CALRG40: Final session

Liveblog notes from the final session at CALRG’s 40th anniversary event, 19 October 2018.

Fall Reflections

Visions Reflections

Tim O’Shea and Mike Sharples

After a contribution by videolink from Mike Sharples in Shanghai, Tim launched in to a series of entertaining anecdotes from the early days of CALRG and IET. Sadly I missed most of the start of this part.

The group has the MIT demo culture. Even if you aint got a theory, build something that works and see it. Build it and test it.

The group applied the course team model in to research. Many projects with 4, 5, 6 people in them. That was imported from the course team model, an incredibly healthy thing. That makes it such high quality.

40y ago we were outlaws. A previous VC called me a flim-flam artist. And others tried to shut us down. Now there’s a message from the VC, and a PVC in the front row nodding. We were hiding in huts trying to make sure the university didn’t remember we existed and had lots for money.

The Open University is too small for its claims and potential. John Daniel’s first book, there were 10 as of his writing. All of which are a bit bigger, to the Chinese TV universities. It’s too wee. It needs to scale, to bootstrap.

I was invited to Georgia Tech to a symposium on affordable learning at scale. Has an online masters in CS, 8,000 enrolled students, approaching 10,000. Illinois online MBA with a few thousand, Michigan, Arizona State, a lot of activity. The ladder from MOOCs to micromasters to masters. At Edinburgh, many MOOCs, not at scale yet. Look at what Harvard are doing, Arizona State has set up a global freshman academy. Online first year taking people who wouldn’t get in to an American university. Large numbers. At this symposium, it has to be a four-figure number. They’re inventing the OU course team. Bright-faced people talking about bring a range of people, doing some QA, it made our courses better. It’s being reinvented to make online affordable learning. Target is generally a quarter of the regular fee. That wants looking at.

I really think you should look at computer games. They are at scale.

You should really look at teacher bots. Sian Bayne has done wonderful work on teacher bots, programs responsible for different parts of teaching. Edinburgh bots are frank and open and you can tell they’re not people. Nanotutors, Jill Watson. MSc in CS. Two of the tutors were not humans. They were programs. Georgia Tech, when there are FAQs or easy questions, the nanobot answers. If you’re a human, you pause to see if the nanobot will answer it for you. E.g. what is the pass grade, what is the best reading. Jill Watson was not only not identified. The students were told two were robots, but didn’t spot her. But one of the human tutors not only didn’t spot she was a robot but asked her out for a date. [argh!]

Learning analytics is very important. I take pride in having worked in the university that educated Thomas Bayes. LA would not work without Bayes. He was wanting to improve his performance at gambling, despite being a protestant minister. Once you have cohorts of thousands, you can apply Bayes’ rule in a way you can with 50.

If, ten years from now, the OU is 10x the size, then you will have been successful.

Richard Joiner – At the start, you said we were all rebels. Do you think the CAL group needs to be more rebellious?

Tim – It makes me nervous to get a message from the Vice Chancellor. The CAL group ought to be making the senior management uncomfortable. There should be an element of public bolshiness. A formative experience was being taken to meet the maths faculty at the OU. Like the gulag. A big man with a beard, said young man, what do you think your purpose is? I said, to improve the quality of maths learning. He raved that I was impudent, OU had the best set of maths teachers on the planet, there was no way that I could improve it. The existence of the group is pointing out it’s not perfect.

Mike – I want to ask Tim a question.

Tim – I recruited you twice, sunshine, so be careful!

Mike – I was at RMIT where our former VC is now. Martin Bean, was like Tim, we need to scale up universities. If there are some innovative tech-aware VCs, why aren’t they getting together? Why not more collaboration and coordination around the world?

Tim – UUK, the British VCs, a friend hated being there with men in suits telling each other lies. VCs are paid to boast for the universities. It’s incredibly hard for a VC to collaborate with another, it really doesn’t go with the job description.

Eileen – Thanks Tim and Mike for their interesting and rebellious comments.

Keynote – Neil Mercer

Should digital technology ‘transform pedagogy’?

Neil is at Oracy Cambridge, Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge.

I’ve worked at the OU more than anywhere else. I didn’t mean to leave, someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’m glad to be back here. Hearing things that’ll help the university in to a better future. We all with it well.

One strand of CAL research here is different to what’s been mainly talked about: the use of digital technology in classrooms. That’s what I’m going to talk about. You’ll get a different perspective.

I’m getting imposter syndrome, since I’m not a techie, I worked with people who were much more technologically adept than I am. Early work with Rupert Wegerif, Lyn Dawes, both had PhDs on computers in schools. I didn’t. In fact, when I completed my PhD at Manchester, there was one computer for the whole university and I had to book time on it in the middle of the night to do my statistics. I feel like the ordinary person on the team.

