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The Tyranny Of Relevance


#BloggersCircle In a recent address called 'What is education for?' to the Royal Society of Arts, Michael Gove bemoaned the fact that there is no government department in the UK whose sole remit is the pursuit of educational standards.

According to Gove, education is not regarded as a good enough end in itself, but as something which can help to achieve some other goal.

In his exposition of his views in favour of liberal education, he used the term 'the tyranny of relevance'. Although he wasn’t talking about Information and Communications Technology (ICT), this phrase did strike a chord with me. In the continuing debate over whether ICT should be taught as a subject in its own right, is there perhaps too much store set by 'relevance'?

I’ve noticed (although, curiously, I’d never consciously noticed it before) that whenever people tell me that they think ICT should be taught through the context of other subjects, they always cite 'relevance' as a factor. They almost always throw in a reference to kids having to suffer boring lessons on spreadsheets and databases. They seem to think that having lots of lessons on e-safety and plenty of opportunities to use blogs, Google and Wikipedia will somehow turn out youngsters who can use their knowledge of technology and ability to transfer their skills to excel in subjects right across the board.

Perhaps I have overstated my case slightly – but only slightly. Like Gove, I happen to think that the best kind of education is one in which students develop a deep knowledge of subjects. I like the idea of cross-curricular themes, and of making subjects 'relevant' both to each other and a wide range of issues and circumstances. However, I do not think you can achieve that without mastering individual subjects. To summarise, I regard the following statements (which are mine, not Gove’s) as axiomatic:

  1. It is important for students to gain a deep knowledge of ICT, because only by understanding key issues (such as the difference between data and information) can they protect themselves against some forms of hype.    
    More positively, an understanding of how ICT can be used for 'provisional' activities, such as drafting and modelling, and an ability to appreciate the importance of precision in language (as required, for example, in 'sequencing' or programming, is essential for being able to avoid being subservient to a computer system’s apparent will.    
    However, even this is falling into the trap of looking for 'relevance'. Why can't ICT be studied and enjoyed for its own sake?
  3. Far from being boring, spreadsheets and databases can be extremely interesting, even beautiful. I don’t mean just to look at, but in their design and construction.
  5. Any teacher who makes spreadsheet or database lessons boring either has not had the time to develop interesting lessons, or does not really have a deep grasp of, and appreciation for, these areas themselves.
  7. What we need are teachers who have a deep love of ICT. I think to achieve that we have to encourage teachers to join communities in which important subject-related (not necessarily education-related) issues are debated (such as the RSA or British Computer Society).
  9. To help promote #4 we need to ensure that teachers have the time, and the authority, to develop teaching resources of their own.
  11. As part of that, teachers should have the flexibility to be able to teach topics they have a deep interest in.When I started teaching economics, something I was especially interested in was road pricing. I usually spent around 2 weeks on that topic alone, but in doing so I was able to touch on a whole plethora of concepts that I knew would prove relevant throughout the rest of the course.
  13. Finally, there needs to be an entitlement for top quality professional development, and the funds to back it up. For example, why shouldn’t teachers be able to apply for a ‘scholarship’ to attend national or even international conferences about educational technology?

I strongly believe that if we are to tackle the oft-cited lack of computer programming courses, say, or the sometimes perceived 'dumbing down' of ICT as a subject in its own right, we have to address the 'tyranny of relevance'.

The video of Michael Gove’s talk may be viewed on the RSA website.

This article was first published on 2nd July 2009.


Web 2.0 For Rookies: Instant Messaging

Instant messaging, or IM, is the name given to communicating with someone else, via a keyboard, when that other person is online at the same time, as you can see in the screenshot below. In this respect it differs from emailing, tweeting or texting, where the other person may pick up your message later -- when perhaps you are offline.

IM is great for sharing informationWhen IM first appeared on the scene it achieved notoriety because of the way some people conducted themselves in chat rooms in Yahoo!, MSN and other providers. In fact, in the teen rooms especially, but also in 'adult' rooms, some people would use IM for writing sexually explicit content. I found that the sensible rooms were sometimes quite useful, as there were rooms for all different interests, but because it was always a bit hit and miss as to who was going to be online at the same time, these were never as good as today's communities and the ability to 'friend' or 'follow' someone.

There was also the ever-present danger that, because IM is text-based, you could never be certain that the person you were speaking to really was who they purported to be. Not that that particular danger has gone away, as the recent Facebook murder story sadly illustrates. However, there are ways of teaching youngsters about this sort of thing, as Dughall McCormick illustrated in Computers in Classrooms last April.

Today, many of the original chat rooms have disappeared, and those that remain seem to be overrun by spam. However, IM has entered the mainstream, insofar as anything Web 2.0 may be termed 'mainstream'. You will find it in applications such as Skype, streaming video, Facebook, Google Wave.

The reason is that IM is a brilliant way of communicating with someone else instantly. You can quickly share an opinion, ask for a file, give them a useful URL. Used sensibly, IM can provide a rich extra dimension of communication whilst engaged in another activity such as taking part in a discussion or watching a video.

