Lord Puttnam at Handheld Learning

Lord Puttnam made a typically passionate and rousing speech at the end of the Handheld Learning conference. It’s available online to view here – you’ll need to scroll to the very bottom of the page.

Leaving aside his (entirely justifiable) attack on some elements of the press (which I read to mean my bugbear, the Daily Mail), his comments were an interesting view on the credit crunch.

His approach as understood by me:

  • the UK should now focus its efforts on building an economy based on green technologies and the creative industries, not on financial services;
  • we should think of education as “vocational” in a new sense – that of a child finding his or her vocation;
  • there is a real need to re-engage the large number of disaffected learners;
  • technology is key to this as it’s what the learners expect and understand.

You may agree or disagree (mostly I agree) but I was desperate to ask about public service educational content in this respect. The BBC seems currently to be worryingly quiet on this matter, Channel 4 can’t do it on its own, and allegedly some not-for-profits and LAs are now so scared in the aftermath of BBC Jam that they won’t develop content for fear of being accused of having state aid in a free market. This is absurd. Will somebody in politics or public service broadcasting stand up and be brave, please? We need to be building stuff of the quality that the independent sector were creating for Jam. But we just can’t do it right now with no funding and no evidence of ambition.

How I learned to love games in the classroom – or, conversion by Derek Robertson

I’ve always been a sceptic about the use of off-the-shelf computer games in the classroom (in other words, pre-existing games not designed for education being used in schools). This is even after working on a Futurelab-sponsored “thought leader” panel about it. My doubts stemmed from a number of things:

  • The sloppy thinking that “you can just put the learning in” – I’ve seen one prominent commentator describe how he thinks that French questions should be inserted into an existing action-adventure game at key points in the action, forcing the student to answer them before they can continue. This apparently would make it educational. In fact, it would be positively damaging: the whole point of an action-adventure game is the visceral experience. Stopping that experience ruins the game and demonizes the learning. It may be possible to integrate the French into the plot somehow – but that requires developing the game with that in mind from the beginning, and ensuring that it fits seamlessly into a compelling story and experience. Shoehorning sucks.
  • Many of the games ideas that I have seen, implemented or not, have contained an inherent dishonesty. The idea is that the learning gets “hidden” – that kids won’t notice that they are learning about history while they are playing a game. This is a recipe for disaster. Make the learning necessary for the game, but be honest about it. Kids of every age spot the lies very, very quickly.
  • The limits of simulations. There has been some interesting and good work in schools with a range of simulations – from SimCity to Theme Park – but several issues emerged. It took the teachers a very long time to work out the way the game worked, and where they did, even more time to embed them into meaningful lessons. More profoundly, though, I have always worried that however interesting the simulation, it never reflects the true, sometimes fickle complexity of reality. Additionally, there is often a rather frustrating relationship between the fidelity of the simulation and its usability.
  • Scalability and transferability. Almost all of the work I have seen or read about depended on an a charismatic and motivated teacher delivering great lessons. Arguably, these teachers could have delivered a great lesson with a carrot and a piece of string, never mind a computer game – the success of the teaching depended on an individual, not the resources they were using. I have rarely seen examples of work which could be used without that fantastic teacher.

But. I’m writing after the Handheld Learning conference this week, where on both days I saw Derek Robertson from Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Consolarium speak about his work across a wide range of Scottish schools. I also saw a teacher from a London LA talking about how she has re-applied one strand of Derek’s work (with the Nintendo DS and the Dr. Kawashima Brain Age game) in her school. All of the numerous examples Derek gave of his projects – from Guitar Hero to Endless Ocean – seemed honest, well thought through, compelling and – and here’s the important bit – scalable.

I even challenged Derek on a big issue for me about projects involving ICT. I always wonder how much the novelty and attention which kids automatically get from being involved in a project with computer games and learning increases their motivation and focus automatically. Derek’s great answer was: why shouldn’t kids get new things all the time? And what’s wrong with giving them attention? Fair cop, particularly if you are working for an organisation which has institutionalised that novelty and attention by providing Derek and his colleagues as an ongoing resource.

