City Learning Centres: The end?

Becta. The Harnessing Technology grant. Building Schools for the Future. The once-familiar landmarks of the English educational technology landscape are disappearing or gone. The indications are that they are being followed by City Learning Centres. These CLCs, set up around a decade ago to both provide facilities for local businesses and serve as beacons of innovation and excellence to the schools in a locality, are being closed down, threatened with closure, or reduced in staffing and funding. The question is, though: should we mourn?

While many (possibly all) CLCs have carried out excellent work, there is a case for saying that they are becoming increasingly irrelevant, if not inappropriate. Despite the recent cuts in educational budgets, the facts remain that over the last 14 years we have enjoyed an unprecedented investment in educational ICT, at the same time as advances in technology and falling prices have enabled all schools to have acquired a quantity and variety of ‘kit’ which not that long ago would have seemed as likely as finding Shangri La.

During this period there has been a change in perceptions, not unconnected with the developments described above, about the desirability or otherwise of there being a computer lab in schools. The prevailing majority view these days is that the technology needs to be where students want to use it, rendering the concept of a computer room redundant. (I’m not saying I wholeheartedly agree with this view; I am merely reporting its existence.)

It's not all about architectureAll this being the case, is it not a rather archaic practice to have children visit an outside location in order to see and take part in exciting ICT work? If taking a class along a corridor to a computer room is no longer acceptable, how can taking them outside the school completely even be considered?

I have a more philosophical objection to CLCs. They were created in order that schools could see new technology, and do exciting things with it. The phrase often heard was “cutting edge”. Apart from the fact that I, personally, saw almost nothing that I would describe as truly remarkable, surely this is a clear case of the technology tail wagging the pedagogy dog? What makes something exciting is how it is used to solve a problem. Doing something like, say, making and editing digital videos is, in itself pointless. There needs to be a reason for doing so. Besides, the actual technology skills involved in such activities are largely irrelevant anyway: it’s the development of ‘soft’ skills like co-operating with other people through different roles -- like scriptwriter, camera person, editor --  that matters more, surely?

You could argue that the point about playing around with new kit is that you don’t know what kind of problems you could solve with it until you’ve experimented with it. You might suggest that we may not even think of these problems until we’ve explored the technology. You’d be right. But surely the answer – or at least a better answer – would have been to have given the money to schools in the form of an innovation fund? When I headed up a large team in a Local Authority I set aside around £1000 a year for ‘innovation’. This was nearly ten years ago, so that was an even more substantial amount of money than it sounds.

We used this money to try out new-fangled devices like visualisers (document cameras), tablet computers, mobile devices, student response systems and other exciting stuff. Sometimes, of course, we acquired evaluation versions, which saved us money, but the money was there if we needed it. The innovation fund idea was definitely a good one, because it enabled us to experiment and then – and this is the critical bit I think – advise colleagues on (a) whether the kit was worth investing in and (b), if so, what they could do with it. We were able to demonstrate the equipment and even use it for real purposes, such as when we wheeled out the student response system for senior management meetings.

Having an innovation fund, together with an enlightened approach by my bosses which meant that failure, ie buying something which turned out to be useless, was very much an option, proved pivotal to our success as a team. We were able to discuss what kit to buy, and then try it out and discuss it when convenient to ourselves. Had we have been obliged to book a slot in a room belonging to an external organisation in order to try out equipment which we had no or little say in purchasing, I daresay we wouldn’t have done so. Apart from anything else, there simply would not have been the time.

There are problems with giving people the brief of doing something ‘cutting edge’ without also imposing on them the obligation to answer that most dreaded of questions: ‘so what?’. I saw some pretty mundane stuff at one particular CLC, but because the person in charge did not feel an obligation to assess its impact on learning and achievement it went largely unchallenged.

Also, some pretty silly buildings were constructed, the kind designed by architects out to win design awards rather than provide a working educational environment. And the waste! When you give people the task of spending a sack-full of money on software, spend it they will – regardless of whether something even better could have been acquired through Open Source means.

Equality of access is another issue. Where CLCs were built next to or as part of an existing school, as often as not that school would either be given, or would assume, greater rights of access than other schools. That meant they could take up valuable time and resources  using the CLC as, in effect, an extra classroom, while a school down the road would have been delighted to have had more opportunities to do real cutting edge stuff.

So what is the future of CLCs, and what might we hope for? There’s no doubt that many CLCs have excellent staff who have developed brilliant practices, expertise and resources over the years.  It would be unfortunate to lose all this if losing it is unnecessary. A great idea would be to implement the solution adopted by one Local Authority I am familiar with, that of creating a virtual CLC. This dispenses with the need for a dedicated building. Instead, the CLC staff are based in different schools on a rotational basis. They work with pupils and teachers in the schools, taking the relevant kit with them. That requires a discussion about aims and problems to be solved, and assessment, and involves no loss of teaching time taken up travelling to and from an external centre. There are no extra facilities or building costs, only the staffing costs (which, admittedly, are often substantial).

Clearly, such a solution is not without its challenges, not the least of which is moving equipment around and setting up shop in a new environment every year. But it has the merits of not only addressing many of the drawbacks of CLCs as we have come to know them, but of retaining the staff and, crucially, keeping alive the main underlying reason for having CLCs in the first place, that of encouraging innovation.

This article was originally posted on Zoe Ross’s blog.

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