Reach for the skies

10th March 2006 at 00:00
With government talking up the importance of learning platforms, Martin Ripley looks at what this might mean for schools and teachers

This Government is committed to the transformational power of technology.

Education Minister Ruth Kelly envisages an education system that provides "a digital space that is personalised, that remembers what the learner is interested in and suggests relevant websites, or alerts them to courses and learning opportunities that fit their needs".

The words sound fine, but I've yet to meet anyone who can translate them into meaningful guidance for schools. I imagine something like an educational super-amalgamation of Google (for finding things out), Amazon (for buying off-the-shelf resources) and e-Bay (for bringing together sellers and buyers of custom-made educational resources). For all I know, there might be people developing that concept right now.

In many ways, I find it easier to imagine what this digital future might involve by looking at what some schools are already doing successfully.

Here are three brief sketches of successful e-learning.

One primary school in Hong Kong has made huge advances with inquiry-based learning, using a learning platform. In one project, students were asked to work collaboratively to design a building. The students were linked to a professional architect, an engineer and a designer. This community discussed favourite buildings from around the world, learned about design (colonnades, windows, drawings, perspective), and about collaboration. A purposeful conversation developed between learners and professionals.

In some Wolverhampton schools, Dave Whyley, who runs the Learn2Go project, has issued every child with a personal digital assistant (PDA). The children use these to read e-books; their geography work for the half-term has been loaded on the PDA; they use the PDA to compete with each other in a marketplace retail environment (an educational game to you and I); some of the children store ideas, favourite words and homework on them; and, in a few families, Mum and Dad use the PDA, too. Mobile technology, in the hands of the child, is affecting both motivation and performance.

Some schools and colleges are experimenting with the iPod. Imagine this scenario. Completing homework one evening, a child has difficulty remembering what to do with the brackets in a maths problem. Using her iPod, the child loads up a two-minute video clip of her teacher explaining the concept. She listens three times. Then, satisfied that she understands, goes and completes her homework.

In a sense, what striking to me about these examples is how unremarkable they are. Each of them is about everyday learning from the 20th century.

Nothing has been transformed - nothing, that is, except the child's interest, motivation and achievement.

Of course, that is exactly the point. In West Berkshire, local ICT consultant Sue Nicholson and Alan Wood of UniServity, have led the way in using technology to create platforms that have these learning effects.

Learning platforms have the potential to enable schools to develop their own curriculums.

Learning platforms act as a broker, linking learners with the resources they need. No longer do learners have to wait for an adult to have time to explain a concept. No longer does every child have to learn the same material at the same pace, or in the same sequence.

Sue adds: "The most frequent question I was asked in the early days of implementation was: 'What can it do?' To which my honest reply was always: 'What your imagination wants it to do.'"

A final word goes to the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth.

Commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills and established at Warwick University, this academy is expected to create a register of the top 5 per cent of the 11 to 19-year-old student population in England. In the past two years, 83,000 students have registered. That's a staggering figure and gives us a hint of the appetite for e-learning communities.

The academy is responsible for helping schools to identify and meet the learning needs of these students. Where this might lead to is, in my imagination, a national network that connects every secondary school in the country and provides them with challenging, motivating and appropriate learning for these students. A resource like that brings me back to my image of an amalgamation of Google, eBay and Amazon, because it reminds us that it should also be a resource that will be relevant to all students, not just the gifted.


* The Department for Education and Skills' booklet Learning Platforms: Making IT Personal - Secondary Version explains the government body's policy and funding arrangements for learning platforms.

* Becta has published An Introduction to Learning Platforms, which contains useful guidance.

* UniServity says that its platform, which is being implemented across West Berkshire (and Hong Kong's English Schools Foundation), enhances home-school links and enables any user to be trained, in an hour, to publish on the web.

* The National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth was established by the Government in 2002 to drive improvements in education for gifted children.

* For information on the Wolverhampton project Learn2Go, visit

* The use of learning platforms in Hong Kong is documented at Martin Ripley was head of QCA's e-Strategy Unit until it was recently disbanded. He writes here in a personal capacity. Email:

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