Like anything else, such as text messaging, just because IM has been abused, does not mean it should be abandoned all together.


Conversation is sometimes better than reading

At six am on the morning of my second Spotlight presentation in Singapore, I opened my hotel door slowly and gingerly put my head out. The corridor was empty. Excellent. Creeping to the lift, and walking in the shadows, I was able to get right into the dining area, have a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, unseen and unspoken to. Wonderful! I took out my presentation notes and started to read.

It was then that I made the mistake (or so I thought at the time) of glancing up, because I spotted Junko Yamamoto, whom I had been talking to with David Warlick the previous evening, at a networking reception. I am nothing if not a gentleman, and I offered to join her. She accepted.

In a very short time, I was as delighted as I had previously been disappointed to find myself in company rather than alone. Although I had not been able to read over my notes one last  time, the conversation, on the relevant topic of '21st century skills’ was so stimulating as to make such last-minute revision unnecessary. There is no doubt that the talk I gave was enriched by this unplanned exchange.

I was not alone in being thus affected. Junko, who arrived 15 minutes late for the morning’s keynote address, explained to me afterwards that she had been so stimulated by our conversation that she had to rush back to her room and start writing a paper.

You sometimes hear of all sorts of goings-on at conferences. I think that if the effect I have on women is to make them want to race off and write an academic treatise, my wife has nothing to worry about!


Also on the web: 03/09/2010 (a.m.)

  • I'm looking forward to reading this. At first glance it looks like it proposes a similar set of arguments to the ones I used in my tak on why schools cannot ignore Web 2.0, which I gave recently at the ICTLT Conference in Singapore. I have to say that words like 'leverage' put me ff a bit, but still. I think the subject matter is worth reading and discussing. I wonder; is this the USA answer to the UK's Harnessing Technology'?

    tags: Learning with technology, educational technology, netp2010, ICTLT2010

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

5 Minute Tip: Using Your Phone As An E-Reader

How can you read stuff digitally on the move if you don't have an e-reader and don't want to use a laptop?

I have just returned from Singapore, where I was invited by the Ministry of Education to give two Spotlight presentations at the ICTLT2010 Conference, on the subjects of introducing Web 2.0 into your classroom, and into your school. Because of weight restrictions and for the sake of convenience, I didn't want to take reams of paper with me, and I didn't want to have to read everything on a laptop either, as the one I took with was a fairly large one.

The solution? I used my phone instead.

Who needs an e-reader?

I have a smartphone, meaning that I can synchronise appointments and contact details with my computer. It also comes with a suite of applications like Word, and Acrobat Reader. I found that trying to read documents on the small screen is a challenge: you either need microsopic vision, or not mind scrolling furiously every few words.

However, I found that reading my presentation slides in pdf format worked very well indeed. The file was much smaller than the original PowerPoint version, and was perfectly clear, as you can see in the illustration. It meant that I was able to look at my slides very easily and without any fuss, whilst in situations like drinking a coffee in the airport lounge. I would highly recommend this.

Here's what I did (I'm using Office 2007).

  1. In PowerPoint, go to Save As -> PDF or XPS.
  2. Select the Minimal Size (Publish online) option.
  3. Connect the phone to the computer, via a USB cable.
  4. When asked what sort of connection, select ActivSynch.
  5. Create a suitably-named folder in My Documents on the phone.
  6. Copy the file across from the computer to the phone in the usual fashion.
  7. View the file on the phone by going to Program -> File Explorer and then navigating your way to the file.

I shall be doing a lot more of this from now on!


The world according to Potter Part 2 -- Opposites Attract

In this brief series I am looking at the concept of "one-upmanship", as developed by Stephen Potter, and exploring how the observations he made 50 years ago might still be applicable in the world of educational technology today.


As I said in the first article in the series (which contains much more background information), his books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

To summarise, the 4 main books he wrote on the subject were:

  • Gamesmanship, or the art of winning games without actually cheating

  • Lifemanship, which was concerned with the application of the principles of gamesmanship to everyday life

  • One-upmanship, which was a further extension of Lifemanship, and

  • Supermanship, or the art of staying on top without falling apart.

In Potter's world, the practitioner of one-upmanship, or Lifeman as he or she is known having completed the Lifemanship Correspondence course, has one overarching thought: that if you are not one up then you are, by definition, one down.

Looked at in the cold light of day it sounds ridiculous, I know. But Potter very accurately described people and practices that you and I see almost every day of our lives. So suspend your disbelief and bear with me, as today I look at the law of opposites.

Presentational dissonance and self-contradictory names

As I have said in the past, in describing activities for which I coined the term "presentational dissonance", some practices are inherently conttradictory. Examples that spring to mind immediately are:

  • Authors who write books about self-publishing -- for a publishing company, and

  • A lecture I attended once which lasted well over an hour -- on the importance of participatory learning techniques.

  • More recently, one might add those globe-trotters who visit different parts of the world to deliver lectures on the benefits of e-learning and the interactivity of Web 2.0.

But there is a far more powerful manifestation of this sort of thing: the conjuring up of names for initiatives which are really the precise converse of what the initiatives are actually about.

