Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 10 October 2007   Friday, October 19, 2007

ISSN 1748-3603

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Becta's Harnessing Technology Research Forum
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Becta's Harnessing Technology Research Forum
by Bob Banks

This forum brought together delegates from education, academia, industry and agencies to discuss some key current themes in learning technology research, and their application. The event also provided an early feed into the review of the national 'Harnessing Technology' strategy for education. The original Harnessing Technology strategy document was released two and a half years ago, following extensive consultation and development work led by Diana Laurillard, and the time feels right for it to be updated. The process will proceed through a number of seminars in October, and a national Harnessing Technology conference on 6th November followed by more extensive consultation up to early 2008.

Rather than trying to express the 'official view' - Becta’s website is better placed to do that - I’ll mention some themes that emerged for me during the forum. Any opinions expressed are, of course, my own.
 
The parallel session titles perhaps give an insight into potential areas of focus in national policy. They were:

  • Realising benefit: educational business processes.
  • Technology and educational reform: towards a demand-led system.
  • Learner voice.
  • Trends and developments: future technologies for learning (which looked at mobile technologies, e-portfolios, and Web 2.0.)

In addition, there were keynote presentations from Diana Oblinger of Educause, and Mike Sharples of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at Nottingham.
 
The 'Web 2.0' theme pervaded the conference. Diana Oblinger referred to the emergence of "DIY learning", and the ever-increasing importance of "know-who" (and social networks) for success in life.  Mike Sharples pointed out that the "3 Cs of learning": construction, conversation, and control (held by the learner) are arguably what Web 2.0 is all about.
 
Still – as far as formal education goes – Web 2.0 is largely a future prospect. Another theme was the huge challenge of moving from pockets of excellence in using ICT, to its mainstream use across the system.  The key issues here are those of cultural and organisational change. John Gray, ex-Principal of Newark and Sherwood College, emphasised that in order for mainstream change to occur, business, social, and technological processes have to be considered together, in an integrated way. In light of this, the insistence of Becta and Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) representatives that the role of ICT will play an integral part in overall education policy reviews over the next few months, was encouraging. However, as John pointed out, references to ICT for learning are sparse in most recent policy documents, such as the Leitch report. Young people might have woken up to the potential of new technology, and it’s great that our education policy makers aspire to catch up, but they still have some way to go.
 
I was able to attend two of the four parallel themes: Technology and educational reform: towards a demand led system; and Realising benefit: educational business processes.
 
Technology and educational reform: towards a demand led system.
This session explored technology and the "development of an education system that is more responsive to the needs of learners, parents and employers."  The phrase "demand led" derives from the Leitch report on the skills sector where the answer to "whose demand?" is largely "that of employers". One might speculate that the use of the phrase here suggests a government aspiration to put more emphasis on employers’ needs across all sectors of education - although the needs/demands of learners and parents were also stressed. However, articulating what is needed is far from straightforward, either for employers locally, or for sector skills councils. For example, Diane Oblinger pointed to an American study [1], which identified "expert thinking" (integrating knowledge from a range of disciplines to solve new problems) and "complex communication" (persuading, explaining, negotiating and building trust) as the keys to success and employability in the new global economy.  These skill sets relate interestingly to the Web 2.0 concept - but raise interesting questions as to how they might be provided for in a “demand led” education system.  One pointer is perhaps the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA)  "Opening Minds" curriculum for secondary school, described by Ian McGimpsey as being structured around competencies for learning, citizenship, managing situations, relating to people, and managing information.
 
Similarly - as the "personalisation" and "learner voice" agendas have pointed out - meeting learner's demands and needs more effectively is crucial.  ICT can undoubtedly help enormously. However, it seems to me that a good deal more thinking is needed to enable a clear and effective way forward.
 
Realising benefit: educational business processes
This session explored "the wider role technology can play in achieving more efficient system processes."
 
Vanessa Pittard, Becta's Director of Evidence and Evaluation, explored what is meant by “efficiency” in this context. She located efficiency in the relationship between inputs (such as teacher time, and investments in technology) and outputs (mainly effective learning - however that is measured.). Enhancement of the outputs, for the same cost of input is as much an efficiency gain as a cost saving on inputs, and may often be the way that “efficiency” manifests in practice. For example, studies of time savings that teachers achieve through use of technology - and there is some evidence of this - suggest that teachers generally put the time they save into other activities to improve the quality of their teaching.  And there is now some evidence - for example in Becta’s IMPACT and ICT Test Bed studies - linking effective use of ICT to improvements in pupil achievement. 
 
Don Passey, of Lancaster University, presented a vision of joined-up data across the system supporting improvements in learning and teaching. This could potentially be achieved through the facilitation of assessment for learning, effective learning across several institutions, progression between institutions, personalised learning in general, etc. It was emphasised however, that models of effective data flows won’t necessarily provide processes that will work for real teachers and learners, and investigations of how teachers’ actual processes can be served are vital. Furthermore - as Vanessa Pittard pointed out - the need for agility in business processes was an emerging theme of the conference.
 
I was left with a sense of achievement - that real progress is being made - not just in getting technology used, but in real educational benefits. However, the scale of the changes we are engaged in - involving transformations across the whole organisation and culture of education - struck me strongly - it’s not surprising that change takes time.
 
Bob Banks
Tribal Group -
www.tribalgroup.co.uk
bob.banks@tribalgroup.co.uk


[1] "The New Division of Labour: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market" - Richard J. Murnane, Frank S. Levy  - (Princeton University Press ) 2004

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