Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Space Strategies for the New Learning Landscape

It takes a great deal of heavy duty stimulus before I can manage to have anything like an idea. It is testimony to the clarity and innovative thinking to be found in this piece from Educause that I found myself having a number of ideas even before I'd finished it.
It is an HE focused paper but has a great deal within of use to all who have any involvement or interest in the secondary schools rebuilding programme, BSF. You can download it from
The analysis of learning spaces that maps the specificity (spectrum from single-use to multi-use) against the formality (spectrum from informal/unscheduled to formal/scheduled) on the x and y axes of a graph was very thought-provoking. (page 2)

It is an analysis that I think would reveal unintended patterns within the space planning going on in some BSF projects. While secondary schools are going to need a large number of formal scheduled spaces, the new approaches to curriculum and learning do indicate a need for some informal and unscheduled spaces.

The author, Shirley Dugdale, advocates a 'Learning Landscape' approach to building design. This encompasses "the total context for students’ learning experiences and the diverse landscape of learning settings available today—from specialized to multipurpose, from formal to informal, and from physical to virtual." The goal is to "acknowledge this richness and maximize encounters among people, places, and ideas, just as a vibrant urban environment does." In HE students will learn most of their stuff outside the lecture theatre and seminar room, so the thinking makes a lot of sense in that environment. My understanding is that is what BSF is trying to help young people develop towards during their secondary school experience. If I'm right, then this paper should have some important insights for BSF.

To make life easy Shirley explains her top strategies for getting this done. The following ten are described in the main section of the paper.
"1. Analyze the whole campus as learning space.
2. Develop insights from user engagement.
3. Plan to support multiple types of learning.
4. Leverage space strategies to enable experimentation.
5. Leverage growth in hybrid courses to gain improved space utilization.
6. Seek strategic partnerships to develop informal learning space.
7. Consider diffuse vs. centralized distribution of functions.
8. Link space performance to learning assessment.
9. Develop workplace settings that foster learning organizations.
10. Recognize learning space beyond the campus."

These ideas stood out.
In relation to the first of these strategies Shirley asserts "In the future, space types are more likely to be designed around patterns of human interaction than around the specific needs of particular departments, disciplines, or technologies." Which in schools might mean, design in less of those single use spaces like science labs and more highly flexible rooms, because technology is making it easier to do experiment-type stuff with ICT in someones front room (perhaps only virtually but you get the drift). But if the spaces aren't specialised around content or subject based categories, what? Shirley thinks that the answer is "Multiple Types of Learning". She offers the following taxonomy.
  • "collaborative, with active learning and group work,
  • blended, with learning and other activities happening anywhere/anytime, enabled with mobile technology,
  • integrated and multidisciplinary,
  • immersive, with simulated or real-world experiences, and
  • hybrid, combining online with faceto-face learning activities, augmented with mixed-reality experiences."
For schools this means, I'd guess, that they need to ensure that the range of spaces they are planning allows for all of these learning experiences. That doesn't just mean the rooms, but also the spaces between them and around. For example she makes the following very clever observation "Food can be a powerful attractor for social learning, providing destinations for diverse campus groups to cross paths and connect. If these destinations are designed as compelling places, they can support learning discourse and the sharing of experiences, as well as strengthen community bonds." How many schools would consider the dining room as a learning space? They probably do, outside the eating times.

The paper suggests that the timetable is not a very helpful tool for learning. Here's why. A sequence of lessons will include a variety of types of learning. Yet the timetable fixes all of these to particular rooms for the whole year, regardless of what learning type each lesson might be. Perhaps devolving responsibility for individual rooms would be better. If the school is divided into sections for each department then in each section there could be spaces for all the different types of learning. Students would know which section they were going to at lesson change-over. The department would manage allocation of spaces to classes based on what the teacher had planned to do.

Another solution to this is build in enough flexibility into each room to allow reconfiguration between lessons for different learning types. The problem with this is teachers finding the energy between lessons to move around furniture and ICT.

I was impressed just by the title of the 4th strategy: "Leverage Space Strategies to Enable Experimentation". As Shirley says "learning space strategy is more likely to stimulate institutional change if it can make a variety of teaching settings available to a greater number of faculty". In other words like the chicken and egg you need both the innovative spaces and the willing staff before any innovation is possible.

Number 8 "Link Space Performance to Learning Assessment" is actually about evaluating the effectiveness of the learning spaces. The paper asserts that "Institutions need to develop an ongoing process for researching students’ and faculty members’ experiences with learning spaces". It is hard to disagree. This only makes sense if the buildings that come out of BSF have the adaptability to be reconfigured in response to the insights arising from such evaluative work.

For me, the most important idea developed by this paper is that school designers need to be thinking about the building and its environs as an entire learning space. It won't do to envision students independently learning throughout the school day if the designers only consider the rooms as learning spaces. BSF needs to look at the variety of types of learning that the building will support, at the balance of formal versus informal spaces and at the number of single use versus adaptable and flexible spaces. I have a hunch that getting these balancing tricks right will be a very important part of creating a successful school building.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Innovation and how to do it

Every now and then (and not very often) I read something and think 'this is really getting to the heart of it'. That is what I thought when I started to read the research from Becta entitled 'Harnessing Technology: business practices which support risk-taking and innovation in schools and colleges'. If I were a wiser man I'd just end this by pointing you at the paper (here).

