Thursday, 19 January 2012

Blended Learning 2015

Blended learning will become an increasingly important methodology in delivering education at school level. There is already good research emerging that indicates that a blended approach can lead to greater student gains than either a purely traditional face-to-face or a purely delivered online course.
The definition of blended learning has evolved over the few years that it has been around, but is generally accepted now to mean a course of learning that includes some face-to-face (co-location) work and some distance work through an online element. Its success seems to make obvious sense; by adding in the distance learning element, students can continue (and are encouraged or required to) their learning beyond the usual timeframe. They can have time to reflect, and community elements of the online environment means that they can also act in the role of knowledge creator, contributing their own thoughts and ideas.
Blended learning is settling in to a definition that requires co-location and distance work. But what if, just as we are agreeing on a definition, the definition itself is about to become redundant?
There are different cognitive activities taking place when working face-to-face compared to distance individual work. It is about the human interaction, the ability for the learning to adapt to reactions, the being a part of a learning network, the access to external expertise (usually in the form of a teacher), the skill of the teacher to plot an infinite number of routes through the learning based on the reactions and emotions of the group, and the whole spectrum of human emotions that come with feeling a sense of togetherness with peers.
Suppose, then, all of these aspects could be replicated without co-location. Would that element of blended learning be necessary?
Increasingly we, and particularly children, are forming social and emotional relationships without face-to-face interaction. Social media and Web2.0 have enabled this. But add to the mix intelligent algorithms that can lead to true Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning, then we could have an online element capable of high level artificial intelligence, able to play the role of the external expert.
Learning Analytics is not the same as data analysis. It is not tracking. It is not taking data from tests and the like and then spitting these out at a teacher to interpret. Learning Analytics is real-time, live analysis of the interactions that students are having with a learning environment. Imagine the thought processes that a teacher has when watching a child working on a problem – they tweak the experience, they prompt, guide and assist, based on what the child is doing and their own experience of observing hundreds of children attempting the same problem in the past. They have built up an understanding of the behavioural patterns and are able to predict where the child is heading and therefore how to best intervene.
Learning Analytics brings the same observations. And Adaptive Learning plays the role of guiding. Combined, if the algorithms measuring behaviours can be got right, Learning Analytics and Adaptive Learning can behave as an artificial intelligence.
The learning environment can operate just like a teacher with a class of varied students.
Co-location is now no longer necessary.
We're not there yet. The algorithms are really tricky. But as I explore early artificial intelligence – funded and driven largely by the gaming industry at present – I can see how close a truly intelligent platform might be. 2015, I'd say.
So perhaps in the very near future we might have to revisit the definition of blended learning once more and ask ourselves seriously whether or not co-location is a necessary ingredient anymore.