It strikes me that the key things about Derek’s work are the following:

  • Selection. Derek chooses – very carefully- the games which he works with for their potential for use in the classroom. Strangely, Grand Theft Auto hasn’t featured in his work yet…
  • Derek’s notion of a “contextual hub”. Derek doesn’t just push the games (and their associated devices) into the classroom. He spends a lot of time working up how the games can be used, and building extensive activities around them. So, when working with Nintendogs the children got so excited with dogs in general that they wrote about dogs, read about dogs, made pictures of dogs, and even got the local dog warden in to understand how you should treat and look after a real dog.

There’s a challenge here for those of us who develop software for education – to match the way in which off-the-shelf computer games engage their users (mercifully, this isn’t just a question of production values and money, although they obviously play a part). It’s this motivational quality that Derek is so successfully harnessing in his work. Guitar Hero offers a great context for learning, if you have the imagination. Off-the-shelf games are going to provide a fantastic – but by definition patchy – set of resources for teaching. Let’s make sure the dedicated resources that people like me develop learn from the games and from Derek’s work with them.

Beyond Inclusion

Jonathan Hassell at the BBC – who I worked closely with on a project for blind learners – has an interesting idea about accessibility which I think deserves wider hearing. It sits – sometimes uncomfortably, for me at least – alongside an often-peddled notion that “designing something to be accessible will mean that it’s more usable for everybody”. This is true up to a point – yes, we all have our own preferences, learning styles and limitations, and if mine happens to be the need to see something in a larger font and that’s supported by the software, all well and good. But there are limits to this, and people and organisations seem scared to admit it. I suspect this is mostly because it would make them admit the compromises they’ve had to make in designing their offerings – and in a highly sensitive area, this can attract the wrong sort of attention.

Accessibility is vital and should be “designed in” – included, even – from the beginning of a project. But designing accessible products is an art as much as a rigorous process and science. You can’t just tick a bunch of boxes – pragmatic and specific decisions, and often compromises, have to be made about what you can afford and what’s reasonable for a specific project. Sometimes, websites or CD-ROMs have to have less than perfect accessibility to deliver a really great experience for the majority of users, or to fit within the commercial constraints of the initiative. Equally, some projects need to be the reverse – specifically designed for certain disabilities or needs of a minority, and providing a more limited experience for the rest of us. This latter point is what I understand Jonathan to mean by “beyond inclusion”. The best projects, of course, admit all of this up front and have the budget to allow for the creation of separate experiences or versions for particular disabilities where they just can’t be catered for by the “main” version – but such budgets are few and far between.

There was nothing like seeing the face of a six-year old blind learner experiencing a product which was designed precisely for her needs. She could unpack all of the layers of sound we had provided in our resource in ways which, as a sighted person with less attuned hearing, I simply couldn’t. If we’re aiming for excellence in our electronic learning materials, we should acknowledge that sometimes accessibility in its widest sense will be limited – for the minority or the majority.

Jonathan’s holding an event about this at BAFTA on June 30th, if you’re interested.

The myth of "free"

There’s been a lot of discussion about “free” at the moment – a debate in BECTA’s ICTRN email list, and Wired journalist Chris Anderson’s notion of “freeconomics”, examined in this Guardian article. The ICTRN discussion focussed around the apparent demise of free electronic educational resources on the internet, and the supposed benefits of open source; the Wired notion is all about how you get some things supposedly for free, but there is generally a hidden agenda (mobile phone “free”, monthly contract £15 per month, for example).

Made me think a bit. Fundamentally, and rather obviously, the key point is that nothing is free. The important debate is about who pays, when, what their motivations are – and what sort of market and products and services the chosen system creates. To dissect the current situation in electronic educational materials:

  • we all pay for publishers’ materials indirectly, via the money, targets and incentives that the DCSF distributes to schools (see below on this blog for more on how the market for educational resources in schools in the UK is incomparable to a much closer-to-free market such as that for wheat or potatoes);
  • the DCSF and other government bodies create materials using our taxpayers’ money and to their own political agendas (for example the materials for the strategies);
  • we all pay for the BBC and its free materials via the licence fee;
  • schools and colleges create materials for themselves, and sometimes others, which are also effectively at the taxpayer’s expense (as we pay teachers for their time);
  • there is nothing much “open source” in terms of software designed specifically for the UK schools market that I am aware of – Moodle and other VLEs are much more international (and often higher education oriented) in their focus. This is almost certainly because the creation of educational software is culturally very specific, time-consuming, difficult and expensive. Even if there were lots of such material, it would still have been paid for somehow – in people’s time and in the computing resources that they have devoted to their work.

