be best suited to filming the printed pages of existing books, and then when the Talkies came in, to capturing the authors reading out aloud the books they had written. Indeed there’s nothing that the Oak Online Academy provides that wouldn’t be better delivered as a conventional textbook, and which could be provided to all children without the need for access to laptops, tablets and broadband connections.