For example, three or four years ago in the UK there was a welfare initiative called "Supporting People". Under this initiative, the hours of work of wardens in sheltered accommodation were cut, and sometimes reduced to zero, thereby placing at risk some of the most vulnerable people in our society. When I enquired why this was being done, I was told that the organisation concerned had chosen to do it: apparently, it was not an inherent part of the policy itself. Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but the point is that once Supporting People came on the scene, some people stopped being supported.

A more recent initiative, this time in the Health Service, is called Fit for the Future. Note the clever play on the word "fit", which in this context means fit as in healthy, and fit as in suitable. Apparently, in the future there will not be traffic jams, and there may not even be accidents and emergencies. Why else would my local Health Trust be using Fit for the Future as a means by which to axe perfectly good locally-based Accident and Emergency units in hospitals, and force people to travel to a modern hospital that can barely cope now, let alone when that happens? In other words, like "Supporting People", "Fit for the Future" seems to me to mean the exact opposite of what it sounds like it was supposed to mean.

But the prize must go to "Building Schools for the Future". I am not referring to the programme itself, which has achieved some success, but the name. If you think about it, it contains the seeds of its own failure, making success that much more difficult to achieve. After all, if one were to really start to think futuristically about education, one might hesitate to think in terms of schools at all. And as for building, would that even merit a mention, except perhaps as a footnote?

The Potter dimension

So where does Potter fit in with all this? Well, before I tell you, here is a little more background information which will prove useful to you. Potter's "day job" was English lecturer in the University of Oxford. So there is a kind of in joke running throughout the books whereby Potter gives spurious academic-sounding names to types of behaviour. I'll go more into this in another article, but to give you an idea of what I mean, he came up with such immortal terms as "Trojan Horsemanship", "Book Reviewership" and "Derby and Joanmanship" (with its associated phenomenon of "still-ridiculously-in-love-with-each-othering"). It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that Potter came up with a very apposite term for what I've just been describing.

In the Supermanship book, there is a riotous exposition of the natural one-upness of babies, and how to counteract it. In one paragraph, he says that as well as being undermined by the baby itself, parents will also start to be got at by external forces in various guises. He writes:

"Baby Literature makes itself felt first, and Baby Instruction. Many prettily got-up booklets start with the dictum 'Enjoy your baby'."

To this last point is appended a footnote which states:

"This is known in Yeovil [where the Lifemanship Correspondence College is based] as 'The Petrification of the Implied Opposite'."

If the term "Building Schools for the Future" is not a superb example of the petrification of the implied opposite, I don't know what is. Another example we might cite is "e-learning credits" which, when this form of funding first appeared at least, had everything to do with digital content and nothing to do with e-learning, and involved no type of credit in the usually-understood meaning of the term.

Implications for educational technology

So what does all this mean for the educational technology subject leader? I'm not interested in having a dig at the names of initiatives just for its own sake. After all, things have to have names, and the pithier and more evocative the better. But from the point of view of, if you like, the consumer (ie us), we have a responsibility to try and tease out exactly what any new initiative entails. Does it really mean what we took it to mean at first glance? What does the small print say? Is it deliverable? And is it even worth delivering? Can we deliver it with our existing policies rather than spending time and energy setting up new structures?

And let's be clear about this: some initiatives really do do what it says on the tin. Harnessing Technology is about finding ways of harnessing technology in the service of learning. The Hands-On Support funding of a few years ago was very much concerned with providing practical, in-class, support for teachers using educational technology. It's only by scrutinising the various policies, strategies and initiatives that we can get behind the soundbite of the title to determine what it's really all about, and sometimes what we discover is actually good!

And if it does turn out to be an example of the petrification of the implied opposite, it is our responsibility to try to ensure that the initiative lives up to its promise, rather than down to our lowest expectations.

This article was first published on 31 October 2007.


Managing Change: The Importance of Vision

Back in the 17th century, if you were unfortunate enough to have had a vision, and stupid enough to admit to it, you'd likely be burnt at the stake or locked away on the grounds of insanity. But these days, having a vision is de rigeur if you are to bring about change in an organisation effectively.

There is a lot of research which shows that if you want to transform educational ICT in an organisation, you must have a set of guiding principles -- a vision -- in place. You have to know what it is you're striving to achieve, not in terms of the nuts and bolts of what technology will be used and how, but in terms of the educational experience of the students, teachers and parents.

Moreover, the research, and experience, tells us that the vision has to be shared by all, not just the lone ravings of a madman. Ideally, then, it should have been developed by all.

Three of the things I always check when I'm evaluating the ICT provision of a school, whether as an ICT Mark Assessor or an independent consultant brought in by the school or the Local Authority, are as follows:

One, does everyone, including parents and, of course, the youngsters, know what the vision is?

Two, did they have a hand in framing it?

Three, is the school achieving it?

Interestingly, I find that much of the time the parents and students know what the vision is if you ask a question like, "What do you think the school is trying to achieve?". If you ask them about visions, they give you a kind of sidelong glance that suggests that they think you're slightly unhinged. It's a salutary lesson: most of the world does not speak in corporate jargon.