News story – ‘New technology to spearhead classroom revolution’, with Education Secretary talking about tech industry launching it. Responses from teachers: is it time to set up BECTA? A wee reminder that teachers in other jurisdictions have a manageable workload through fewer working hours spent in the classroom teaching” It felt like deja vu. When will they ever learn? Go back to Secretary of State for Education in 2004, tech has already revolutionised learning. Earlier still, it will revolutionise schools and teaching. Cuban (1986), teachers have acquired reputation as Luddites. This notion recurs, there’s wonderful technology offered to teachers who want to smash the looms. It’s a seriously misguided point of view.

What has research told us? Tech-led mode of introduction is very likely to create problems. Little research on how, if at all, they influence […] educational goals. (Electronic whiteboards example.)

We ought to be humble about what computers really can do, what they’re good at, and what they’re not good at. Excellent film he saw last night, mentioned Kurt Vonnegut: “a computer teaches a child what a computer can do. An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become”.

Schools and classrooms is different from reaching people through e.g. distance learning.

What should digital technology do for classroom education? Just give them a load of gear and it’ll revolutionise what they do. Should it? We’ve got excellent teachers, really good teachers, whose practice is not faultless, but is good. Should the tech help them do it more easily and effectively? Technology is a tool, we invent them to help us get jobs done more effectively.

Some software designers say, this software’s great, it’s got good activities in it. Software doesn’t have activities. What you’ve got in a computer is resources for designing an actual activity. You’ve got the basis, but the activity happens in the intersection of learner, learner, teacher and computer – not in the software.

Research in classroom-based education ought to address the affordances of any tech, teachers’ pedagogical practices, pupils’ learning requirements, what we know about effective classroom teaching. Often tech offered – especially hardware – that was second-hand, designed for others primarily. If teachers are good at teaching, tech should enable them to do it more efficiently, not change it. Should be focused on the learning requirements, not the content you can give them. We know a lot more about effective classroom teaching. Have just finished the largest ever classroom pedagogy study in Britain, looking at frequency of teacher activities and outcomes. We know a lot more about this, that should be the basis of designing electronic things for schools.

There are some generalities from those studies. One of them, the Education Endowment Foundation’s summary of useful things to know, one says – individualised learning [with technology] may not be as helpful as small group learning with technology or collaborative use of technology.

Here’s some of my projects that have tried to exemplify this approach. One of the CALRG ethics is researching with teachers, collaboratively. What do the best teachers do? How can the technology help them to do it? Bart mentioned this – we want to know what the best teachers do.

Showed a photo of an early project, in a school in Wolverton, old style large grey box computers.

Project with Sara Hennessy, Paul Warwick – Using interactive whiteboards (IWBs) to orchestrate classroom dialogue. Vygotskian approach to dialogue. We know that the ways teachers talk to students makes a different to learning outcomes, and how they talk back – it’s the whole dialogue that counts.

Example 1 – Using the IWB to link lessons. Give a sense of going somewhere, so they can perceive the journey. Teacher uses pictures of previous lesson as a resource. [Photo of teacher, showing classic current British classroom – whiteboard with projector on it, and walls absolutely covered with brightly coloured things – a very visually noisy environment.] We didn’t find negative features of this use.

Example 2 – Using block reveal – show a blank on the screen, e.g. three words blanked in a poem. Can encourage thinking, structure teaching, and maintained pace.  Once the teacher’s designed it, it’s harder to change the structure of the lesson, content less flexible, and tends to be used to set up ‘closed questions’. Good teachers also ask open questions.

IWB enables teachers to provide engaging whole-class learning experience, integrate diverse resources, save and revisit resource to improve continuity and coherence – all more easily than without an IWB. [Interestingly, he says ‘IWB’ as the abbreviation – which is five syllables compared to six for saying ‘interactive whiteboard’.] But teaching is not ‘transformed’ by the IWB, it can dominate events or disrupt when it fails. The effective use of the IWB depends not only on tech skill, but also on teachers’ teaching skill.

Second project, Ingvill Rasmussen and Paul Warwick, Digitalised Dialogues Across the Curriculum (DiDiAC). Based on ‘Thinking Together’ approach. A brower-based microblogging platform Talkwall. Small number of schools in Norway and UK.

Asked teachers about group work, teachers asked students to consider purpose and value of talk for learning, class agreed ground rules for Exploratory Talk (this is known to be really good for getting them to talk productively), used Talkwall to record ideas and decisions. (Important to get them to agree what they’re saying and write it down, and not just talk.) Consensual social norms governed use, not just features of the tech.

Can share this between schools. The collective thoughts of the students become a common resource, the teacher can build on them, the students can refer to them. It’s helping teacher to improve the quality of groupwork.

Project not finished then. It does help. It’s not flash or innovative, but it helps a more group-focused collaborative learning environment. It improves the variety and quality of questioning and talk by the teacher and children.

General conclusions

Not controversial to you, but might be to a Secretary of State for Education.

Transformational, tech-led approach is misguided and disfunctional. Digital tech should not be designed to replace teachers, but to assist them – good teachers doing their job well. Need to assess this using educational, not technological perspective. It’s a toolkit for pursuing educational goals, not determining them. It’s particularly good for supporting collaborative learning. We need to assess the educational strengths and weaknesses fo any new tech – especially when it arrives as 2nd hand kit primarily designed for other users. If developed from this perspective, it has so much to offer. It’s great. That’s what we should be aiming for.


