Conference Concessions and Other Goodies

As last year’s Handheld Learning Conference drew to a close, I wrote one word in the notebook I carry with me at all times: “Exhilarating”. I’m therefore delighted that Graham Brown-Martin has kindly offered subscribers to Computers in Classrooms a 10% discount on the booking fee –
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Reflections on Handheld Learning: Authenticity vs Karaoke, and Magnificent Failure vs Benign Success

Malcolm McLaren

I was saddened to learn of Malcolm McLaren's untimely death due to cancer. I wrote the following article after the Handheld Learning Conference in 2009, and have republished it as my tribute to him.

#HHL09 Malcolm McLaren is not, perhaps, the first person that would spring to mind in the context of education. Yet, as one of the keynotes at the Handheld Learning Conference 2009 he had much to say that was highly relevant  - in an irrelevant sort of way.

Let me deal with that last comment first. I think that if there is one danger of conferences is that, if the organisers are not careful, the delegates end up in a kind of echo chamber in which all they are doing is, in effect, reinforcing what they all believe to be true anyway.

For me, this was no more apparent than in those sessions in which the presenter eulogised about the benefits of handheld devices.


I know.

That's why I came.

Go tell it to a bunch of people who haven't had the opportunity to think about it or find out about it yet!

What conferences need is at least one 'outsider' who does not know the rules and conventions, and who can therefore break them. Or, at least, challenge them. That's why a few years ago I booked a journalist called John Clare to speak at the Naace conference, a gathering of the sort of people who attended the Handheld Learning Conference. Clare, a sort of intellectual Luddite, had one or two people walk out of his lecture, and another person subsequently voicing the view that it's only a matter of time before Holocaust-deniers will be brought to the podium.

In other words, his talk was a huge success! It got people talking for days afterwards, and even grudgingly admitting that he might be right.

Thus it was that McLaren had people tweeting each other and anyone else who would listen, asking what the point of it all was. Well, I'll pull out a few key things he said, and give you my own take on it all. Whatever you may think, one cannot deny that the atmosphere in the room was electric. That was partly because, I think, it was pretty amazing to have such a cultural icon addressing us in person, despite his somewhat avuncular (or, in Steve Wheeler's phrase, affable grandfather) appearance. And also, possibly, because one dared not think what he might actually say.

McLaren described his schooling. To cut a long story short, by any usual measures he was an abject failure. However, McLaren believes that it is important to be a magnificent failure rather than a benign success.

Yet, in our modern society, that is hardly presented as an option. Rather, we live in a karaoke world in which we can revel in our own stupidity, in which we want instant success without working for it. We have lost (and this is my interpretation) the understanding of the truth behind the old show biz joke that it takes 20 years to achieve overnight success.

McLaren likes the idea of the flaneur, the observer who is at the centre of everything yet invisible to all. He spoke of the need to understand the artistic value of banality.

For me, McLaren put into words what I have been unable to, or at least not nearly so eloquently. For example, for a long time now I have been taking photos of 'boring' subjects. The way I see it, lots of people take photos of 'interesting' subjects; who is recording the boring everyday stuff? I also took a similar stance in an article about a video, in which I asked why everything has to be so interesting all the time. 

So what does all this have to do with handheld learning? The key, I think, can be found in his comment that by working on his creative side, it helped him get along with himself; it helped him to find out who he was.

That is a very profound, and very moving, statement. We have fantastic technology now, technology that can liberate us in all sorts of ways. For example, as I mentioned in a recent article, technology has had some profound effects on our lifestyle over the past few decades. But what a missed opportunity if none of this stuff leads to, or contributes to, inner liberation. Look at the Attainment Targets for ICT in the National Curriculum, and you'll see that the higher the level, the greater the emphasis (either explicitly or implicitly) on efficiency and evaluation and all those kind of left-brain activities.

Why is there not an attainment target which encourages creativity, even if it leads to a solution that doesn't work?