If a vision is good to have, having two or more must be even better, right? Unfortunately, no. Researchers Peck and Sprenger, in their chapter on one-to-one educational computing in The International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education (Springer, 2008), which I shall be reviewing, advise against falling into the traps of naive innovation. One of these is having too many disconnected initiatives.

Even Ofsted, the UK's school inspection body, said in a recent report on the impact of the National Strategies, that:

... the frequent introduction of new initiatives had led to overload and diminished their potential effectiveness.

Try telling that to the people and organisations who are continually coming up with new initiatives and projects to make educational ICT even "better". A couple of years ago, I worked out that there were forty educational initiatives, policies or projects that involved ICT in some way, that affected schools in England and Wales. There may have been more, but when I reached 40 I stopped counting.

Perhaps our 17th century ancestors weren't entirely wrong after all!


The world according to Potter Part (1) Going Metric

In this brief series I'd like to see how the writings of Stephen Potter might be applicable in the world of education -- and, in particular, educational technology -- today. Writing predominantly in the 1940s and 50s, Potter codified the art and science of "one-upmanship". In so doing, he not only inspired a generation of undergraduates to put his theories to the test and invent new "ploys" and "gambits", but inspired the making of a film ("School for Scoundrels") and, perhaps more importantly, was taken seriously enough for the term "one-upmanship" to be cited in academic books.

His books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

So, with no further ado, let's see what Potter has to offer the educational ICT (Information & Communications Technology) subject leader in a school, Local Authority or School District. For this to make as much sense as possible, imagine yourself to be of a certain mindset: that of regarding every waking moment as an opportunity to place yourself, or appear to be, in a superior position to those around you. It may all sound too far-fetched, but as you read on I think you will start to recognise people you know....

I have already written about this in the context of getting ICT embedded in a school. In today's article, I should like to explore the wonderful world of statistics.

I don't know if you have noticed, but every presentation by a Government spokesperson consists of at least 5 minutes (and often much more), of statistics. Whatever the topic under consideration, there is always a section that goes something like this:

"Since we were elected X years ago we have more than doubled the number of Y, and over the next 3 years we will increase this by a further Z percent".

We hear it all the time in presentations about educational ICT in the UK, but it appears in every other branch of public affairs too.

The thing about statistics, though, is that so much depends on context, even if the figures themselves are (a) accurate and (b) not subject to interpretation -- both of which assumptions are highly dubious for a start. For example, if an educational spokesperson were to announce that the Government will spend an extra £10m on in-service training for teachers over the next 3 years, that sounds impressive until you work out that, in the UK, that amounts to just over £22 per head, or around £7.50 (approximately 15 USD) per teacher per year. (See for the statistics on which I have based this calculation.)

Now, there is nothing startling about this per se, but what is interesting is the fact that it is completely disarming unless you (a) happen to know the underlying stats and (b) can do lightning fast calculations. The point is, by the time you have even had a chance to think about it, the moment is gone, and the speaker is on to yet another "fact".

Interestingly enough, Stephen Potter recognised the power of this sort of approach. In "One-upmanship" there is a chapter called "Doctorship", in which Potter discusses the important topics of medical studentship, doctorship, patientship and healthmanship. (I will be examining Potter's use of terminology in a future article.) In a footnote he says:

"An effective statement in the right context can sometimes be: 'I have had 140 days' illness in my life.' Listeners are unable, without a lame pause for calculation, to know whether to commiserate or admire."

So how does this apply in the context of educational technology leadership? The answer is that in today's world, metrics are all-important. I personally believe that that is how it should be, but it's easy to be fooled by statistics which sound good but which, on closer examination turn out to be less than desirable or even meaningless.

For example, I have no idea why any teacher would want their students to receive thousands of comments about their work, because not only is that volume of comments unhelpful, it is completely unmanageable, as I have already said recently (see, for example, the October 2007 edition of Computers in Classrooms, which is available via a free subscription).

I also think most RSS feed readership statistics raise more questions than answers, and that (for my website at least) Technorati's statistics are fictional. More importantly, the metrics given out by companies need further scrutiny.

For example, a technical support company that claims that 99% of its call-outs are rated excellent inspires no confidence in me whatsoever. If the company has 10 employees, each doing one job per day, it means that over a two week period one of those jobs or days will not be rated excellent. That sounds quite a lot to me.

Similarly, a web hosting company that promises 99% "up time" may actually be promising that you may have to put up with the site being "down" for 15 minutes a week, assuming a 25 hour school week. Even if we leave school out of it, given the global nature of communications, I don't want my website to ever be down, not even for 5 minutes a week -- and even then, I want it to be planned for so that I can put a notice up and warn people. Yes, I know I am asking for the impossible, but my point is that statistics like "99% up-time" are meaningless unless we understand the context in which they are cited.