Since the demise of BBC jam the debate about what sort of electronic materials and services we want for our schools seems to have been absorbed into the wider debate about what sort of education system we want in general, and how technology does (and doesn’t) help us to get there (for example in Futurelab’s Beyond Current Horizons programme). In many ways, this is entirely appropriate and sensible – but we should not lose sight of the myths and agendas which have shaped people’s attitudes to the current market.

Marc Prensky, computer games and "digital natives"

You’ll notice I’ve got a bit of a posting frenzy on today – I have come out of a long tunnel of projects and pitches, and wanted to start blogging again, particularly given that I wanted to comment on the cancellation of Jam as per below. This marks my first non-Jam related post – breathe a sigh of relief.

Late last year I went to the Handheld Learning conference. Mark Prensky was one of the keynote speakers, and his notion that kids are digital natives and the rest of us are digital immigrants was aired (again). He was – perhaps unsurprisingly – talking about his latest book, “DON’T BOTHER ME, MOM — I’M LEARNING” : How Computer and Video Games Are Preparing Your Kids For Twenty-first Century Success — and How You Can Help! His presentation was charismatic – but, frankly, a little patronising in places.

Prensky’s ideas are helpful – but I think, only up to a point. They seem to have been unthinkingly accepted as universally true, without a lot of research. I even saw them in a document distributed by an LA to its primary schools the other day. Yes, lots of kids are naturals with the technology. Yes, they are often much more savvy with digital devices than their teachers, and many end up helping their teachers and parents with their Word woes. But – there are lots of kids out there who don’t like the technology, or aren’t interested in it: just as there are girls that like football, and men that like ballet. My (utterly unresearched) opinion is that there are plenty of kids who think that computer games are really dull (in most cases, my view as well). Computer games are not a cure-all for educating our kids in the 21st century. It’s simplistic and lazy to accept Prensky’s ideas unquestioningly. Let’s challenge them a lot more.

The film I really wanted to make…

Those of you who know me will know about my interest in things Tibetan and Bhutanese, following my travels to Tibet in my gap year seventeen (gulp) years ago. As part of the Religious Education project for BBC Jam, we were going to make a film about young people in Bhutan and their changing attitudes to society, religion and the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness. I’m bittersweet that somebody has made a film close to our idea, and it’s available online. It’s well worth watching here – Christof Putzel has made a thought-provoking film.

One year on, the BBC have cancelled Jam forever

The sharp-eyed amongst you may have spotted the BBC Trust’s effective complete cancellation of Jam, with a few caveats, published on 27th February. This is very sad. I hope that at least the SEN materials (some of which we are proud to have worked on) will see the light of day. Thus far, we have not seen very full details of the BBC’s plans to “meet its educational purpose for children and young people by enhancing its existing portfolio with some new online educational initiatives which are skills based”. I hope they are brave and big, in line with my post of a year ago.

At the moment, it feels like corporate greed has won the day, and removed any space in the market for the development of truly innovative and exciting public service educational online materials. As I have said previously, commercial publishers can create good stuff, but I firmly believe that there is material which can and should be created as a public service, and for which there will never be a commercial market. I suspect David Attenborough would agree, given his comments about the BBC last night (and I share many of his views as reported, by the way!).

Some thoughts on the future of BBC jam

Introductory note: This article is written in the aftermath of the suspension of BBC jam, which took place in March 2007. I have been very involved in the development of the jam service, having been Executive Producer on five different projects, which, at the time of suspension, were in various stages of production – from about to be made live, to very initial project initiation meetings. For details on the suspension of the service, view the links at the side of this blog; for more details about me, see the profile available from a link on this page.

There are a number of objections to a BBC learning service: many are spurious. I’m not going to cover those here as it would be going over ground which others will doubtless examine in detail. However, there is one argument which has logical integrity and considerable appeal, and which consequently needs to be looked at seriously. The purpose of this article is to take that argument, examine it, and outline my conclusions about the future of jam on the back of this examination. I should say that much of what I am posting is not original and has been discussed with and by others – I cannot take the credit for all of the thinking!