My advice is best read it for yourself. It's only 27 pages. For those who haven't the time my observations follow.

Firstly I was frustrated by a few things. The authors don't give much away about the sources of their research. Whilst I know they won't list the names of schools and colleges involved it would be useful to know how many they spoke to; how many primaries, secondaries and colleges, who they spoke to; ICT Coordinators, Senior Leaders, Middle Managers, ordinary teachers, where in the country they were, how they were selected and what they asked them. If I knew the answers to these questions I'd have a much better idea about how much faith to put in the findings.

My other gripe is that the paper doesn't seem to have been copy-edited. In the footnotes on page 8, it says 'Harvard ManageMentor: innovation implementation, provided by NCSL (Could we check this title, please?)'. On page 7, 'If there is an cost to being risk-averse, the importance of creating an environment where risk-taking is encouraged is even greater.' It may seem nitpicking, but these little errors do actually make it much harder to read.

(I hope this doesn't lead to someone going back through all my blog entries and listing all the typos)

Having made those criticisms I should make very clear that this is a fascinating piece. For everyone trying to help schools to use technology to enhance learning, the things that help innovation happen are very important to understand. So hats off to Neil McLean (if it was him) for commissioning this work.

It comes in two parts. Firstly the authors, Helena Renfrew Knight (Senior Associate, The Innovation Unit), Dr Scott Bryan and Dr Gilly Filsner, (both Consultants at Kable), describe other research around what makes innovation happen (and what gets in the way). Enablers include a good deal of material around risk management. Apparently the 'right kind of manager can make the difference in fomenting a culture of innovation' (page 9). The report makes clear that previous research into innovation highlights a blame culture, or fear of failure being a big barrier. There's a pleasing little table on page 11 that summarises the barriers and incentives to innovation uncovered by the NAO/PWC.

The second part is the meat. Here are outlined the 'conditions for innovation and risk taking' (page 12). These are categorised into three types; institutional, systemwide and process related.
Institutionally they identify eight 'practices that successful leaders have implemented.. to create a culture of innovation' (page 12). It doesn't say how 'successful' is defined, or more importantly how they decided which institutions exhibited a 'culture of innovation'. The eight 'practices' are; leadership, shared ownership, a no-blame culture (trust), monitoring of risks, motivation (those working in schools suffer from a 'moral purpose' that can 'inspire innovative behaviour' page 16), money, time, promotion of innovation, team work/collaboration, sharing and groovy (not their word) physical spaces. To illustrate here are some quotes.

'“You’ve got to make people feel as though they can make mistakes. Making mistakes is key. For example, we spent £18k on a behaviour monitoring and registration system. We learned the hard way that technology companies will say what they need to in order to make a sale and the system won’t necessarily do what we need. It puts you in a position to know what you need, how to manage these companies and what it is likely to cost.” (Academy)' (page 14) This is from the bit about no-blame. If the only failure is making a mistake and not learning from it then you'll have very few.

In relation to funding the report says 'Obtaining funding to cover a new approach can be key to innovation happening. Our research indicates that recognition of the funding implications for pursuing innovation is essential. It is not surprising that our findings confirm that NAO’s assessment that lack of resources, financial and otherwise, acts as a barrier to innovation.' (Page 16) I hope someone with the key to the public coffers has read that one.

The final section of the research looks at the process of innovating. There was less in this that struck me. But at the end of the paper this and the preceeding ideas about 'practices' are neatly summarised in a diagram. I might just print that one out and pin it to my wall.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Open Source

The government's policy announcement has generated some interest.

Merlin John (here) reported Becta's Stephen Lucey, executive director for strategic technologies as welcoming the news.

Computing UK followed all this up (here) with a quote from Tim Byles, chief executive of Partnership for Schools, indicating that BSF managed service providers don't do open source (or words to that effect).

No news on Finland (yet).

Friday, 6 March 2009

Finland Encourages use of Open Source by 'Public Administrations'

Just read an announcement on the epractice website ( to this effect. This was made on 23rd February - so a little ahead of the UK Government policy announcement. Like that policy this one stresses the use of open standards and the possible reduction of costs. The document apparently asserts that "There are many useful open source applications that no Finnish IT service supplier currently supports. However, if the Public Administration has sufficient knowledge and technical skill, selecting such an application can be justified."

The epractice website is a useful source of european news in relation to ICT in public service across the eu.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Open Source in Government Action Plan

This is interesting. The UK Government announces a major policy shift towards greater use of open-source software. There's a link to the action plan on this page. The page also has a link to a netvibes aggregation page around this issue. It's all very Web 2.0! In fact the policy looks like a very encouraging statement of intent.