As an educational technology leader, you should at least know some important statistics. When evaluating the quality of a school's ICT provision (at the request of the Head of ICT or the Principal), I make a point of asking a number of questions which involve facts and figures and which the Head of ICT should either know or have immediate access to. It is astonishing how many don't. For example, do you know if there is a difference in attainment in ICT between girls and boys in your school? If so, is it significant? Do you know the cause? What are you doing about it?

As well as knowing some basic figures, you should also know what they mean. Statistics are often given a spurious veneer of credibility by the addition of a graph. I recall one teacher showing me "before" and "after" charts to illustrate how much his students had progressed over the last term.

"But what were the tests actually measuring?", I asked.

"I don't know", came the reply. "But the point is that whatever it is, it has gone up."

Getting back to Stephen Potter, he was making a wry observation about the cavalier use of statistics. Although he wrapped it up in a humorous, not to say unlikely, package, he was alerting us all to be on our guard.

This article was first published on 20 October 2007


Managing Change: Engaging The Teachers

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the management of change, as I am giving a couple of presentations on the subject next week. I've been looking in particular at how whole schools can be moved in a new direction, and have identified several key factors which are essential for success.

One of those factors, or conglomeration of factors to be more accurate, is teacher engagement. If teachers don't want to get involved, the change won't happen. Or it may happen in a way that ticks the boxes, but not much more than that. So how do you engage teachers?

I could write a book on that (and books have been written on it), but what it all comes down to is really quite simple: if the (proposed) change helps the teachers to achieve their aims better, they'll adopt it. As long as they can see that to be the case, of course.

Get smartOne way in which to achieve that is to make sure that the technology is used in a  relevant way, and not merely for its own sake. I saw some great examples of relevant use yesterday, when I visited Scargill Junior School in the London Borough of Havering. Interactive Whiteboards, Visualisers and a variety of handheld devices were being used in numeracy and literacy classes, and we also saw or were told about other inspiring examples in subjects like science and PE.

What especially impressed me (among many things which impressed me), was that much thought had gone into how each device and application might be used in a number of contexts, or act as a stimulus. For example, Nintendo Dogs led to a unit of work in which the children study the use of working dogs throughout history.

This kind of curriculum planning works. I saw it in every school I visited in the London Borough of Newham's multimedia project, involving seven schools, which I helped to set up.

Teachers are, on the whole, pragmatists, and dedicated to their work. Give them compelling reasons to adopt new technology and new approaches, and they will do so.

Thanks to Dave Smith of Havering for setting up the visit, and to Amanda (Headteacher) and Karen (ICT subject leader) for a most inspiring morning. Scargill was a winner at the 2008 Handheld Learning Conference: see this article for details.

For more information about how games and handheld learning devices are being used in education, see the forthcoming special edition of Computers in Classrooms, the free ezine.


Ebooks: No Need For Publishers To Worry?

Still safe?Are ebooks merely a footnote to publishing? I attended a Society of Authors' conference yesterday afternoon, and the panelists seemed to take that view. Apparently, according to the latest stats, ebooks in the UK account for only about 2% of the published output, and next year it's not predicted to rise to much above 3%. From this, the panelists concluded that the book industry was unlikely to go the way of the music industry.

Far be it from me to question the experts, but it seems to me that a few things are not being considered here.

Firstly, it's generally the case that when there is a sudden transformation, it's almost impossible to predict that it's going to happen. There's even a theory to help explain such changes: catastrophe theory. A good example is boiling water: until the last second, there is almost no indication that anything dramatic is about to happen to the state of the water.

So, just because only two or three percent of published books are in the form of ebooks should not, in itself, give any comfort to publishers at all.

Secondly, it is now technically feasible to sell books in single chapters. It used to be the case that you had to buy an album, and hope that most of the tracks were OK. Now you can buy only the tracks you want. By the same token, why should I have to buy a whole book, when there may only be one or two chapters that are relevant to my needs? One of the things preventing this may be that there are not good enough micropayment systems around (I say 'may' because there wasn't the last time I looked; there may be now).

Thirdly, when it comes to niche publishing, the situation may be different. I wonder, for example, what the proportion is in educational publishing or, even more specialised, ICT in education?

Fourthly, and this was actually stated by the panellists present, it is essential these days that if you're going to publish a book, you have to make sure there is an e version. This advice probably comes naturally to those of us have been experimenting with print-on-demand.

Like a lot of people, I like the feel of a 'real' book, and I like being able to put physical bookmarks and post-it notes in it, and to annotate it (in pencil, of course). But given ebooks' convenience and lack of weight, and the growing ubiquity of devices on which to read them, I think the panellists were perhaps being more optimistic than may have been justified.


Are You Only Teaching Kids To Drill Holes?

Drilling holes? What’s that got to do with ICT? Possibly quite a bit….

A perfect hole. But what's it for?You can always rely on Niel McLean of Becta to come up with a fresh insight, and his talk at the Naace 2009 Conference proved to be no exception. I can’t recall the exact details of the story, but Niel related a conversation which took place at a parents’ open day:

Parent: What’s this machine for?

Design & Technology Teacher: It’s for drilling holes.

Parent: So why would you want to use it?

Teacher: To drill holes.

Parent: Yes, but why teach the kids how to use it?