The powerful argument against a BBC learning service might be described as the “free market” argument. This is characterised by the line taken by Richard Charkin of Macmillan, amongst others – his espousal of it is particularly interesting as he has no vested interests in the UK educational publishing market, and he is a significant figure in the international publishing industry. The argument goes something like this: the best and most efficient way for educational materials to be developed for, and distributed to, their users is through a competitive, open market, in which all budgets are devolved to teachers and schools. Commercial publishers should compete to create materials for this market and sell them into it. Institutions and educators can consequently have the widest choice possible, created in the most efficient way possible. Materials which are fittest for purpose will survive and prosper; those which are no good will fall by the wayside, at the commercial sector’s expense. Commercial companies, driven by profit, will be much more efficient than public sector institutions. Note that I am talking about “educational materials” here: whether or not these are electronic is actually not important to the argument.

The “free market” argument has the apparent advantages of simplicity, cost to the taxpayer and ease of implementation. However, it misses some vital points:

1. The market for educational materials is not a pure market.
Arguably, no markets are pure, but this one in particular bears little relation to a market in sugar, oranges or timber. It is driven, uniquely, by government. The DfES decides the basis on which teachers are measured and incentivized – for example, the way in which school league tables are calculated (and the fact that we have league tables at all). Given an agenda set by DfES, QCA decides and regulates how the curriculum is delivered and measured, sometimes via exam boards. (Clearly, these arrangements are different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but a very similar infrastructure exists in these nations). Successful publishers make materials which are absolutely in line with the measures, incentives and curriculum.

The educational publishers make good money out of change in education – particularly when major initiatives introducing new measures and incentives happen (for example, the National Literacy Strategy, or changes in GCSE syllabi). There is not a demand for educational materials in the same way as there is for coffee – it fluctuates much more wildly and is decided by one organisation only. Indeed, one argument about the “failure” of e-learning credits goes that the market is now saturated with materials it doesn’t need because the government created an artificial demand in the market. The educational publishers have had many battles with government about the nature and timings of new initiatives – and DfES has sometimes worked alongside publishers to ensure that they can bring out materials in complementary ways and timescales to suit such initiatives. This is not the ruthless mêlée of the trading floor.

2. A commercial market will be only reactive
Fine, might say the free marketeers – so much the better. Let the commercial sector ride the waves of demand and suffer the consequences. Better they waste private money than the public sector waste taxpayers’ funds. If the DfES wants to prioritize particular things, send the money that way – whether it is SEN children or teaching grammar better. However, there is a more fundamental problem. This centres around a decision as to whether we want educational materials to be reactive or, in themselves, agents of change and debate.

There is little controversial in saying that our current education system is outdated and in need of dramatic reformation. QCA itself openly admits this and has been pursuing its interesting and rigorous QCA Futures programme for some time on this assumption. Curricula in both Scotland and Northern Ireland are in the process of changing dramatically. Many questions around these curricula will by necessity remain unanswered until they are implemented, and in some cases the curricula themselves are seen as “works in progress” – things which can be changed as initially theoretical practice and pedagogy are put to the test in real classrooms.

New pedagogy can emerge from new educational materials – few would dispute this. Yet, in a market which is purely reactive to government diktat, there is no room for experimentation outside the boundaries set by government. There is no room for innovation, transformation or debate – or even joy or play, things which are much underestimated in terms of educating kids better in a highly uncertain world which is nevertheless obsessed with the artificial certainties of measurement and targets. A BBC learning service, or a similar public sector initiative, presents us with an opportunity to open up the debate; to experiment; to be unexpectedly excellent; potentially to transform. Commercial publishers’ efficiency will always create materials which are pragmatically fit for purpose. Don’t we need the space to debate the purpose itself?

Clearly, the opportunity to create such new materials should be as open as possible, and the previous jam setup did not allow this as much as it should (see below for some suggestions as to how this might be improved). Yet one jam project I have worked on undoubtedly started to change pedagogy in a way which is potentially in conflict with government (it implies more spending is needed to provide blind learners with particular equipment if we are to maximize their chances of participating in society).