The foreword is by Tom Watson MP Minister for Digital Engagement. (As an aside I've just remembered reading that the Government is looking for a Director of Digital Engagement in the Cabinet Office - Seb Schmoller's website was the source.) I was delighted to see that the government wants to 'share and re-use what the taxpayer has already purchased across the public sector – not just to avoid paying twice, but to reduce risks and to drive common, joined up solutions to the common needs of government.' Sounds great, but I wondered what exactly that might mean. Later in the section on policy this appears: 'Where non open source products need to be purchased, Government will expect licences to be available for all public sector use and for licences already purchased to be transferable within the public sector without further cost or limitation. The Government will where appropriate seek pan-government agreements with software suppliers which ensure that government is treated as a single entity for the purposes of volume discounts and transferability of licences.' (Apologies for lack of page references but the document isn't paginated.)

Microsoft licensing rules are byzantine, but my very shallow understanding is that Microsoft likes the idea of transfer of licenses as much as I like having my teeth extracted. I don't want to drift into Microsoft bashing (others do this much better), so I want to point out how long and difficult it was to persuade a web development software company that licenses could be transferred between the host school that my organisation is based within and the CLC itself. My view is that this policy represents a move to a less cosy relationship with the industry. This is a good thing.

Back to the foreword where Tom Watson is adding that 'We want to encourage innovation and innovators - inside Government by encouraging open source thinking, and outside Government by helping to develop a vibrant market.' This also sounds very admirable. Later it is asserted that a key objective will be to: 'embed an "open source" culture of sharing, re-use and collaborative development across Government and its suppliers, building on the re-use policies and processes already agreed within the CIO Council, and in doing so seek to stimulate innovation, reduce cost and risk, and improve speed to market.' Marvellous. This is the kind of thing commentators have been arguing for, so I hope that this will be heartily welcomed.

The paper is peppered with terms to warm the cockles of all the open-source advocates, 'open standards', 're-use', 'open document format' and so on.

The final section is an action plan. This is well worth reading, but all I want to say is that the actions proposed make me think that the government is deadly serious about achieving these objectives.

As a final comment I wonder how far the procurement policies proposed here will be able to impact on the BSF processes across the country. In my view it would be a very good thing if they did.

Ofsted Report 'The importance of ICT'

This is worth reading and can be downloaded from here

The comments about the very slow improvement to achievement in ICT are the main findings highlighted by others including the BBC ( But I'd like to draw attention to the second section of the report (Section B from page 29 onwards).

This section starts by asserting that assessment of capability in ICT is still a very significant problem in the state sector. One in five of the schools Ofsted visited had no systems for making these judgements and so students were given the same work in different places. As worrying is the finding that: 'In the majority of the primary and secondary schools visited, teachers did not evaluate specifically how well pupils and students applied and used their ICT skills when working in other subjects.' (page 29) and that 'Most of the primary schools visited missed opportunities for pupils to become involved in peer or self-assessment...' (page 29).

Ofsted then devote a couple of sides to analysing the qualifications at KS4 in ICT. The report is pretty damning in its judgements on the new vocational qualifications. I was taken aback. Here is a particularly cutting observation.
'Accreditation of the vocational qualifications is based mostly on the assessment of coursework... Consequently, they are often demonstrating what they can already do rather than being taught new and more difficult skills. Sometimes, teachers direct students’ work too much. In some of the lessons observed during the survey, teachers led their students through the steps necessary to demonstrate that their work met the accreditation criteria. Students were able to meet the criteria, whether or not they had understood what they had done.'(Page 31)
It is a view I think I would have to agree with. It doesn't seem to be very helpful to the present issues around the introduction of diplomas that the government is facing. The report also describes the vocational qualifications as 'limit[ing] the achievement of higher attaining students' and failing to develop the really important ICT skills for the future such as 'manipulating data and programming' (page 32). Ofsted really puts the boot in when they state that there needs to be a 'proper evaluation of the challenge posed by vocational qualifications ... if they are to retain credibility with students, parents and employers.' (Page 32) In other words these vocational qualifications aren't rigorous enough, they don't teach the right skills and students can pass them without knowing even the undemanding content they do encompass. Ouch.

For a professional working with schools to embedd ICT I read the final part of section B 'Getting ICT to the learning' (page 35) with very great interest. It contains a very great deal of wisdom about the issues around integrating ICT across the curriculum. For example my own experiences are very much in accord with this observation from the report: 'Nationally ... although the use of ICT in other subjects is generally improving, the picture this survey establishes is one of patchy provision and inconsistent progress.' I nearly shouted aloud in agreement when I read 'Progress in using ICT to improve learning in other subjects is sometimes limited because its use was not sufficiently considered when planning the work or because of individual teachers’ lack of understanding of when and where ICT might make a difference.' (Page 36) Another hallelujah 'Schools have successfully created a demand from teachers to be able to use ICT to improve learning in other subjects but are rarely able to meet it. Most primary and secondary schools have chosen to centralise the bulk of their ICT resources in networked computer rooms. This is necessary for whole-class teaching of ICT but the result is that resources are often extremely limited elsewhere for work in other subjects.' (Page 36) The practical problems of enabling access to ICT for students through all their lessons is still a very big and serious limiter on teacher use of ICT. Ofsted think that mobile devices might be an answer. I'm not sure. You can't edit video on many handhelds I've seen. This is an issue that isn't going to go away.
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