Teacher: So they can drill holes.

People don’t always express themselves very well, and this is a case in point. What the parent was really asking was: Why would anyone want to drill holes?

The issue is, how far do we fall into the same trap?

Q: Why use SlideShare?

A: To create slides.

Q: Why use Audacity?

A: So we can edit a podcast.

Q: Why use a spreadsheet?

A: So we can do calculations.

We need to make sure that we have a rather better set of answers!

This is #16 in a series of 25 reflections on the Naace 2009 Conference. It was first published on 28th May 2009.




5 Minute Tip: Backup Your Work!

Five minutes is all it takes for peace of mindI am continually astonished at people not backing up their stuff. Only today I was talking to a neighbour. His daughter has lost everything, probably  because of a virus or some other kind of rogue file. Did she have a backup? Of course not.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is really important to back up your work, and not just occasionally either. I know you do so, but here are a couple of cautionary tales you might like to pass on to your students or colleagues.

Cautionary tale #1: a few years ago a colleague's student lost all his work that he was supposed to send in to the Examination Board, to have marked. His teacher tried to appeal to the Board to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I knew what their answer would be, and I was right. Given that the course in question was a computer skills course, they said (quite reasonably in my opinion), that if he didn't even have the nous to take a backup of his work, he didn't deserve to pass. Well, they put it more diplomatically than that, but that was what they meant.

I would have asked his teacher why he didn't tell his students to take backups, but when I discovered, by chance, that he saved his own files with such descriptive names as Document1, Document2 and so on, I realised there was a deeper problem.

Cautionary tale #2: Having worked for -- I was going to say hours, but in fact it's days; and days; and days -- on two presentations for a conference in just over a week's time, I was dismayed when I switched on my computer this morning only to find that, overnight, the gremlins had got in and corrupted the disk. Not only could I not do any work on it, but I couldn't save any new work either.

I found that out because, being the paranoid type, I tend to save my work after each paragraph rather than at the end of the session. I even tried emailing the file to myself, but the email program was trashed too. It took the computer a total of five hours of chkdsking to sort itself out. That's the kind of stress I can do without.

Fortunately, however, being paranoid, I also back up my work every day to an external hard drive. I was therefore able to get on with it using my wife's laptop. And being even more paranoid than I am sure is healthy, I have now backed it up to the aforementioned laptop and two memory sticks. Later I shall back it up to the external hard drive and then tomorrow, just for good measure, I'll deposit a copy somewhere on the internet too.

Finally, just in case every single backup goes haywire, I've printed out my notes and the slides. I am not quite sure how holding up my printouts to an audience of (probably) several hundred people will pan out, but one thing's for sure: you can't say I didn't try! But seriously, I just figured that if the worst really did come to the worst, I could always scan my notes or simply memorise them, and use no slides at all. But I don't see that as being a likely scenario. Even I  am not that pessimistic!


Teachers and writers

The London Book Fair 2008

Teachers and writers perhaps have more in common than people realise. Yesterday I visited the London Book Fair, and that helped me to gather my thoughts on this matter....

