14th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Plenary keynote for November 28th 2000
Prof Stephen Heppell


In the space where Information and Communication Technology (ICT) meet Education and Learning, we find a challenging time for policy makers.

Firstly the world race to inject ICT into learning is now an economic race as the link between the ability to harness ICT creatively, adding value to any situation, and future national income is finally clear to all. Secondly children's expectations and their sense of entitlement for what their learning might offer are changing with an unprecedented rapidity whilst thirdly the sheer capability and diversity of the hardware and technology in question is transforming and progressing at a genuinely exponential pace.

Yet the experience of Ultralab, Europe's premiere learning technology research centre, is that genuine, enduring change can result from carefully constructed massive scale projects in harness with national governments which themsleves inform policy direction and change. Three (from many) lab projects are offered here in illustration:


Talking Heads

Talking Heads (www.headteachers.ac.uk) has been an ambitious project to link the UK's headteachers into a virtual community of practice as part of the new National College of School Leadership (NCSL). A pilot with England's Department for Education and Employment started a year ago (January 2000) using the Think.com software that Oracle developed with Ultralab. A complex granularity of asynchronous discussion and conversation opportunities underpin the community which will be populated by 28,000 headteachers by the end of 2001. Ultralab has a unique team of on-line facilitators who are skilled in the complex task of making communities of practice seductive, engaging and delightful places. It is the hardest thing to provide an environment where people are on the one hand happy to admit what they don't know but on the other happy to contribute what they do know; experienced, full time, professional facilitators are key to this and to the exceptionally high participation rates that the project enjoys.

It became quickly clear that the internal expertise of the community of headteachers was a valuable and underused resource. Both the level of privacy and the sense of audience within Talking Heads (there is a clear sense of "by heads for heads") have led to unprecedented levels of honesty and sharing which mirror other Ultralab project results within the health service.

Talking Heads isn't only a a community of practice, it has spawned Virtual Heads, a community engaged in the National Professional Qualification for Headship,a mandatory on-line course with some face to face tutorial elements too, for all aspiring headteachers. The challenge with NPQH might have been assumed to be the task of moving more than 200 tutors into on-line learning support, or of building an understanding in the writing team of the different pedagogies and opportunities posed by on-line learning, but in every case these challenges have been welcomed, relished even, by those involved; the process is further helped because we have long and good experience of such changes through previous large scale projects. In practice the most intractable difficulty is likely to be moving the traditional model of quality control (with its "sign off" of "finished" documents), into one of quality assurance with an essentially agile, responsive but constantly changing bedrock of content and a growing and increasingly valuable back catalogue of communication, discussion and summary. Systems not people are often the hardest and last to change. A classic policy mistake in ICT is to blame people rather than reappraise the systems when change is slow.

The key policy lesson from Talking Heads is that a successful community of practice can unlock vast resources from within the community making rapid progress in professional development achievable and enjoyable whilst building an authentic dialogue between policy and practice.


Tesco SchoolNet 2000

In 1998, with the substantial support of sponsors Tesco, the UK's leading supermarket chain, we built the Tesco SchoolNet 2000 project (http://tesco.schoolnet2000.com/) which in only four academic terms entered the Guinness Book of Record's as the world's largest internet learning project.

Children across the UK were tasked not with downloading and consuming prepared content but with producing work themselves "by children for children". Tens of thousands of children became busy: interviewing the oldest person where they lived to discover their earl;iest memories; declaring their favourite authors before trying to write in their style; interviewing a substantial number of celebrities. With the project website printed onto tens of millions of carrier bags produced by Tesco for shoppers and with wonderful media support the children were assured a vast audience for their work; did this intimidate them? Far from it, the sense of audience was massively motivating causing the children to over perform in both quality and imagination. As we launched the initial site a number of interested parties and agencies expressed concern that we had not, as they might have wished, invested Tesco's generous funding in "content". "What have you actually filled the server with?" they asked. "Opportunity" we replied, nervously. In practice, it was exactly that opportunity which was the catalyst to trigger creative contributions by children of all ages. Incidentally, the same tasks were tackled by children of all ages from 5 to 18, obviously at a level that reflected their own capabilities and ambition, but in a way that seemed to generate a genuine parity of esteem across the age levels.

