Turning words into actions

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Michael Stevenson has taken up the government's key role in educational ICT. Jack Kenny talks to him about the view from the hub

Tell us a little about yourself.

Here I am, 45, mid career, brought up in Yorkshire. Grammar school background, studied Latin and Greek. That's where the interest in history came from - which now sits happily beside an interest in the digital future. A good deal of my career has been at the BBC, initially making programmes, later in management. I learned a lot, especially about how you take a large organisation, with lots of tradition, and square it up to the modern age. And how you evolve it to meet the changing expectations of its consumers.

What is your role at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES)?

I am director of technology and chief information officer. It's a board-level role because ministers want to signal the importance of this area for the years ahead.

What are the priorities?

The aim is to use digital technology to modernise and personalise education for learners.

So the first thing is coming to the rescue of the long-suffering head, baffled by the challenges of what to buy and how. Why can't technology be like any other utility? Something you can switch on without fuss, without having personally to negotiate with technology suppliers across the globe.

The second thing is to work out how we can enable the head - or the college principal, or someone running a children's centre - to embed technology into every aspect of the way their organisation works. Technology shouldn't be so much shiny kit that isn't used.

Third, and more difficult and long term, it is about genuinely realising personalisation and, above all, the personalisation of content. Huge advances have been made but we have to admit that much of the content is "one size fits all" - interactive yes, but not all that different from a digitised text book.

Finally, it is about how we use data. We have so much data in the system but what we can't yet do is take a single comprehensive view of the individual learner. A view that combines all aspects of their development, from experiences in early years to learning attainment. This is a really huge task, and it bears on how we make sense of performance data across the system. That's the chief information officer bit of the job.

We have spent billions on ICT in schools - 1.65 billions is a figure that I have heard. Many would argue that such vast amounts have not produced good results.

The Government has put in a great deal, many millions as you say. But that's exactly what it had to do to get the kit installed and the connectivity in place. I'd agree that so far we've had automation but not transformation. The really radical impact of the investment still lies ahead - the impact on children's attainment or wider participation among those groups of young people currently switched off by the traditional offering. Those are the things we need to concentrate on now to capitalise on what we've spent.

Apparently there is going to be an emphasis on learning platforms - pound;20 million this year pound;20 million next year. Why?

Yes, the department is committed to encouraging the adoption of learning platforms. Why? Because as far as we can see they will be a really important tool in personalising the learning experience of our children.

The platforms are going to allow us to assign the most appropriate interactive resources to the relevant children. They are going to allow us to assess how those children are doing on an individual basis in a way that can be shared with parents and carers. They will also give us the personalised learning space for the individual child, a route to the e-portfolio.

With the kind of agenda that ministers have now got, learning platforms look to be a key to opening up opportunities for individual learners, whatever their learning style.

If learning platforms are introduced badly it will be a bigger disaster than the New Opportunities Fund training. It's a massive culture change.

How do you ensure success?

The first step is to make the procurement much easier so that learning platforms become part of a wider approach to providing technology as a managed service. Schools can talk to their education authority or their Regional Broadband Consortium and say: "This is the functionality that I want. Would you get it for me?"

With so many organisations involved in ICT: the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Training and Development Agency for schools (TDA), Learning and Skills Council, National College for School Leadership (NCSL), technology agency Becta and Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a teacher or school might be forgiven for asking who is driving ICT now?

The big reason for creating the technology group in the DfES was to pull things together. The department increasingly sees its role as one of strategic leadership, setting direction and ensuring that all the many players in the system can deliver that direction and make a difference for children and learners.

There are three major priorities. One is the delivery of current plans, the big ideas in the e-Strategy that we published in March: making a serious difference to teaching and learning; reaching hard to reach learners; forging partnerships with all the people out there that can help; and making the system more efficient.

The second thing is impact. None of us, as yet, can tell a sufficiently powerful story about the difference that the expenditure is making to attainment, to participation, to things that this government cares most about.

The third thing that the technology group can do is to begin to develop a longer term vision. If it hasn't happened so far, it is not just that people haven't been listening, it is also that technology people have not necessarily made the case in the right way or understood the concepts, the language, indeed the political imperatives that underpin better services to young people.

Yes, we do have a lot of players, though they all have critical contributions to make. In terms of the e-Strategy, we want to simplify our approach to delivery and reduce the number of actions, with fewer agencies responsible for any one of them.

How will all this look to the teachers in the classroom?

If we get this right then the teacher in the classroom may have more of a one-stop shop than they have today. And be able to say to Becta: "You be my guide through all of this." Becta should be more than a sign-post: "For that you should go to QCA, for this to Ofsted, for that it is NCSL."

I don't mean to decry for a moment the important role of any of our key organisations. But perhaps Becta needs to be in a position to synthesise it all in one joined-up technology offer. As the department takes up a strategic leadership role and detaches from delivery it is likely to look to Becta to provide a simpler operation on the ground that provides heads and other leaders with a single point of reference for turning around their institutions. That, I think, is the challenge to Becta.

In five or so years' time how do you hope it will all look?

I would like to feel that technology adoption, adaption and application is no longer challenging for education professionals; that technology is synonymous with learning and has become the way in which schools, quite naturally, do their day-to-day business.

Second, I would like to feel that we are genuinely on the way to using technology to personalise learning through the successful adoption of learning platforms. That will mean the development of personalised content.

Third, and this is a really important point, we will have to re-engineer the data so that wherever you are in the education system the individual learner can demonstrate to another institution, an employer, or to a parent, what they have done, how they are succeeding and who they are.

If we do these three things: one about culture, one about learning, one about the individual, we will have taken three giant steps towards 21st century education.

The full version of this interview is available in our Web Extras at www.tes.co.ukonline

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