Becta / Futurelab Innovation Workshop – day 1

Jul 14, 2006

Miles Berry

Up in Kensington for a 24 hour Becta/Futurelab gathering exploring ways of creating a culture of innovation in the design and use of learning resources. There are lots of folks from the content industry, a number of policy makers and four of us ‘practitioners’ – a little scary to feel that I’m representing the profession here! A number of the conversations thus far have touched on open-source and open-content, and initial impressions suggest that there’s a recognition that peer-production, and a blurring of the distinction between users and developers has much to offer here. It’s good to see thatSF-UK‘s Richard Rothwell is here too.

We’re using the Crystal laptops again as a way of gathering input from all the tables, and these seem a lot more effective with the 50 or so here than the c 500 we had at XChange: there’s more chance to look over the input from the other tables for a start. I’m also amused by the notion of professional conference facilitators – makes sense for a degree of neutrality, and means the Becta/Futurelab folk can participate on a more level footing I guess.

We’ve scoped out our understanding of ‘innovation’ – much as one would expect, with notions of newness, creativity, practical application, ground breaking and disruption, but also some interesting comments like ‘money’ and ‘FUD’! The room seems relatively split between those who feel they are innovative in terms of ‘delivering personalised learning’, and those less so, but there’s more optimism about being able to create a culture of innovation.

First time I’ve heard Becta’s new chief executive Stephen Crowne speak, and my first impressions are postive. He highlighted personalisation as one of the the two key drivers for change in schools, as his view is that in order to raise standards further, there’s a need for a more fine-grained approach to where pupils are, and because, thanks to the technology, people are getting used to more personalised services elsewhere, so education will have to follow suit. He argued for more responsiveness to the needs of the ‘customers’, ie the learners.

His other key driver was the need for a systems level response to the range of services schools are being expected to deliver, as per Every Child Matters. One implication here is being able to make better use of the rich data set at school and system level. More interesting is his emphasis on collaboration between institutions, with shared accountablility for the outcomes of all the young people in an area, irrespective of the specific school they go to. Not sure how this could work out in practice, but it’s interesting to see the way accountability is seen as a lever for change.

There was also an emphasis on budgetary constraints: the suggestion is that there’s not likely to be as much hypothecated funding in the pot in the future, and thus there’s going to be far more emphasis on demonstrating value for money, including in terms of educational outcomes. This is nothing new to the independent sector, where the link between costs and benefits is made rather more explicit, and I suspect bodes well for the take up of open source. He did though mention ‘intelligent purchasisng’, which I fear might be a misnomer if his understanding is centralised provision.

He also touched on CPD, and recognises the move away from older, top-down approach to something he desribed as a ‘mixed economy’. He would like to see continuous learning as part of the warp and weft of teachers’ lives, and thinks that a ‘lateral transfer’ model is going to be increasingly significant, which fits in well with the ‘Community of Practice / Learning Landscape’ idea that Mike Partridge and I have outlined for NAACE’s CPD toolkit. He’s also keen to encourage schools’ development as learning organizations, with greater capability for self improvement.

In terms of innovation, he warns that things don’t change particularly quickly, and that innovation can be a controversial idea, certainly for a number of teachers, but more particularly for parents, who might see it as experimental and possibly not in their children’s interests, if understood in terms of exam performance, which leads on to the question of what are we examining for. However, he’s happy to acknowledge the thirst for innovative approaches amongst the pupils themselves, who , are used to a higher standard of technological availability outside school than in these days.

When we came on to discuss something of a shared vision for a culture of innovation, there’s an apparent tension between some in the content industry for whom there’s an element of competetive advantage and thus a need to keep their new ideas close to their chests, thus closed source code and restrictive EULAs, and the education world, where innovation is more a process of building on the work of others and sharing good practice – innovation is only successful as it becomes sustainable and embedded, and rarely happens in isolation. It’s going to be interesting to see the extent to which this apparent tension features in the subsequent discussions.