  1. The most important element in the education system is, in my opinion, the expert teacher. You can verify this by the economist's approach of determining the marginal cost of something by taking it out of the picture completely. If you take the expert teacher out of the classroom, and replace him or her with non-expert teachers following, to all intents and purposes, a script, then I think you would very quickly see that to have been quite a costly move, whether in terms of behaviour or examination results or enthusiasm for the subject on the part of the students or whatever.    
    Note that I am not necessarily restricting myself to subject expertise. A good teacher can take a subject they know very little about and, with the help of good materials and training, do a reasonable job of teaching. The important element here is pedagogical expertise. Of course, if the teacher is an expert in both pedagogy and the subject, so much the better.    
    On the other hand, if advisers, consultants and speakers were to disappear from the educational scene, would that make a huge amount of difference? Let me rephrase that. It would make a great deal of difference, of course, but would it make a very big marginal difference? Let's put it another way: if you wanted to increase educational standards in your area, and you had to get rid of either an expert teacher or a consultant, adviser or visiting speaker, in order to balance the books, whom would you choose to get the chop?    
    Please bear in mind that I am trying to be objective here. I am myself a consultant and visiting speaker, and have been an adviser; and some of my best friends are speakers, advisers or consultants.    
    The most important element in the publishing industry is, in my opinion, the author. Publishers will argue otherwise, of course, because many books these days are not so much written as produced. The Dorling Kindersley books are an excellent example of this: lavishly illustrated, beautiful to look at, but not necessarily easy to read because of all the colours and pictures, though that's another matter and a personal opinion anyway.    
    But again, look at this at the margin. Other things being equal, if you had to cut costs by getting rid of an editor, an illustrator or an expert writer, surely your decision would not be to fire the writer?
  3. The curious thing, though, is that when it comes to trade shows, both the teacher and the writer share the ignominy of being regarded as unworthy of much attention, generally speaking. Visit the BETT show, say, with the word "teacher" on your badge, and you will not be treated as well as if you have, say, "Chief Software Buyer" displayed. The reason is obvious, of course.    
    The same obtains at shows like the London Book Fair. The "most important" people there are the ones who buy and sell rights. Authors? Don't make me laugh. As soon as exhibitors see "Author" on your badge, they either humour you as politely and briefly as possible, or else ignore you all together.    
    This is so pronounced that after it had happened to me the first time, I thought I must have developed some sort of personality defect or acute paranoia. But then the following year I tried an experiment: I asked my wife to accompany me, and she discovered exactly the same thing. Then the following year I spoke to someone who works for the UK's Society of Authors, and she said it was a common experience: authors are regarded with disdain.    
    This year I tried another experiment. Instead of "author", I described myself as a "Digital Content Provider". This was definitely a good move: I had much better conversations with people. Even so, I made a special effort to visit one particular exhibitor, but when I arrived one of the people manning the stand peered at my badge and then, clearly deciding that I was of no use to him at all, did not simply ignore me but completely turned his back to me. The man is an idiot: thousands of people read my articles, and that company is definitely one that they will never hear about from me.
  5. People's attitude to both teachers and writers is ambivalent. When I was a teacher, people used to say "I don't know how you can do that job, the way kids are today". And a moment later those same people would tell me what an easy life I had, with those short days and long holidays.    
    At the same time, everyone thinks they can do it. A doctor we met a few weeks ago said that teaching is easy because all you have to do is and at the front of the class and tell the kids what you know. That's the thing about experts: they are so adept at what they do that they make it look easy. A bit like doctors you might say.    
    So it makes you wonder why there is a teacher recruitment crisis in the UK, the job being so easy and all. A recent study shows the state of teacher recruitment in the UK to be less than optimal, whilst an article in the Times today claims that there has been a massive increase in the number of unqualified teachers practising in UK schools, with two thirds of them coming from overseas. The study referred to earlier also suggests that in information and communications technology, the number of places on post-graduate training courses will not be filled this year.    
    But you get the same thing in the field of writing. There are tons of books on the market about how to write a best-selling novel, which suggests that it must be hard to do, yet half the population is attempting to write a best-selling novel. That's anecdotal, by the way, and no doubt a huge exaggeration, but there does seem to be a large number of people who are writing a book at any given time, so they must think it's easy. In fact, you just have to look at the number of blogs that get started and go nowhere (the number is always changing, so I haven't given one, but it's a lot) to see that it's the case that lots of people think writing must be easy.    
    But both good writing and good teaching are not easy for most people, they only look "easy". I would suggest that part of the reason is that both good writing and good teaching actually take a lot of effort. Even the teacher that says he just plans his lesson on his way to the lesson has brought to bear a vast repository of knowledge and experience, and the same goes for most writers. What's the expression? 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration? I think that applies in both cases.
  7. Both teachers and writers can be precious. The second hardest thing in the world is giving negative feedback to a teacher whose lesson you have just observed. The hardest thing in the world is suggesting to a writer that she changes a few things.    
    That's why, to take the first example, I am always careful to give positive feedback followed by some suggestions. There's not usually much point in doing it another way, because the person you're talking to simply shuts down and doesn't hear anything positive or useful.    
    And to take the second example, I know that when I receive suggestions on my book chapters from an editor, I have to make a conscious effort to read the suggestions objectively, rather than as implied criticisms. But it's really hard to do.
  9. In both writing and teaching, training and experience are all-important. Yes, there are "natural" teachers, just as there are "natural" writers, but raw talent is not usually enough. I think no matter how good you are, you can always hone your craft. Indeed, one of the most common traits of experts is that by and large they think they don't really know anything, at least compared to the vast amount that they do not know.
  11. Neither teachers nor writers work well with templates. I have recently been asked to write some book chapters in a template, and found it stifled rather than released my creativity. In the end I wrote the chapters and then, just to keep the peace, reverse-engineered them so that they fitted the template. I don't think the publisher noticed.
  13. Finally, for all the reasons described, and probably more, I don't think either teachers or writers could be replaced by machines, except in very specific circumstances and under highly-specified conditions. I find it interesting that science fiction writers of old routinely predicted the use of teaching machines or robot teachers, but almost universally failed to predict the decline in smoking. It's because they focused on the technology rather than behaviour, in my opinion.    
    However, I have to say that I loved the idea propounded in one episode of The Avengers, in which a publishing company churns out novels by getting an elderly woman to play the piano. Soft, mellow sections create "gooey" passages in the book, and so on and so on. When the music playing is over, a manuscript pops out  of the side. Delicious!

 This article was first published on 16th April 2008.


Sweat The Small Stuff

I think it's great that we have visionaries and big thinkers, and I enjoy working with such people. (After all, I consider myself to be one of them!) But what we appear to have a deficiency of is people who pay attention to detail. I mean real, nitty-gritty detail. The small stuff.

But that is the stuff that makes or breaks a project or an enterprise. Don't believe me? Next time you're somewhere that seems a bit grubby, though you can't quite put your finger on it, have a look at the details. In a hotel lobby, for example, that is gleaming, and yet.... Have a look in the corners. You'll probably see that it hasn't seen a broom in ages. Or the wallpaper: there's that slight nick near the light switch....

