Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bob Harrison: FE and Schools Education & Technology Update April 2016

Bob Harrison gives an update on recent education and technology policy and political movements in the UK further education and schools sectors.

Bob has extensive experience in schools and colleges as Teacher, Senior Manager, Principal and Governor and advisor to the UK Government Department of Business Innovation & Skills on the strategic review of Further Education. He is Chair of governors at Northern college, vice chair of governors at Trafford school, on the board of the UfI Trust and the YMCA, is a Judge for the TES FE Awards and is education advisor for Toshiba Northern Europe  - you can read his full biography at

Three years on from the start of FELTAG Bob is pleased with the progress so far and the action “on the ground” -  one piece of evidence of this is that applications this year for the TES award “outstanding use of technology for improving teaching and learning” are much more about the systematic application of technology across institutions rather than little bottom up piloted innovative things.

Bob finds that education bodies like the SFA, ofsted and ofqual are more sympathetic, informed and understanding about the use of technology in teaching and learning and as a consequence the barriers to the use of technology in teaching and learning and are being lowered.

Bob was invited to join the BIS advisory group for the FE area based reviews and has challenged the mindset of policymakers. The first guidelines that came out for the area reviews  mentioned digital technology as almost a footnote and afterthought … it’s was almost like “in the new landscape of FE providers should look at the use of technology for back office savings”. For Bob this didn’t reflect the potential of technology in education and he feels comfortable that he took the opportunity to make sure that the spirit of FELTAG is embedded in the guidance for the FE area reviews.

Bob says that the FE providers that thrive after the area based reviews will have a digital mindset as they approach planning for the future  and thinks that those colleges that don’t embed the spirit of FELTAG in their thinking about the future won’t survive. 

Bob reminds us of the complete misunderstanding that some providers have of the FELTAG 10% - idiots that say that they will have to go round and check that 10% of every lesson is being done online have failed to understand FELTAG.

Bob feels increasingly confident that the principles behind FELTAG are starting to have an impact in the sector and that FELTAG has done more than BECTA and JISC managed to achieve.

As technology has diffused through the education system its application has become more systemic with senior managers focusing on its use for business, systems and “back office” functions rather than for teaching and learning.

One of the myths that Bob wants to dispel is that technology can be used to cut costs and save money. Bob publicly challenged the FE commissioner - in his naivety and lack of understanding about online, blended and digital learning and the false assumption that it is cheaper and leads to economy and less teachers. This is nonsense - it may lead to efficiencies in the long term but not from reducing teachers but from efficiencies in access - allowing  learners to access resources better and for longer and in releasing some of the assets that are trapped in the land and buildings of the education estate.

Bob says the whole asset base of FE is predicated on a model of education and training that is steeped in the industrial past, predicted on mechanical engineering,  shipbuilding, coal, steel and textiles, so that the process thinking behind education and training limits our ability to take advantage of digital technology.  Bob spends so much of his time going around the country speaking at events, running workshops and talking about the need to think differently and to have a  paradigm shift away from the mindset that thinks “how can we ram technology into our existing processes … we’ve got this land, these building and these teachers on these contracts who turn up at these times now how do we add technology …. Let's put a few whiteboards in”. Bob says there are a lot of principles, CEOs and governing bodies who have the mindset that technology will save money on back office and that they can just “shove some stuff online and it will make things a lot cheaper”. This is time limited and restricted thinking - its this is not paradigm thinking, this is forcing new wine into old bottles.

Bob says that education and technology change are not technology issues but management process and cultural issues - we should thinking about how we can improve learning using technology and then about what technology we need.

Technology hasn’t had the same effect in education that it has in other areas .. there hasn’t been any paradigm change - Diana Laurillard sums up the problem  - if you look at the cultural things that surround education (funding, regulation, ofsted, the regimes of inspection,audit, leadership and governance) - their mindset has yet to fully understand the potential of technology to enhance and improve learning and therefore, because they constrain and drive the culture within institutions it’s difficult for institutions to change and for any teacher to change anything within the system. Institutional culture change is crucial and nudging cultural inhibitors is a key factor in FELTAG. FELTAG is not about buying devices, or about “having a grant from BECTA” or having a framework - it is about dealing with the cultural inhibitors that stop teachers innovating in the best way possible to improve learning, engage more learners, hang on to the learners for longer and better and ensure they progress better. 

How teachers, governors, leaders and policymakers adapt to the future is the challenge. Rather than technology just being used to save money through back office cuts - it can be used in a much more positive and productive way. We can’t afford to compete with technology but rather work with it, understand how it works and then balance and blend the skills and requirements that are necessary for learning, which is essentially about human interaction. Efficiencies come from greater numbers of learners studying for longer periods to higher levels of qualifications with more progression and emerging with skills which the country needs.