Tesco Schoolnet 2000, like Talking Heads, offers reaffirmation that with the right tools and the right opportunities learners can race beyond our best expectations for them and challenge the limits of our ambition. By children for children is as powerful as by headteachers for headteachers and as with headteachers careful facilitation is necessary to achieve rapid adoption and progress.

But we learned another key lesson for policy making too: we provided a computer lab in every Tesco superstore in the country with powerful Apple computers, a scanner, portable computers, digital cameras, ISDN2 and a printer) for children to use in the circumstances where they didn't have ready access to such equipment at home or school. In practice the great divide between information haves and have nots was not defined by access to such equipment but was instead defined by the opportunity to contribute to, rather than consume from, the information age. Far too many of the companies building a stake in new learning and ICT see ICT as something that delivers to children whose contribution as learners amounts to little more than click-and-choose, or tick-and-respond. This is to disenfranchise them as learners, children learn through doing with the motivation of an audience for their learning, they do not learn through watching, yet technologies like ADSL that are not symmetrical are touted as key planks in building tomorrow's learning. They are not. The key policy lessons from Tesco Schoolnet 2000 are that symmetrical technology and great tools build exceptional learning.


Transformations and beyond

The third illustration is the work we are currently doing with children using digital media: still images, video and audio. Taking a group of children from the UK's South East Virtual Education Action Zone we challenged them as a summer school project with the tough and open ended task of using digital still video cameras to build a sequence of still images illustrating the theme of "Transformations". These children were identified by their teachers and being "gifted and talented" but without necessarily achieving the academic success that might have been anticipated by these talents. They were a wonderful group to work with and, unsurprisingly, the children were highly imaginative and divergent in their interpretation of the task. The final presentations" evening in London's Millennium Dome was a revelation for their parents and teachers: one group explored the journey of a folded sheet of paper; it first flew as a paper plane on a journey that pitched it into a river (folding into a boat) before returning home to school folded as a hat. A second group captured over 250 images of faces before assembling a final sequence of 100 where each face's number in sequence is also its age. the resulting transformation is hypnotic and powerful. Another group explored the tidal flows of a seaside town as the tide, cars, shoppers and others flowed in and out during the day and other groups interpreted the brief in yet other ways. The open-endedness of the task had initially been a concern for some of the teachers involved but that same open endedness, with the teacher's good advice and mediation, was what produced the exceptional outcomes celebrated in the Dome and everyone's delight.

In policy terms the key lessons here included the speed with which we need to be able to innovate within the curriculum so that appropriate tasks for new technologies can be adopted and tested to ensure quality. It is literally the case that the speed of change of opportunity means that in the 21st century a static curriculum will dragging a country backwards rapidly. A changing and evolving curriculum must have space in it (and here New Zealand is a good model) to allow not only teachers but children too, to contribute aspirations for their own and their nation's progress. In the lab children's ability to be key part of the design of learning environments is also embraced with projects where we are exploring the design of new school buildings or inventing new play things like our EU funded éTui project (http://www.ultralab.ac.uk/etui) to design learning toys that develop meta-level learning awareness in 4 - 8 year olds. At a time when we need all the help we can find to move learning forward we cannot ignore children's wisdom.


In policy terms the lessons of these and many other projects within Ultralab and outside leave some simple-to-understand, but tough choices for policy makers. The portfolios of decisions accompanying these choices seem to be clustering countries into two distinct groups. It is our contention in the 'lab that in time these two groups are polarised in ways which will be explained at the end of this paper.

But before that, what are these tough choices? You will have derived some yourself from the examples but they include these:


Policy needs to chose between quality control and quality assurance in the promulgation and regulation of ICT in learning. Quality control, with its reliance on criterion referencing (comparing the progress of this year's students to a previous year's) may seem seductive in these times of constant and unpredictable change but the difficult is that it inevitably precludes the new thinks that technology allows in learning and that learners need for later employment. Our Ultralab project children manipulating digital media, or complex data sets, with a computer cannot be easily compared to a child producing a longhand essay or hand plotting geometry yet the employment (and citizenship too) of the future values the new against the old. In this context quality control can be seen as a sever brake on progress. What is needed to vouchsafe quality, of course, is or teachers to be better prepared for a role as action researchers


Policy needs to decide whether to encourage contribution or consumption for ICT in learning. This is far more complex than it seems; the experience of projects from Talking Heads through to Tesco SchoolNet is that high quality contributions can be sought and achieved by giving the learning population the right tools and a clear sense of audience and cohort.