Stylianos – The context of this research. Compulsory education, characteristic there is the development of a community. Students spend a lot of time with the teacher in the same environment, facilitates these activities. Are there any lessons we can learn from your research for people who teach in HE, where the engagement is not at the same level? There’s a speed-dating type contact between tutors and students.

Neil – Not sure I can give a clever answer. I agree HE is a different context. In achieving the balance between authoritative presentations like this one, and true dialogue, it’s difficult. At Cambridge, we have supervisions – it’s not cheap but it does it.

Kim – Talked about using good teaching to design tech, but what about the converse, what teachers find difficult or can’t do?

Neil – They’re aware of the richness of multimedia resources. Most of them aren’t natural techies. They want things that’ll make that more possible. There are ways that can be better. Kids are missing out if they’re not making the most of those resources. Other things, like citizen science, they find it hard to coordinate children. The one Mike Sharples did with bird feeders, the technology enabled coordination of individual records across several schools, it was great with primary kids. They’d have found that impossible. It’s a good way to look at it.

Patrick – Back to the first question. I was looking at the list of general conclusions, it applies to what we’re trying to do in HE. I feel that a lot of the research we do, it’s a challenge we face when we work with schools, but it is transferable. Is there something we do in HE that has no lessons, that’s so different, or should we be looking at this across all of the contexts?

Neil – It should be research with potential to apply across contexts. But if you ignore the particularity of the contexts you might go wrong. The aim of a primary teacher isn’t to reach beyond the 26 students they have. That’s going to affect what works. The scaling Tim mentioned, I can see why that’s beneficial for this institution and the students, but that isn’t the issue here. You don’t want to scale up a primary classroom to 100 kids. You do want to scale up to help 100 teachers see how they can do better. It depends what your question is.

Patrick – The Development goals does go across all education, not just HE. The pedagogies are around sharing experiences, broadening beyond the classroom, even though you start there. You’re underplaying your research.

Tim – Reinforce and comment about the second-hand kit. Had the experience of visiting a large computer corporation about educational strategy. Had a sequence of this would work well for schools, things designed for commercial context, but not pedagogical intent at all. The problem education has, it’s a small underfunded market. If you compare education to world finance industry, it’s very small. Cyclops was ahead of its time, BBC micro, Cicero, why are they no longer extant? They never reached the numbers the IBM PC or MS-DOS did. There isn’t an economic structure around to sustain. If you buy a spreadsheet it’s going to be Excel, not one designed for learning. A problem like the civil servants of education ministers have is not realising that education is small beer compared to defence or finance.

Neil – That’s plausible, except you see Pearson is phenomenally wealthy, and Cambridge University Press pays for half of what Cambridge does. There’s money somewhere in it. How come the books sell?

Tim – Books are easier, you just print ’em and flog ’em.

Andrew – Falling in to the trap of simplifying the problem. The issue with scaling is context. Learning occurs differently in different contexts. We can’t avoid the fact that context defines. Steve Draper’s “Niche-based success in CAL” – tech adopted when it solves a problem. Need to be more sophisticated. Scalability doesn’t happen because learning contexts are different – e.g. VLEs. I’ve been paying more attention to understanding the learning problem before we think about the solution. Learning is a complicated thing, we can’t just wade in with tech without disciplined analysis of the problem.

Neil – I agree entirely.

Wayne Holmes – I like your final conclusions, particularly number 2 (tech designed to assist teachers, not replace). Any examples where the attempt to introduce tech shows up problems?

Neil – Sara?

Sara – The whiteboards is one example. We weren’t unaware of the pedagogical issues. But when available worldwide, clear they’re not being used effectively, despite every single classroom having one. It takes a lot longer to address the problems [than to reveal them]

Bart – I’m not in habit of quoting David Willets, but he saids one problem is most educationalistst are amateurs, trying to play round the fiddle, use a very basic approach to the black box of learning. Do we need to fundamentally upskill the methodologies to show the complexities of learning?

Neil – No. I think it’s politicians who don’t understand learning. [laughter. We know a lot more about the process of teaching and learning.

Richard Joiner – Whiteboards, teachers not using them interactively, you need to change the pedagogy that teachers use?

Neil – What we do is find out what really good teachers do and distil it down to its essence. Some of the teachers said they did do things, others hadn’t thought about it. I’ve such respect for teachers, I don’t want to become a Gove knocking teachers. There are some who are not so good, need to be trained to do what we know is a good thing.

Sara – Introducing any tech, has to be preceded by support and professional development for the teachers. We’ve known this for decades. The whiteboard initiative was an example, the digital microscopes in secondary schools, they were just left in cupboards. We have lots of examples.

27/365 Present - Regalo

Poster competition winners

The poster competition winners were announced by Liz Fitzgerald, Wayne Holmes, and Doug Clow. I haven’t written them down here so as not to spoil the result.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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