Monday, 16 January 2012


I recently had supper with a chap as a sort of job interview. Nick is 6'5", handsome, witty, intelligent, thoughtful and kind. He makes for really easy company. He is equally a good listener as he is able to entertain with urbane bon mot. On the surface, Nick has everything going for him. He walks with a confidence and air of friendliness that make him attractive – people want to spend time with Nick. Having graduated from Oxford with a first class degree, the world is his oyster.
Or at least it should be.
Throughout the evening, I ask him about his life and what dreams he has for the future. I like him a lot. Several times during our meal I think to myself that I will be pleased to offer him the job.
But there are tell-tale signs. Signs I have witnessed many times in people that I have met over the years.
As we order, I ask Nick what sort of wine he would like with the meal. He tells me that he doesn't really drink alcohol, and I accept this and move the conversation on. But he subtly becomes submissive – his eye line lowers, his hands pull in to his body. Just tiny movements. And he tells me that he'll drink whatever I am drinking.
As it happens, we have some shared history. I'm always pleasantly surprised how often this happens when meeting complete strangers. His parents live in the same small town in Cambridgeshire as I do. We talk about some local restaurants, walks, bars, shops and characters. It turns out that he attended the fine public school that dominates our little town. How small the world is.
I ask him carefully about his career to date and his achievements. There are words that he uses, facial expressions, the crossing of his arms and other almost invisible giveaways that lead me to proposing that perhaps his weakness is a tendency to procrastinate. He agrees – and far more willingly than a man in a job interview should. He tells me that he finds it difficult to get motivated. But that he is very loyal, and accurate in his work. Precise, is the word he uses.
As each course is served, he waits for me to begin eating. As conversation flows, he continually gives way to any point I make.
I ask him to tell me about his best qualities and he struggles to talk.
And so I ask him: "were you badly bullied at school?"
We talk long in to the evening, retiring to the bar. Nick tells me about the constant mocking and abuse that he suffered at the hands of the boys at school. They would tease him for being so tall, they would berate his inability to play football well, they would sneer at his intellect.
At home, his father would constantly tell him that he wasn't doing good enough. And in Nick's mind nothing would ever be good enough.
Nick is 30 years old. And still he carries with him the scars of bullying. The procrastination, the lack of belief in his own opinions, the automatic submissive role that he will play in debate.
He has had a string of unsuccessful relationships. He has few friends and finds it difficult to feel close to anyone. Nick's career has been a patchwork of dead end jobs and time spent in academia, where he feels safer.
I have met far too many people like Nick.
I need to confess that I have never been bullied. I have no idea what it truly feels like to have suffered at the hand of a bully. And so, and this makes me feel ashamed, I struggle to empathise with those who have. There is an ingrained belief in our society that for bullying to occur there must also be a victim – that this person has some deficit, that they are equally to blame for the situation. I don't believe this to be true, but it has taken me many years to overcome that commonly held prejudice.
Nick is not a bad person. But for whatever reasons life had not equipped him in a way that would prevent him from being bullied. He was different; by age 14 he was already well over six feet tall. So there was a hook. There was something notable about him that could be commented on. And for whatever the reasons, be that his upbringing or other influence, Nick was not able to respond to the taunts with a shrug of the shoulder. He was not able to not feel hurt.
Thousands of adults carry the same burden as Nick, the same self-doubt or loathing, the same tendency towards procrastination, the same low aspirations.
On paper, Nick is a complete success of our education system. He carries with him in to the world the currency of 12 top grades at GCSE, 4 good A Levels and an honours degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
But what if we measured the success of our system in a different way? What if we traced individuals on their journey through life and considered their success? This success could be their ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way, their ability to form loving and lasting relationships, their motivation and aspirations. This success could be – come the end – whether or not they had a happy life. Of course these are difficult things to measure, but what if our schools were benchmarked against these in addition to their exam results? What would that mean for the way in which they operated?
Even at the cold, hard level of economic success – which it can be argued is a key function of the education system – it would be seen that those who carry the burden of being the victim do not contribute as much as their happy peers. The lack of drive and ambition, the procrastination so often a feature of the bullied, harm the economy.
Bullying debilitates its victims for many years, maybe a lifetime. It is utterly corrosive.
But it is also a hidden disease. Nick is beautiful and charming, as dashing and entertaining as a movie star. To the world around him he is the happiest of men. But to Nick, every single day of life is a struggle. Every day means convincing himself that there is a reason for going on. He knows he can't talk to anyone about how he feels, he is full of self-hate and pity.
You will know someone just like Nick. But of course, you probably won't know.
I do not believe that it is the role of schools to solve all of our society's ills, but it is a fact that schools have the ability to create a period of safety in young peoples' lives. It is also true that schools have the ability to create environments that ignore bullying and treat the bullied as invisible citizens.
The culture that schools create, the values that are espoused and how individual staff choose to act on bullying can make a huge difference.
Don't let it pass. Don't allow the Nick's of the world to be sentenced to a life of pain. Stamp it out. Now.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

National Curriculum Review?