McLaren finished by saying that the romantic pursuit of learning has died. The technology we have should be used to rediscover the idea of the flaneur, and art for art's sake, not a career.

He warned: don't take information for granted just because it's free. Don't become so reliant on technology that you don't know how to read a map, or spot a lie. Technology is not a replacement for applied learning.

I'm not sure how long McLaren spoke for. I believe he overran his allotted time. I, for one, could have listened to him for much longer.

This article was first published on 8th October 2009.


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.

18 highlights from the 140 Conference

Yesterday I attended the 140 Character Conference in London, where I met up with Bill Gibbon, Neil Adam and Bill Lord.

From left to right: Neil Adam, Bill Lord, Bill Gibbon, Terry Freedman

Here are 18 highlights, any one of which could be the start of a rich conversation. I think if you take the volume and variety of the presentations overall, you would have to conclude that any schooling which does not address matters such as etiquette in, and use of, Twitter and other social media is not really a fully rounded education at all. Anyway, here are my ‘takeaways’.

I love the idea of Buy A Credit. Donate £1 and you get to have your name listed on the credits of a film. The money goes towards financing said film. What an ingenious idea. @buyacredit.

In the eracism slot, Kyra Gaunt told us that racism gives us the opportunity to be courageous.

Apparently, one fifth of businesses in the UK are on Twitter.

Several people, such as Stephen Fry and the lady from SB Buzz reminded us that Twitter is a relationship channel, not a sales channel.

Alex Bellinger told the story of a high street florist which engages its customers with Twitter. The plasma screen in its shop, displaying Twitter conversations, attracts curiosity, and then converts. This would probably be a good tactic to adopt in a school setting, both as a way of engaging other teachers and, on open days, parents.

I liked hearing from Dean Landsman and Dean Meyers that an augmented reality system tried out in New York provided the information that, in a particular direction, the nearest tube was 3,000 miles away. This is almost science fiction: think of the great creative writing you would see if you used this anecdote as a starting point.

In the musicians’ slot, Manny Norte started a sentence with the words, “M and M comes from an age…”  That was only 5 years ago! He went on to say that if M and M were starting out now, he would almost certainly use Twitter to engage with fans, as part of the marketing strategy.

I have to say that, in the ‘brands’ session, talk of ‘humanising the brand’ all sounded very cynical to me. Why not just be upfront and admit that Twitter is part of the marketing mix and be done with it?

JP Rangaswami, chief scientist at BT, asked why we couldn’t subscribe to a car park’s Twitter feed. Brilliant idea: you’d know which car parks are full in advance. After all, Tower Bridge has a Twitter feed and sends out alerts when the bridge is about to go up.

Josie Fraser gave an excellent talk about retweets, followed by some fake stats. I didn’t realise: RTs are a rarity apparently.

If you’re a consultant, maybe you miss the buzz and gossip of the office? Federico Grosso suggested that Twitter is actually a gigantic water cooler. Nice idea! Does that mean, then, that home-working is now not only technically possible, but feasible from a ‘human’ point of view too? A question for business studies students perhaps?

Some of the more ‘switched-on’ police forces, both here and abroad, have used Twitter to find missing persons and murder witnesses. Chief Inspector Mark Payne explained how using Twitter as a two-way information stream allowed the police to be deployed in the most efficient way during demonstrations, and to keep the public informed of what they were doing, and why. Question for citizenship students: is this a step towards policing with people rather than the policing of people?

The education session was interesting. James Clay stated the obvious (which is often necessary) when he said that “We need to get educational leaders to understand the value of social media.”

I was impressed by Ruth Barnett, of Sky, who emphasised the need for integrity when quoting from sources like the ‘Twitterverse’. For example, when covering the recent troubles in Iran, Sky apparently did its best to ensure that the tweeters it obtained information from were people who had already been reporting on it before it became the hot topic.

I also thought what she said about the challenges of networking with China was very interesting: they use a different character set and different networks. I’d also add that they probably have a profoundly different world view. All cultures differ, of course, which is what makes all this so interesting and, ultimately, rewarding.

