XChange 2006 – The Next Curve

Jul 07, 2006

Miles Berry

XChange06 is the second of a series of four educational ICT conferences, which are being hosted in turn by the four UK nations, this one coming from Norther Ireland. Most of the folks here are policy makers or advisors of one sort or another, but whereas at the ’05 conference in Birmingham we teachers were in short supply (just the Becta ICT in Practice people if memory serves), there are quite a few more school-based folk here, particularly from the home team. It’s a great opportunity to compare and contrast the different models of provision and policy between the four administrations. The organizers are also doing their best to make use of the technology for a more interactive conference, so we have wifi access, a conference blog, some podcast interviews, little terminals in which to type questions or comments during presentations and individual voting machines.

The conference began with introductions from Will Haire (permanent secretary at DENI), who spoke about the need for whole school approaches in order to get the best return on investment, as well as the digital divide, and Síle deValera (the Republic’s Minister of Youth Affairs), who gave a fairly quick moving and broad-brush picture of the contribution technology can make, particularly in such areas as personal development, active citizenship and social engagement.

After this, we had two contrasting presentations from Carmel Gallagher of CCEA (ppt) and Mick Waters of QCA (ppt). Interesting hearing the two presentations back to back; and the different motivators for change in similar directions, with Carmel focusing on relatively negative reasons to move on, and Mick talking about some of the great opportunities that educational and technological change can provide, this latter coming closer to my own vision here.

Carmel spoke eloquently about the education system here, Northern Ireland already having a world class reputation for education, with their young people achieving better results than other UK regions, so the population happy with things as they are (and indeed seem unenthusiastic about former education minister Martin McGuinness’s policy of doing away with selection at 11+). However Carmel believed that the pace of change means that one have to keep moving forward, otherwise one’s left behind. In facing the wide range of challenges she spoke of, such as globalization, demographics and global warming, she advocated a curriculum which was would provide insight, enable flexibiltity and develop thinking skills and creativity.

Mick spoke about a common, core, universal element to the curriculum, understood as the planned learning experience, but also a more flexible local component: just because there are 24,000 “outlets” for education, doesn’t mean that the same thing should be happening in each. I’m impressed that QCA are aware of the potential that informal, out of school learning can afford, and the opportunities that Web 2.0 provides for peer review, organic management of resources, knowledge sharing and social construction, but there are relatively few schools that are applying this technology to learning – be interested to know what more could be done for this. Of course, the perennial complaint is that QCA’s high stakes testing makes schools unwilling to take the risks of extending the curriculum in these exciting ways, and I’d be interested how methodologies could change to fit closer to the vision here, as Carmel hinted at, and as initiatives likeThe Learning Journey explore.

Mick left us with a series of questions that learner’s might well be asking of schools:

“Why do I get taught at the speed of other pupils?
Why do I take exams in the summer?
Why am I forced to fail exams this year when I could pass them next?
Why do I learn a foreign language alongside others who can’t speak it?
Why do I have to watch a teacher struggle to use yesterday’s technology?
Who do I have to memorise stuff I can look up on my mobile phone?
Why is there only one timetable when there are millions of individually customised Yahoos?
Why are there so few subjects when I have hundreds of TV channels?
Why am I taught separate subjects when life is integrated?
Why do I have to write at school when everyone types in life?
Why do I have to accept a bad teacher when I never accept a bad burger?
Why is school analogue and grey when life is digital and technicolour?”