However politicians would understandably like to say "we spent money and look, things are better!" when in practice the best they are likely to be able to say is "we spent money and look, things are different, but here is why we think different is better" which is much harder to win support with. Nevertheless the volumes of work displayed by the Tesco children are as persuasive as any politician could be and convinced voters as well as shoppers.


Policy needs to decide between predictability and creativity. The "predictable curriculum" was possible to sustain in an age of stable technology and homogenous learning experiences. Now the only way to impose predictability is to legislate against the kind of freedom and opportunity which we need in our classrooms if we are to move forward rapidly enough. As many companies have found to their cost a structure which does not allow variety stagnates and dies; only in an environment where everyone is an action researcher pushing forward in their own way (although retaining quality) at the limits of just what and how children might learn. No one is more ambitious for this exploration that the children themselves and all around the world in many classrooms children's disenchantment and alienation bear testament to the cost of stagnation in the name of predictability. The policy mantra to chant here, of course, is that standards do not mean standardisation.


Policy needs to decide between using computers to deliver an existing curriculum with the technology very much in the role of "teaching machine" or whether then high value skills needed for the 21st century pivot on the ability to harness and tame technology as a creative tool. This choice between teaching machines and learning tools is made all the more urgent because we do not have infinite resources. Tying up computers to teach past capabilities isn't just a waste of children's time, it's a waste of scarce hardware resources too. In policy terms to alarm bells might start to ring when "innovation in testing" turns out to mean using technology to deliver the tests rather than allowing children to use technology whilst they are completing their assessment. It does seem foolish that after giving children powerful ICT tools like spreadsheets they should then not be allowed to evidence their capability with these tools in their assessments. It is even more foolish to use the computer to test them them multiple choice questions about spreadsheets!


A very large part of creative and commercial work in the 21st century focusses on process rather than product, indeed even children's cinema viewing these days is front loaded by a lot of knowledge about how they made "Chicken Run" or "Gladiator" or whatever, which adds to their viewing enjoyment. We live in a process world.

As businesses restructure it is always with an eye to getting processes on track, confident that quality products will result. Yet for much of our ICT work in learning the product is emphasised at the exclusion of the process - school walls show the "final" poem or image but almost never celebrate or display the subsequent and consequent drafts that built it. This is partly the fault of inadequate software tools: the "business" word processor is designed to finesse a final letter or report, not to capture the evidence needed for formative assessment; saving a file over-writes the previous draft; operating systems treat time in a very simplistic way although the progression through time and the awareness of progress in learning are key motivators in the classroom. We need generic software tools for learning.

Of course these better tools would need a newly enlightened assessment regime too. The conceit of assessment as an individual's solitary endeavour at a single moment in time is unsustainable because it precludes so many key skills: collaboration, research, enquiry, discourse, iteration. Children lacking those key skills will not add value to future economies. To move towards process from product we will need both to arm teachers as action researchers, better able to reflect critically on children's diverse processes, and will need to evolve better software tools.


These are tough choices.

At the beginning of this section of the paper it was suggested that in choosing, countries seem to be clustering into distinctly polarised groups and looking back it is easy to discern the polarity: countries that aim for quality assurance rather than control, with learners contributing rather than consuming, emphasising creativity ahead of predictability and using ICT as a learning tool rather than a teaching machine will ensure a domestic supply of citizens making high value economic contributions to future national income. By contrast, those who pursue the seemingly safe, but actually economically reckless, route of quality control, consuming a predictable curriculum with teaching machines delivering learning productivity but little creativity will find their workforce engaged at best in the low value jobs exported by other nation's burgeoning digital industries. It is between these polarised policies that we will find the digital divide in the future as hardware prices tumble and access becomes increasingly ubiquitous.

This is a stark enough choice, but it is also clear that the latter approach also fails by offering no strategy for vouchsafing national culture as content, curriculum and controls are all imported. What is fascinating about the Commonwealth is that the diversity of opportunity provided by the 54 member countries is exactly the environment needed to fast track everyone towards the kind of delightful, engaging, seductive, stretching, changing environment that our young learners need.

Just occasionally in life, policy choices really are this easy!

© Prof Stephen Heppell. 2000