Vikki Chowney made the point that, at the G20 conference, live blogging was difficult because of the volume of data being thrown at the audience. Twitter became, in effect, a tool for live blogging. That’s exactly what goes on at many conferences these days, of course.

She said that Twitter closed the gap between politics and people.

Finally, the author Thembisa Mshaka listed the differences between celebrity and stardom; for instance, a star has a tireless work ethic. She said, in a way reminiscent of Malcolm McLaren’s talk at the Handheld Learning Conference, that mediocrity becomes the order of the day because it is so easy to get away with.


Is there a place for the barefoot researcher?

I have a lot of time for academics. Some of my best friends are academics. I used to be something of an academic myself (I studied for, and obtained, an MA, and did some ground-breaking research into adult economics education which resulted in my being invited to embark on a PhD; I declined).

The reason I mention all this is, of course, by way of a prelude to, not so much an all-out attack on, but an all-out gripe about, academic research.

Don't get me wrong: I'm all in favour of it, especially when it comes to matters to do with ICT. But in my experience, most academic researchers do not see much value in research which is not what you'd call academic. I refer, as you may have guessed, to the sort of observations made and noted down by teachers and other practitioners. What I like to refer to as 'barefoot researchers'.

There's a lot wrong with the barefoot approach, undoubtedly. Joe Nutt eloquently - and forcefully - draws our attention to that in his post The value of real scholarship. He says:

The idea that someone can scribble a few inarticulate pages online, drag and drop a few minutes of video footage showing some exploited child enthusing about the latest gadget, and call it “research” just doesn’t cut it for me I’m afraid.

I’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let’s look at academic research. Too often it is concerned with minutiae, is incomprehensible, takes a long time to say anything of any practical value, is boring and even, occasionally, badly written.

Obviously, what I’ve said may be true of some academic research but not all. By the same token. Nutt’s mini-diatribe against less academic research is itself as selective as it is partisan, a caricature.

And superficial. In the excerpt just referred to Nutt links to Stephen Heppell’s Be Very Afraid website. I’d agree that to an extent the videos are short and don’t say very much. However, I went to that event and interviewed several youngsters, and I have to say that I was very impressed by how articulate they were in discussing what they used the ICT for, and why.

There is much to be said for teacher-led classroom research. There has been some excellent work by members of Mirandanet, for example, whilst at the recent Handheld Learning Conference there were sound presentations by teachers Dawn Hallybone and Philip Griffin. Both have been experimenting with handheld technology in the primary classroom, and neither could justifiably be accused of being more concerned with the technology than its educational value (another one of Nutt’s ongoing concerns).

For me, the value of such non-academic research is that it’s quick, anyone can do it, it can provide a solution to a problem quickly and it often indicates the need for a more academic appraisal in the future. Surely that would help to explain why Becta decided to fund research into the educational value of using Web 2.0 applications in the secondary school? It made sense to do so in the light of the growing mound of anecdotal evidence.

I believe that one of the side effects of the disparagement of non-academic research is that it causes teachers to be reluctant to put themselves forward as doing something noteworthy. I think that’s a pity.

Certainly the collection of Web 2.0 project ideas I published last year has been extremely well-received by teachers. The ideas have mostly been furnished by teachers, who tried them out with their students.

The book may not stand up to academic scrutiny, but it works where it matters: in the classroom.

I’m in the process of updating the Web 2.0 Project Book. If you’d like to submit an entry, please read this article.

Handheld Learning Keynotes Now Available

Great news: the keynotes from the first day proper of this year's Handheld Learning Conference are now available. Here are the URLs.

Set aside a few hours to watch Graham Brown-Martin's provocative introductory talk followed by four highly stimulating lectures from guest speakers, including one from Malcolm McLaren.

Graham Brown-Martin

James Paul Gee

Yvonne Roberts

Zenna Atkins

Malcolm McLaren