Monthly Archives: September 2015

Disruption and the Zeitgeist – celebrate edtech debate

Tensions persist in discourse regarding mobile technologies in educational contexts. These distort ways of perceiving the technologies as helpfully disruptive. The debate centres around hype, with so-called traditional educationalists continually seeking evidence for claims of performance improvement that, actually, I have never seen expressed in any academic literature having researched the subject at post-graduate level for over 4 years.

A truth of our world is that social structures change from era to era. Order is deceptive. Like contours in the landscape disrupted in time, hierarchical rules and conditions are temporal and continually vulnerable to human and scientific knowledge that inform technologies. We aren’t determined by technologies, we keep in step with them. Technologies don’t exist autonomously; they are harnessed, as society advances, so that we influence (and define) them, rather than be influenced (and defined) by them. Thus, if technologies are disruptive, own and manipulate the ways they can be used. Appropriate disruption. Create structure from chaos. Disrupt any definition of mobile technologies as consumer-based, passive, recreational receptacles for gossip.

Adapting tools reflective of the zeitgeist may seem like a novelty, but is imperative to understanding and interacting with the world around us. To those who suggest that mobile technologies are distractions in the classroom, maybe they are not being utilised properly (Here a caveat: I am mainly familiar with FE and put aside debates in schools). A distraction from listening to a teacher, a distraction from a classroom, a distraction from focusing on an objective. Yes, potentially. Struggling to compete for attention? Ban phones. Prescribe Adderall. Draw the curtains. Or…

Disrupt the paradigm of learning that it is done to students; that knowledge is transferred from vessel to vessel; that communication is narrowly conducted via traditional means like essay-writing, memorised repetition, copying, answering questions approved by a knowing other; that students turn-up and learn, instead of becoming adaptable and selective of resources that can improve means of discovery and communication. I think, contentiously, that educators can be ego-driven and a classroom can be a soapbox. Nervous teachers talk too much. We put motivational posters on the walls reading ‘You can achieve anything’. We might add ‘…as long as you do it my way.’ OFSTED contributed to a culture of professional distrust based almost exclusively on a teacher’s ability to control attention, to engage, to transfer. It was about our ability to be interesting. Moreover, it was mainly about the teacher. There must be another way.

Disrupt.

In FE, what needs to be nurtured is not a fixation on attendance – to turn-up and learn – but a transcendence towards anytime, anywhere learning. Mobility can facilitate that shift in mindset. How can students become self-reliant, driven, seek response and discourse, rather than arriving at a classroom and waiting to see in the opening minutes whether lesson objectives interest them today or not, like watching the opening minutes of a TV show? If he’s disengaged, if his confidence is low and behaviour appalling, if he won’t do anything, if he’s going through the motions, if he’s disruptive…kick him out. The other kids will eye his liberty jealously. BUT, he can still be involved from afar, right? Any time, any where...we don’t limit his inclusion; we improve the others engagement. They get more one-to-one face time. He gets to send texts openly in the Learning Zone.

Mixed messages? Yes, because the answers are presently unclear, hence exciting debate about where it’s all heading. Mobility, disrupting conventional systems and relationships, prompts this debate because we are in a zeitgeist of fragmentation and transformation. It’s providing unexplored original challenges and opportunities. I think smart educators see this; they are responding to this uncertainty by considering alternative versions of learning experiences. It’s challenging our own routine methods and coerces our own creativity.

This, to me, is not just about using handheld devices in classrooms – that is certainly not mobile learning. Mobile is  a verb and a vehicle (NB: Prescriptivist linguists, I know it’s not actually a verb). Mobile learning enables increased channels of communication, but it may better be presented as means to disrupt contexts fixed on teacher/classroom/institution. We may reconfigure what a classroom represents: a base to return to and situate our explorations, rather than a base from which all learning starts. This particularly so in FE, where mobility means access to real-world contexts, counterpoints from individual to cultural agencies and domains, improving – one would imagine – the overall self-determination and means to manoeuvre between hubs in a fragmented world.

You’re welcome.

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On area based reviews and heutagogy

The announcement of the area based reviews of FE this week seems sensible: improved stream-lined provision that fits local economic contexts focused more on employment seems the gist. I do have some concerns which were badly phrased in this weeks #ukfechat. I admit I was a few ales in and have learnt my lesson there. I was shut down for interrogating the implications of the ABRs. Waking up today, I felt a little mortified, then recognised we’d been arguing for the same things. 

