Becta / Futurelab Innovation Workshop – Day 2

Jul 16, 2006

Miles Berry

Day 2 turned out to be a bit more hard work than the relatively relaxed start to the workshop, with little input from the front and lots of opportunities for brainstorming some of the issues in smaller groups.

The facilitation team had been working hard whilst we had dinner the previous night to distill a shared vision from the ideas and phrases they’d captured. Here’s the first attempt:

“To create an ecosystem and processes, fuelled by the ever changing needs and ideas of all learners, nurtured by the people that support them and delivered to help individuals achieve their full potential.”

Which I didn’t think was too bad for a first attempt, although I took some exception to the emphasis on individuals achieving their potential, perhaps without recognition of a wider benefit to the community or society, and others weren’t happy with the ecosystem metaphor, with implications of competition and hierarchy, and lots of folks didn’t like talk of ‘delivery’.

We brainstormed a few ideas of places where innovation and personalised learning was already going well, and others ideas that deserved wider adoption. These are, I believe, being collated into a wiki, which should be a useful resource. I was surprised by how insular much of this thinking was, with little discussion of work being done outside the relatively small world of UK education. Examples cited from HE included LAMS, which I’d personally hesitate as describing as innovative, and CETIS’s PLE project, which does address learner choice, if not necessarily voice, in ways that institutional learning platforms generally don’t; their PLEX tool looks worth exploring, although I’m surprised that they see a future for desktop applications in this area.

We’d been asked to prepare in advance some thoughts in response to a few issues raised in a provocation paper’, and much of the day provided opportunities to share these. In looking for mechanisms to match opportunities and expertise from different sectors, there seemed a feeling that there needed to be more dialogue between those with the needs in schools and the developers who could meet these needs, perhaps built around a shared vision and community of practice, or through shared, small-scale experimental projects or secondments in both directions. The notion of empowering the schools as developers didn’t seem on the agenda though, although there was encouraging talk about blurring the distinctions between developers, learners and teachers. I did my best to emphasise the need for schools to be able to get at the source code for content, unlocking pdfs, distributing .fla files alongside the .swf, etc so that they could be empowered to mod or tweak this to suit their curriculum and learners, and others spoke about changing the market so that schools could be commissioners of bespoke content, although I’m not sure how the economics would work there. I know that their are IP issues which would put many of the industry off here, but at least some of the industry seemed quite open to these ideas. I was amused by the notion that there was a need for a common, agreed framework in which innovation could take place, but this might be down to the number of policy makers present.

We looked next at possible mechanisms to encourage more collaboration, sharing of ideas and understanding, feedback and evaluation, both between and within the various sectors involved. There was a feeling that collaboration was already happening in some places, but that more could be encouraged by establishing greater trust between the sectors. Much could be achieved by sharing exemplary practice, as in Becta’s ICT in Practice awards, and by encouraging collaboration between learners as well as teachers (thinks… Web 2.0?). Returning to yesterday’s notion of accountability leavers, building an expectation for collaboration into the funding and inspection process might be one solutions. We also spoke about a need for a cultural change for practitioners, in part seeing their work as part of the whole, but also by learning the skills necessary to re-purpose and create content themselves, or at the very least by working alongside those who already have these skills: the role of ILT Champions in the FE sector seemed an interesting model, and of course HE has a long tradition of lecturers authoring resources themselves, as, until fairly recently at least, did many of my primary colleagues. Wider issues also impinged, such as a lack of time for teachers to learn from the work of others or work along side them, a failure to properly engage with the media, prescriptive curricula and unmanageable information flows. There was, unsurprisingly, some misgivings about Curriculum Online as a mechanism for engaging developers with practitioners, and some see little point in providing feedback given present licencing arrangements, and thus some felt that developers didn’t really have a proper understanding of what teachers and learners actually wanted. This, of course, isn’t limited to the content industry, as we’re beginning to see with learning platform provision. The ability to build evaluation and feedback into the software via tracking mechanisms is technically feasible, even if there may be privacy issues, and licencing based on micro-payments may make for a more efficient use of the market, and obviously a tight feedback loop between users and developers is commonplace in open source code.

In considering barriers to establishing an innovation culture in digital resources, we focused a lot on organizational issues, such as risk aversion, the need for sustainability and other organizational priorities, in part driven by wider policy agendas and exam/compliance based performance indicators, which Becta’s self review framework might well reinforce. Much though comes back to issues of time and money, and one of the areas we explored in the afternoon was ways of addressing the both prioritisation and funding issues. Our feeling was that there was a demand for innovation coming from learners and from schools, but not necessarily from further up the education system. In top down terms, we felt there would be a need for a number of scoped projects under the direction of a lead organisation, perhaps building on Futurelab’s Call for Ideas work. Leveraging the creativity present in SMEs is a challenge, as organizations like this can’t commit people’s time without their being some funding in place. I was astonished to hear some of the figures that people were talking about for innovative software development: the Call for Ideas project had a budget of £100,000, one firms new educational application was coming in around the £700,000 and a new video game might be ten times that, and yet… think about the potential and actual difference that MoodleElgg and MediaWiki can make and are making on, I imagine, a fraction of these figures. When so much innovation has happened in the HE sector, much of it open source, thanks to the JISC and similar bodies providing relatively small grants and institutions recognising the wider public benefit of projects, I wish there was a way to fund and encourage similar work in the schools sector – there are many, many gifted teachers, technicians ans students around, with the pedagogic and technical knowledge to make a significant difference, but hardly any have the time or support to engage in this work.

A number of action points emerged from tables addressing other barriers. There was a perceived need to be better at mapping the existing tools, and the need for more effective communication of existing innovative practice, through communities of practice across sectors (qv!), and technical means like wikis, single sign on and RSS aggregation. It was also felt that more stakeholders would need to be engaged in the process, and it bodes well that futurelab are planning to hold a similar workshop to capture learners’ perspectives. Another group focussed on creating a curriculum that might better foster innovation, perhaps under the lead of QCA’s impressiveFutures team, with a broadening of the exam process to a assess a broader range of evidence than it’s presently capable of doing, perhaps with more room for portfolios (incliuding those in myspace), teacher assessment, or indeed peer review. It was suggested that such a curriculum would need to focus on skills rather than content, in part as the latter was likely to prevent much cross phase collaboration. The final group to report back had looked at ways of validating innovation, and warned that to much emphasis on success criteria might well lead to a constraining of innovation, but advocated a multi-disciplinary action research methodology with room for input from learners and teachers.

The day concluded with a return to slightly re-phrased versions of the questions we’d been asked the previous day. There seemed a significant improvement in people’s view of how innovative we could be in delivering personalised learning, although a relatively slight improvement in how confident we felt about establishing a culture of innovation. There’ll be a report out in due course, and I think a lot of the evidence is going to make it through to futurelab’s wiki before long.

It was interesting to have the opportunity to engage with the policymakers and some of the developers at this level, but I’m not convinced that innovation, even in the relatively narrow field terms of educational digital content, is likely to flow from a top-down approach such as this. My feeling is that fresh, innovative ideas are more likely to bubble up from below. If policymakers and senior managers wish to encourage a culture of innovation, perhaps the best thing they can do is to get out of the way. There was a programme on Radio 4 a while back about the way Google let their people work for 20% of their time on their own projects (qv James Farmer), not I suspect because they’re simply a cool employer, but because they recognise that creativity is most likely to flourish with minimum constraints, and that this creativity is the place from which their future success will flow. Wouldn’t it be amazing if this took root in the education system – for pupils, teachers, and yes, even the content industry and the policy folk.