I'm sure that we pick up on all these things on a subliminal level, but it all creates an impression. For me, when it comes to projects, such as events, or publications, the small stuff really does matter:

  • I once spent two hours trying to work out why my spreadsheet covering a project of £100,000 was 57 pence out. I figured that while the 57 pence didn't matter, it could just be symptomatic of a much larger problem. I was right, in a sense. One of the formulae was rounded up, and that was compounded as its result worked its way through the spreadsheet. It wasn't a huge deal, but it was an anomaly. I don't like anomalies.
  • I wish one of my co-workers had been as assiduous. He may then not have needed to come to me as white as a sheet to tell me that he had double-counted an income stream, with the result that rather than have £30,000 to play with, we had to make up a shortfall of £30,000.
  • A student once sent me an article for publication in the Computers in Classrooms newsletter. The title of the piece was 'Article for Computer Weekly'. I had to waste time asking him if he'd sent me a recycled article or had merely put the wrong title on the top. We got that sorted out, but he blew it when he told me he hadn't had time to spellcheck it or anything. Well, if he can't be bothered to take a pride in his work, why should I be lumbered with the job? I suggested he re-send the article when he does have the time.
  • I once failed to land a contract I thought was in the bag. I asked for feedback. They sent me an email in which they said: "It was a minor thing that kinda wasn't a minor thing: you referred to the project as TCB, when it is actually GBC" (an entirely different project that was on my mind because I'd been working on it).

We're all human, we all make mistakes. But I think there are steps that we can and must take if we are to ensure that the mistakes, and their impact if they do occur, are minimised:

  •  Pay attention to detail. Don't make the mistake shown in the cartoon here(sorry, I don't know who the copyright owner is)
  • If it's a written piece of work, spellcheck it, proofread it, and get someone else to read it.
  • If it's a spreadsheet, run it with some numbers you can handle in your head. For example, if I am messing about with percentages, I'll insert the number 100 in the appropriate cell. If the spreadsheet tells me that 50% of 100 is 127.8, I'll know something's amiss!
  • If you're citing a website, check that it still works. OK, it may be taken offline three seconds after you've sent the email, but you can't account for that. All you can do is check and double-check as much as you can before making your statement or recommendation.

I'm not asking for perfection, just for people to sweat the small stuff. It's important.

In fact, you could say that the small stuff is pretty big.


The Case For Bullet Points

So who says that bullet points are always bad? I'm referring, of course, to presentations. I think the humble bullet point has for too long been the scapegoat of dreadful presenters. Just because awful presenters use bullet points, it doesn't necessarily follow that all presentations containing bullet points will be terrible.

Perhaps this is just a bit of self-defence on my part, because I'm in the process of creating a couple of presentations which contain quite a few bullet points. Nevertheless, having sat in and also given numerous presentations, here is my take on the issue.

  • Used well, bullet points can enhance a presentation. If they summarise what the speaker is saying, that's a good thing is it not?
  • When I was training to be a teacher, we were told that the board at the front of the lesson should tell a story. If the writing was all over the place, climbing up and down the margins, and with no obvious logic, any pupil who went off in a daydream or came to the lesson late would be unable to pick up the thread of the lesson. Clearly, slides and boards are not the same, but I think the same sort of logic applies.
  • That brings me on to the next point. I have found that nine times out of ten when I download a presentation, it is almost completely meaningless -- even if I actually attended the session. At least some well-worded bullet points make the slides useful subsequently.
  • Although bullet points aren't the most visually compelling thing to show on a screen, they do have the advantage of being clear, assuming they are well-written of course. Contrast this with the situation in which every slide is a picture, and so as well as having to listen to the speaker you also have to try and figure out what the picture has to do with what he or she is saying. That isn't always the case, but in my experience the more intent a speaker is on demonstrating how far they have mastered the art of the 'killer presentation', the more apparently divorced from each other are the meanings of the graphics and the words. Having said that, I have been privileged to witness some brilliant graphic-intensive presentations, but I think it's difficult for a presenter to carry off.
  • As an audience member, I don't mind bullet points at all, especially if they enable me to relax and listen to what the speaker is saying instead of either trying to work out what the slide is showing or furiously scribble down notes. However…
  • I do get annoyed when the speaker proceeds to read the bullet points. Yes, by all means draw attention to the salient points, but a bit of paraphrasing doesn't come amiss.
  • I like the speaker to have more information or insights than are displayed on the screen. For me, the bullet points should act as both a launch pad and a summary. They should not merely be a substitute for thought.

When all is said and done, I think the most appropriate type of presentation is one which is suited to the audience and the topic. A presentation by an advertising agency to a potential client would probably not wear bullet points very well. In contrast, a presentation to an audience of school leaders on the issues facing them in a particular sphere could well benefit from a liberal sprinkling of bullet points. It seems to me that, like a lot of things in life in general, whether bullet points are good or bad depends on the context, the audience and how they are used.

A slightly different version of this article has been posted on the Technology and Learning website.