Education is dead, long live Learning

1st January 2010 at 00:00
Want to predict what will happen in the next decade? The trends many missed back in 2000 are our clues

Decade has passed, and the year 2000 already feels a long time ago. But looking back, three clear markers for the future of learning were in place at that time. I remember the Millennium Eve party rather well, considering. It was the opening of the Dome in Greenwich and I was there with a group of children who had been showcasing their work on some rather fanciful computer screens fringed by inflatable butterfly wings.

We had been invited because we were all involved with the Tesco SchoolNet 2000 project, described by the Guinness World Records folk as the world's biggest internet learning scheme. At the party, and indeed in the lead up to the millennium, most of the media was looking back - "what a century that was". But the children were looking forwards to what they might be able to do with the power that ICT had given them: power to contribute, to participate, to collaborate, and to do so without limit.

It had been at a preview event at the Dome that David Blunkett, an inspired education minister when it came to ICT, was being interviewed by a nine-year-old reporter who asked if he had a nickname at school. "Yes, I did," he said, taking her away from the journalists, "but I can't tell you in front of all those people." She was doing a web page, of course, and his secret nickname ("Plug") went viral within hours.

Later in 2000, a different landmark scheme, the remarkable seven-year-long Learning in the New Millennium project, came to an end. It had been led by Carole Chapman, working with the telecommunications company Nortel. She had connected scientists, engineers, primary and secondary children in an online social network back in 1993 and had been watching what happened since. BBC's Tomorrow's World reported that, by the end of the scheme, you could not distinguish the primary children's contributions online from the adults' - their learning leapt forward in a stellar way. Indeed, the youngsters chosen for the project as a representative sample became quite exceptional, and Nortel was so impressed it ended up employing many of them.

The community became a "seamless tapestry of learning" where "children as teachers were as exciting as children as learners" and where applied science and technology for the children leapt ahead, while they, in turn, tutored Nortel's geeks through the history and languages that they had missed at school.

The third straw in the wind back in 2000 was the complex social-networking tool that a team I was working on developed with Oracle. We had been developing it as the basis for a millennium email address for all schoolchildren - which Tony Blair had promised, but later reneged on. However, with the generosity of Oracle's co-founder Larry Ellison, the sofware went on to become the social network Children loved its power, seeing it as a Facebook on steroids, and started to learn and work with others all around the world.

What is interesting is that the potential learning world of 2010, so clearly presaged by these projects, was missed amid the self-congratulatory looking-back that characterised the millennium celebrations. By 2000, learning had already shown that when it escaped from its limits, it could indeed be stellar. Peer-to-peer, mixed-age, global, shared, stage-not-age, project-based learning - spurred along by mutuality, exhibition, challenge and a shared ambition - really worked. Of course, not all ICT was like that. Much of it was still built around the sense that content was king, that programs offering direct instruction led to productivity gain, and that managed school computer systems with nailed-down networks that limited what pupils could do would keep everything under control.

Remarkably, today, the new schools being built around the UK, and indeed worldwide, still evidence this severe philosophical split. On the one hand, we see the gleaming factory schools with their cells and bells, with rigid and unsubstantiated subject divides, driven by incrementalism and managerialism, inwardly focused, children timetabled to the point of despair and beyond the point of disengagement. On the other hand, we can see today's learning-centric schools - and they are popping up everywhere - absolutely reflecting the promise of those world-leading ICT turn-of-the-century projects a decade before. They couldn't be further from factory schools: they are ambitious, built around community, have the learners' voice at their heart, embrace projects, relish challenge, mix ages, have an open architecture and open curriculum, embrace children as teachers too, and are full of engaged effective learners - both staff and students.

Above all else, this second type have a global perspective at their heart. Talking to a remarkably articulate student at Kent's Leigh Technology Academy a few weeks ago, I asked him about his work experience and internships. "I've done two so far," he replied, "one in India and one in China." Back in 2000, we knew this could happen.

Knowing where we will be in 10 years' time is helpful. We are approaching a time of tight money in teaching and learning. Bankers' greed has robbed education and we are facing the consequences. We can't afford to waste or equivocate as we invest in the future.

ICT in 2000 showed us clearly where education might be going and the choices for the decade ahead - productivity against community, despair against delight. As we leave the Noughties and enter the Impecunious Teens, we won't have enough money to equivocate. We will need to get it right first time.

Fortunately, today's ICT again gives us a very clear view of where we will be in a further decade's time and, this time, there aren't any choices. Online learners have laid down a single set of markers for personalisation, transparency, mutuality, us-ness, whole new economic models, quite literally unbounded learning, a world of helping learners to help each other. The artificial distinction between "formal" and "informal" learning has already vanished online.

We are, as I have often reflected, facing the death of Education, but are very much at the dawn of Learning. Twenty-first-century learning looks pretty exciting and today's learners, with today's pocketable personal ubiquitous connected ICT, are showing us very, very clearly just how good learning might be. We ignore that at our peril.

Stephen Heppell, Professor of new media environments, Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University.

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