My concerns are the direction of FE and its potential to pigeon-hole and shrink aspirations. In the weeks induction with my students, the Initial Asssessment questionnaire I’d designed aimed to encourage a growth mindset with projections of future ambitions and how to achieve them. Responses from the English GCSE set ranged from ‘start my own plumbing business’ to ‘be a drug dealer/marry a footballer’. Standard working class-fare? 

My paradigm of education is based on heutagogy: a focus on process (that fits well with FE) and the development of self-efficacy and capability to deal with an uncertain environment. We know from Bauman that the world is capricious, temporal, less secure, and “liquid”. Previous superstructures, which supported existence, have been disrupted by circumstances of modernity.

To manage – students need to be flexible and competent to unpredictable conditions. Taken as an erratic job market, is it risky to train for one focus at a young age? Not in the German model of apprenticeship, which – as usual – is advanced and probably superior (if only self-regardingly). In Germany, the class system is less encoded into social attitudes than it is in the UK. Trades people are very well paid and respected in a way I don’t think exists here. Their apprenticeship system is based on a solid manufacturing industry and their pride in quality is reflected by their pride in retaining brands, rather than flogging them off. Are these cultural contexts interchangeable and can these models be transferred? Somehow I doubt it.

My point is that I worry that we continue to compound the British class system with our tiered system. I overhear FE staff thrust kids onto courses sometimes: ‘why don’t you try hairdressing?’ Choice made, they sign them up. And then they’re a hairdresser – and, incidentally, if employed, they’re potentially sitting on a goldmine. After oil and coffee, I understand that women’s hairdressing is next on the Bloomberg lucrative stocks list (£140 every two weeks – you what? Sign me up).

I still believe that a decent, well-funded education system can allow for mobility; by stretching expectation and aspirations, it cuts across routes to futures that are predetermined by the postcode lottery of birthplace. In my job interview where I work it was expressed: ‘kids here don’t have horizons.’ It’s true, many have never visited the nearest city (12 miles away); there’s no rail network; domestic unemployment is normal; A-levels have been scrapped; courses are streamlined and well populated. So how will the (deprived) local economy support employment competition in such high quantities – especially if you reduce the imagination to transcend a landscape that leads to students ambitions being ‘to marry a footballer or sell drugs’?

Of course it’s sensible to couple local training to local employment, but I hope it’s not all, because we do live in an insecure world. Capability and self-efficacy are paramount. Learning with technologies emphatically supports that because it challenges students to think about the ways they’re learning; it can be more mindful and reflective, enables problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, etc… (we all know the script). If we provide an online ecology of resources then students can develop a repertoire of ways to choose to meet objectives – and construct residual portfolios of their activity (I know enough that we can get ahead of Germany on that score – we are cultivating a well planne, connected, enculturation of digital technology in FE/HE at a significant rate). 

In our summer conference, a colleague said we should train for warehouse jobs (a busy local economy). Yes, that and much, much more. During induction, I spoke with adults enrolling who want to leave those warehouses. Presumably everyone would agree that ABRs shouldn’t narrow and limit flexibility and options. Education must facilitate choice, not constrain it. Alongside vocational training, there must be competency and capability development. Funding for adult provision is also, clearly, crucial for continued progression and choice. It will be great if companies take some of that training on, as in Germany. That can alleviate funds for FE to widen scope, no? 

As any teacher, I want kids in my English lessons to learn to know they can do and achieve anything (with the applied effort). The vocational teachers who train the highly valuable skills and abilities want the same. The focus of the ABRs on technology is brilliant and necessary, but the focus on local contexts worries me slightly. In our immediate locale there are warehouses, and more besides – but, honestly, not much more. 

Further afield we have the media hubs of Manchester, tourism thrives, games design companies proliferate Liverpool, credit companies slightly further away, car manufacturing, you have agriculture and horticulture, retail Heaven, national parks, ports, docks, there’s a railway network to be built, the sports industry is prolific (as one female student acknowledged), and construction is as rampant as a bull on steroids in a shop full of delicately made porcelain artefacts. Not enough choice? Then how about investing more in local economies?