3. Getting practical
Finally, we need to look at where we really are rather than a world of abstract theory. The government moves very slowly and painfully, and its course is often dictated by short-term political gain. Most UK educational publishers are similarly slow to react (this is arguably one of the reasons why they are in such trouble right now). This is not a lightning-quick market responding to change, but one substantially populated by lumbering behemoths, who cannot deal with the investment risk profile of truly innovative electronic publishing (electronic publishing: very high fixed costs relative to very low variable ones; print publishing: low fixed costs, high variable ones). It is a market where a business model of rep forces and large multipart textbook schemes may have had their day, but organisations are finding that they cannot assess this risk fast enough. I should say that there are of course exceptions to this in the commercial sector who produce great and/or highly profitable things, usually smaller companies not (currently) owned by the multinational publishing giants. I work for one or two…

Jam has shown that the BBC – or at least the BBC with its production partners – can make materials very quickly. Unexpectedly, and perhaps more by luck than good judgement, the BBC seems to have found a mechanism to create innovative things at speed. We should harness that to get great things out to our children as soon as we can.

4. An aside: if taken to its conclusions, what does this argument mean for the future of the BBC?
This point does not dispute the logic of the “free market” argument: rather, it takes it to its conclusion. This conclusion is: we should pay for the BBC on subscription, and that it should be financed purely on this basis, rather than via a flat tax (the licence fee). BBC1, BBC2, Radio 3 and Radio 4 (and many other things the BBC does) are little different to BBC jam in the way they compete with real or putative commercial competition. I suspect that Richard Charkin would be perfectly happy with this arrangement. Would you? Where does “public value” begin and end for you?

5. Characteristics of a future service
A future service, in my view, therefore needs to display the following characteristics. Many of these were features of current or future putative commissions in the currently suspended jam service.

  • It needs to engage with the cutting edge of what learning materials need to be, might be and should be for the twenty-first century. This has interesting implications:
    • Projects must fail sometimes. If they don’t, the new service isn’t trying hard enough. Projects should, of course, be subject to scrutiny and tight management – but they should be difficult, challenging, highly ambitious and beautiful. Failure isn’t necessary waste, if the learning from the failure is captured and made public.
    • The service needs to do really big things as well as medium-sized and small things. Only the BBC and the DfES can spend really big money in this area. I’ve made my point about the DfES.
    • Subject boundaries may become unimportant in what is developed. Jam 1 was straight-jacketed by the 50% curriculum coverage requirement. Projects might be problem-based, topic-based, application-based, story-based – who knows?
    • Most difficult of all, this means that the BBC is commissioning against a continually moving target – what is innovative one year might be accepted as orthodoxy two years later, and “productized” by the commercial publishers thereafter. The BBC should be catalytic with the service as well as doing things the commercial publishers will never be able to do – but it needs to scrutinize its projects regularly and openly.
  • It needs to be a service not a product. Jam 1 required a “fire-and-forget” development model – static resources were developed, made live, and could not be developed or managed thereafter. The advent of user-generated content and collaborative technologies make a mockery of this model for an innovative learning service.
  • It needs to do what the BBC can do that nobody else can. This includes:
    • exploiting the power of BBC brands (for example, using links with soap operas to draw in users);
    • profiting from the global reputation and reach of the BBC (for example its international bureaux);
    • working for poorly-served minority interests (e.g. the visually impaired; Welsh and Gallic speakers; those with learning difficulties, and more);
    • doing interesting things with the BBC archive (rather than using it as “wallpaper”).
  • It needs a better commissioning process. The former commissioning process was dialogue-free and left little room for things to develop in stages or organically. Bizarrely, it was nothing like the model which exists elsewhere in the BBC. Note that I mean the commissioning process here – the process by which suppliers received invitations to tender and responded to them, not the development process (which in my experience was very collaborative).
  • It could be open, and open source – sometimes or all of the time. What if one project was to develop web services which could be accessed by commercial publishers’ applications for integration into other products? What if some or all of the content created could be re-used in other places, or adapted for local needs?

Defining this service in terms which allow it to fly but nevertheless have its wings clipped where necessary is hard, requires bravery, and necessitates trust and some level of scrutiny from the commercial publishers and education community. I hope that the publishers will be big-hearted enough to give such a service a chance. An interesting parallel debate is that about the notion of a public service publisher – see Ofcom and the Open Media Network for more details.

What does all of this mean for jam?
We need to make a decision here. Are we happy only to have educational materials which are ruthlessly pragmatic, or do we want to create a situation in which these co-exist with select resources which push the boundaries of what can be done, and raise the bar of expectation? Do we want to innovate, or wait?