The anxiety at this very critical point is that we have the government talking about forcing every school to become an academy - the motivation for which is predicated on softening up the state education sector for ultimate privatisation .... the mcdonaldization of education. Bob mentions a blog post by Matthew Bennett  “The Schools Business” - an analysis which shows that the majority of people on the boards of academy trusts are venture capitalists. Bob points out the coincidence that government ministers in charge of the academies program in their private lives own business that run schools. Forced academisation is a trojan horse driven right into the heart of the state sector in order to soften things up for privatisation and we should oppose it at all levels because it removes any local accountability.

The academy model is predominantly a capitalist\commercial model - trying to apply a commercial way of working to education where you don't even have to have boards of governors but board members instead. The suggestion that academies aren’t for profit is ludicrous - it may say “zero’ on the bottom line of the accounts but money being made out of state education profits are haemorrhaging out down the chain of command - monies to board directors and their companies and to CEOs earning over £300k a year.

Bob is anxious that the privatisation agenda may also lead to the things that have been happening in the US with charter schools and virtual charter schools - “pack ‘em in, get them signed up, get them cheap, get them on a laptop". Bob says that if you want to learn how not to use technology in education just Google the words Apple Los Angeles disaster Pearson - giving kids a tablet pre-loaded with all the national curriculum content and some test materials without involving teachers is a recipe for disaster.

Bob says that there is a real axiomatic point here - like anything in life, there is a real danger that if the wrong people get hold of technology with the wrong motivations then there will be a bad outcome. There is a moral imperative for technology enthusiasts who are connected to a reality built on pedagogy to argue for the potential of technology in the right hands - technology can help make our lives better but it can also make nuclear bombs.

Bob says that instead of going down the forced academisation route why don’t we agree every school and college have super fast broadband and develop the skills of teachers - this would raise standards and every school and college could gain access to the world of knowledge that the Internet provides.

There are threats and opportunities with technology - this is where it goes back to paradigms, ways of thinking, values and the purposes of education. We are at a tricky point - at one end of the spectrum we have the likes of Nick Gibb wanting to ban technology in education and the other end we have those who want to stick everyone in front of a computer, turn on the artificial intelligence and let technology be the solution to everything. Somewhere in the middle it’s about how teachers use technologies - the issue is about how we support, enable, empower and help teachers use whatever technology is available - not just for teaching but for learning as well. Bob reminds us that teaching is not just about passing on facts and knowledge to the next generation and then asking them to regurgitate it.

In terms of education and technology Bob is pleased with the way FE has moved forward with FELTAG but in terms of schools he says we have a major ideological blockage. The schools minister Nick Gibb (for whatever reason or motivation) is very luddite in his approach - he believes technology is a distraction and whose stock answer about the use of technology is “why can’t you do that with a book” .Nick Gibb's view about education is that it’s all about textbooks, memory and regurgitation - until he goes and we get a more enlightened schools minister or his boss goes Nicky Morgan goes and we get someone more enlightened who will challenge the current luddite approach to education technology.

Bob’s fervent hope is that after the EU referendum (whatever side wins) there will be some blood letting, revenge and rewarding and that there will be a reshuffle in the department for education and that the current blockages will be removed. Bob says that to be fair to this government the policies coming from other departments show more interest in the role of technology to improve standards e.g. the strategy being pushed by Ed Vaizey from the DCMS (culture media and sport) the digital strategy from Mathew Hanock and cabinet office and the number 10 policy unit. Bob is hoping that pressure on the department for education plus a reshuffle that there may be an opportunity in the summer to revisit the ETAG report and get this back on the agenda perhaps with a more enlightened view. However, by the summer we will know more about forced academisation - if that happens then we are very much in the hands of the academy trusts and what they believe in.

Bob says that what’s really scary about the academisation process is that the estate assets that the local authority owns and which you and I have paid for as taxpayers is in the gift of the secretary of state to hand them over to the academy trusts

Academisation is happening just at the time when the narrative about technology in education justifies reducing physical estates but rather than reinvest proceeds from the release of those assets we hand over the estate assets to private companies ... all very convenient.

Once the schools have gone out of the state sector and cease to exist as legal entities in the local authority and become part of a multi-academy trust there is no way back - it’s all very well Nicky Morgan talking about no reverse gear - there is no reverse gear in the forced academisation process - it’s like selling off everything that we and our parents have paid for and were part of the local community and handing it over to the private sector.

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