How local is local? The local context can be a threshold to wider achievement. Let’s continue to promote capability and aspiration first and foremost and not design choices of Alpha – Epsilon social stratas and mould them to people.

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On the poverty of teaching staff life

When I first met Bob Harrison, all round Educational Technology guru, I asked him how I – “just” a mere teacher in a bigger machine – could take my research and the movement towards a culture of learning technologies and impact on the institution where I work. 

The answer, Bob said, was to go to the Governors, to go to the top, to leverage what students say they want and to squeeze the middle management. 

In my organisation, the Middle management isn’t the problem: indeed, they’re encouraging of innovative teaching. The problem is complex. Leadership, hubs of leaders and administrators, a lack of resources, outdated equipment, channels of beauracracy that stifle creative innovation at the point of use and resulting student expectations. 

And social capital as a teacher.

Four years of research and a soon to be completed doctorate on technology enhanced learning later without any acknowledgment of this experience from the organisation. Here’s the picture of tech in my college: 

-I’m prescribed to use the VLE (it didn’t work at all last year). Naturally my enthusiasm for the VLE is dispirited, but it’s even less when it’s prescribed. A colleague timed how long it took to build pages (added, named, dated) and post lesson resources. Only her look of fatigue (on day two back after summer) reflected the answer. 

-to pay for a 30quid license for a particularly decent online platform for the entire department, last year I had to go through a 2 week process to get permission from central services (itself situated 200 miles away). It was eventually approved (I’d paid for and been using it anyway), but it didn’t run properly on the college machines.

– laptops must be booked a term in advance. This information is discretely withheld from staff. Laptops, wheeled about on a trolley like in a morgue, usually don’t work.

-PCs are in good number! But they too are so often booked out by a department for an entire term.

-mobiles are discouraged – but I’ve utilised them. Problem is many kids in this area don’t have SmartPhones.

-there are iPads! Or should I say, there are rumours of iPads. Conflicting ones. Some say they exist, others say not. Last I heard they are locked in a cupboard, away from inquisitive minds.

This summer, with middle-management consent, I spent about 3 weeks redesigning English GCSE to reorganise the one week intensive lesson to two, shorter lessons; one curriculum focused, the other tech-based project learning incorporating all kinds of nifty pedagogical strategies on problem-based learning, informal interests correlated discretely to the syllabus and grammar, mobile learning through enrichment trips and excursions, attitudinal improvements, engagement and creating counter-points to work skills, cultural and recreational interests, support of equality, diversity, safeguarding and real world references, cross-curricular focus and all supported by the development of vital digital literacies. My enthusiasm for the year ahead was revitalised in planning this.

But, with grand scale restructuring (redundancies) there seems a dearth of line managers and no existing time tabling representative. In the first week, with the elusive computers booked for a whole 6weeks to launch this restructure, I learn that each curriculum leader has allocated their cohort’s second lesson WHEREVER THEY LIKE. Now, I should point out that I am part-time. But now the ownership of this restructure that I relished implementing. is lost to me. The second sessions will be delivered by someone else, someone “outside of the department” recruited to teach those hours. We may flip the sessions, we may co-ordinate duties, but the opportunity is gone to engage at a sustained level. 

The reason I gave this post the title I did (in reference to a famous sixties polemic on apolitical student existence) is the lack of empowerment I feel I experience as a teacher. I recognise the institution’s constraints (they continually told us about them in the summer conference); I understand that the world does not revolve around my own desires; but I am frustrated – and so very early in the year – that the structured interventions we planned to support the students are undone due to the institution’s failure to have a single point of reference for the design of the timetables – that most basic and essential system of organisation. 

As a result of that, all week staff and students have not  known where to go, classes are double booked, changed, timetables clash- some of those GCSE students can attend the first lesson, some can’t, and vice-versa for the second session. It’s a mess. I know it’s the first week, but that one chance of a first impression on students looked pretty fraught and chaotic this week. On top of that, our contracted hours change by the day, but I feel lucky. Some staff are working in roles that may not exist in October. I’m not referring to admin staff, but learner support teams and teachers. I myself have no idea what my contract is, or who my line manager is. 

Walking in the upper floors this week, I noticed an eerie stillness throughout the management and HR offices. They were empty. Should that be the norm for the year, I wonder if any staff will actually notice. 

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