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Speech at Nesta, 15th November 2012

15 November 2012

This speech was given at the Nesta Digital Education Report launch on Thursday 15th November 2012 as a panel member response to the report.


Mark McCourt, Nesta, 15th November 2012

I was very encouraged to read, throughout the report, experiences that resonate with the work that I have been focused on over the years.

I very much believe that technology has a place in education and that the potential for technology to have a real positive impact on student outcomes is something that we would be foolish not to tap into.

But. There are no silver bullets here. And it was nice to see that line in the report.

So much of what we say about technology enhanced learning is based on hunch and personal belief. For at least 40 years we have been trying to shoehorn technology in to learning. Taking software and hardware, designed for the purposes of business, and trying to work it in to our classrooms.

Almost without exception, the technology that has made it all the way in to the hands of our children has, as the report puts it, put technology above teaching, excitement above evidence.

If we are going to realize the potential that technology holds to improve education, I believe that the answer must lie in creating, from the ground up, evidenced based, values driven technologies that start from the point of learning and teaching.

But I don't mean teaching, do I? Because teaching is contrived to mean the way we teach now.

Technology can't be a bolt on. It isn't in the practices of classroom teachers that we should be looking. Instead, we need to grip that using technology to enhance learning necessitates new practices. Technology has its own pedagogies.

So what of this ground up approach? Who would do it?

This is where the biggest challenge lies, I think.

Within a research environment, maybe driven by grants, one can have the luxury of time.

But it is not HEIs that will bring technology in to the hands of children. It is, and always has been (with some very rare exceptions) the commercial sector that pushes tech into schools.

Research projects all too often result in cumbersome interfaces or uninspiring user experience. Which is of course fine, because that is not the purpose of the project. And developing tech is costly.

But. Technology needs to be practical and useable if schools are to adopt it.

So what do they see?

They see the trash that large, commercial organisations push on them.

And with little expertise in schools, and little time to grow that expertise, school leaders make poor decisions about the technologies that they invest in.

There is no surprise here. Why on earth would a commercial organization take an evidenced based, values driven approach? What incentive is there?

So instead we get pulp fiction.

£1 billion pounds spent in the last five years, the report tells us. And what impact has it had?

I'd wager almost none.

A good starting point for building learning technology, as the report points out, is to start by augmenting and connecting proven learning activities in current settings.

But if we are, as the report challenges us, to bring research into reality and turn the world into a learning place, we need to create a mechanism for bridging the divide.

Too often at the moment developers don't understand learning, and educators don't understand the endless possibilities of good coding.

Researchers and developers operate in isolation.

We need to bring together educators, developers and designers in one place, where ideas can really flourish.

This is why I'm very pleased to be able to announce a new initiative, in which we are creating an Education-Technology hub in central London that we act as an incubator for young start-ups, giving them access to experts in pedagogy, technology and design.

I'd be very happy to talk afterwards to anyone interested in knowing more about the hub. And look forward to seeing a new tranche of evidence and values driven, ground up developments for learning emerging.

There are already some examples of commercial organizations taking the lead. Many of you will know that I am part of Beluga Learning, where we have done just that.

This means that we have been able to go way beyond technology that simply replicates a transmission model of education. Much of the most used solutions are online based and seem to be stuck in this mode. Khan Academy is taking steps now, but has as yet effectively brought nothing new to the table.

Surely the potential of tech goes beyond simply increasing reach (though this is, of course, important)

I think, in fact I know through our work, that tech can move beyond consolidation and practice to true learning environments where young people can build their own knowledge.

Technology, as Seymour Papert knew, can bring constructivism alive.

And I was encouraged to read in the report the section "learning through making"

And although the report points out that few examples of learning through making have been subjected to rigorous academic research, I would encourage again researchers to come together with developers on real products in real classrooms to finally nail this. I'd be happy to put Beluga under this type of scrutiny if anyone is up for it!

Look. Practice has its place, for sure. Practice makes perfect. But there has to be more, surely. I don't think we should kid ourselves that practice and drill software is technology enhanced learning.

Yet nearly all solutions out there don't get beyond this sort of approach.

Let us break away.

Let's build upon the promise of collaboration, allowing learners to work with each other. Let's create robust scaffolds of experiences that incorporate representational tools that can be manipulated to build understanding internally and communication tools that give opportunities for reflection.

For me, the potential of technology is in bringing all the aspects of a great teacher in to the hands of an individual learner.

So in the same way that, as a teacher, you will kneel down next to a child and listen, observe and understand what is happening so that you can adapt their experience, provide support or challenge, tech can also, in real-time, analyse learning and adapt the experiences.

There are lots of challenges to overcome.


We need to pause and look at the world.

When I was a child, school was where innovation was. It was the place that I saw my first computer. It was the place that I watched TV in colour for the first time. But a complete reversal has occurred.

Now, the tech that our young people have in their lives is leagues beyond much of what exists in our schools. So let's tap in to that. Let's tap in to the digital literacies that our young people bring to the classroom with them. Not suffocate them.

I despair each time I inspect a school and hear about mobile phones being banned. For goodness sake, what are we doing?

The report highlights that mobile devices can be distracting.

We need to stop saying this.

It seems to be forbidden in education to say, but it is not the mobile phone causing distraction. It is bad teaching. It is not the tech.

Would you ban dictionaries? They aren't distracting, are they? Well, sure. What about the silly boys looking up rude words and giggling?

Anything can be distracting.

So you have rules, you build a culture. You set out expectations, and good teachers orchestrate classrooms so that the kids aren't distracted.

Having blanket bans on mobile devices is simply wrong. It's idiotic. Let's open up schooling to involve the world that the child experiences beyond its walls.

But by far the biggest challenge in bringing about real impact through technology is how to incentivize commercial organisations to invent solutions that will actually enhance learning.

So, I would call on Nesta and other organisations to take a leap of faith. We can't continue with the divide between research and development.

But developing in this way is incredibly risky and expensive. There is no list of ingredients that will make a magic piece of technology. Funders will need to join those of us in industry by putting their money at risk.

Sometimes it will work, sometimes it will fail. But the payoff of working together will be great.

I'm enthused that the report calls for collaboration. So let's do it.

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