What does the National Curriculum need to look like?
We are in the middle of another review of the National Curriculum. All new governments feel the need to assert their beliefs on the education system as soon as they can after taking office. Which is fine, because part of the reason that they were voted in was that citizens made decisions based on what they think our schools should achieve.
So, the government is starting to publish, bit by bit, its thinking around education.
What would you do if you were Secretary of State for Education?
It is really tempting, and understandably so because we are all human after all, to come to a view that the beliefs one espouses are the right ones.
I think there are several phases of wisdom. Firstly, one acquires facts and skills and can use them in a way that they have been shown. Then experiential learning leads to these being applied in ways that are effective. These then become embedded behaviours and people live within their own experiences. This, I guess, is where most people stop. These behaviours become beliefs, fundamentals, foundations, that shape our lives. We espouse these because we have internalised them and experienced their repeated impact.
But going beyond this, one can step out of one's own experience, as though looking at oneself through the eyes of an alien anthropologist. One can observe and notice oneself and the impact that one's actions have. Further still, one can detach oneself from belief systems and look at the evidence to be gleaned from others' experiences. Allowing these to challenge one's own knowledge and understanding. This journey never ends. It is this ability to go beyond one's own experiences, to critically analyse evidence and to continue to evolve thoughts and beliefs, that also allows one to say without fear, 'I don't know best'.
I believe that no Secretary of State for Education knows best. They can't. And that is a good thing.
But what if they don't realise this? What if they have not moved beyond espousing their own beliefs that are based purely on their own experiences?
Well then that could lead to a situation, understandably as I said, where a Secretary of State for Education believes that they know the right medicine to give the patient (to paraphrase Thatcher!) It could lead to a situation where they feel they should (and have the right to) prescribe in detail a National Curriculum and the methodology by which it will be delivered. This is a dangerous position. To dictate a system based on a sample size of one person is obtuse.
So what would I do if I were Secretary of State for Education?
There are conflicting pressures. Firstly, to not fall in to the trap as outlined above, secondly to serve the public who put you in office.
I believe that the public are asking from politicians for the schooling system to achieve certain things, and that as a democracy politicians are duty bound to deliver those. But they are asking for the outcomes, not prescribing the journey. At a local level they may wish also to do the latter.
So what I would do is this: I would work with the community to define the end points, the outcomes, the goals, the purposes. This could be as a set of criteria for students to achieve at the end of their schooling.
And then?
Well, that's it.
I would then leave it to those professionals working with children to define the paths that get them there.
At school level, headteachers and teachers would map out the journey children would take from entering the system to leaving it so that they have the best possible chances of achieving the national goals.
Secondary and primary schools would work together in doing this. Schools might want to form larger support networks too so as to share knowledge.
In otherwords, I would trust the schools entirely. Scary, eh?
A National Curriculum is in place so that children across the country receive a consistent offer, and I understand why this is desirable, but I think that centralisation has lead to a massive de-professionalising of the profession. By handing back true developmental issues to schools, by asking each and every person working in a school to contribute to creating the learning pathways and growing their own pedagogy, then the probability of students having a school experience that will lead to greater life chances greatly increases.
Autonomy for schools and for their communities.
With this, though, I would also insist on absolute accountability. Part of the reason that no Secretary of State has ever taken an approach such as this is because they fear that individual schools will fail due to poor leadership.
But true education improvement is, terrifyingly for a Secretary of State with an eye on remaining elected, entirely a leap of faith.
There are failing headteachers, this is true. Sack them.
But I think there would be fewer failing headteachers if their job were to lead rather than to respond to initiatives and whimsy. If they had autonomy, if they were able to feel and observe the impact in their driving learning, if they were able to focus on their learners and invest in their staff.
Because a handful of headteachers might not rise to the role is not a good enough excuse for controlling at a national level 25,000 headteachers. They know best. That's the point.
The Secretary of State could work hard to ensure that the route to headship actually leads to the highest calibre of candidate. They could ensure that serving heads are constantly engaged in learning networks. They could put in place rigorous accountability measures. They could give power to the local community. There are all manner of means for ensuring the quality. But treating a headteacher or school like a puppet on a string is not the way to achieve the most from out schools.
Secretary of State: go beyond your experience, try to see that the knowledge of those who have dedicated their life to education is valuable. Trust.
Take a leap of faith.