I Am Learner

I am not taught. I learn.

PISA’s Passive Aggressive Assault on Education

by John Connell

Gary Younge wrote in a recent Guardian article about the global economy’s swift, and harsh, response to the election of President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2002. Elected on an anti-poverty and wealth re-distribution platform, the sort of agenda usually dismissed as ‘populist’ by the Right, Lula came to office with a mandate to tear up an agreement with the IMF and to free the Brazilian economy from the shackles placed on it by the international economic order. As Younge wrote:

….on the way to Lula’s inauguration the invisible hand of the market tore up his electoral promises and boxed the country around the ears for its reckless democratic choice. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money left the country, and some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. “We are in government but not in power,” said Lula’s close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.

The limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital and its proxies is no longer simply the cross they have to bear; it is the cross to which we have all been nailed. The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains. But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation it is clearly no longer up to that task.

I detected a resonance or two from Younge’s article when I came across a recent piece from the always-interesting Yong Zhao about how Shanghai is considering whether to have anything more to do with PISA and withdrawing from the 2015 round of data gathering by the OECD. While the hand of PISA is by no means an invisible one, nor is it nakedly vindictive in the way that the international economic order can choose to be, it is in my opinion nonetheless a heavy hand that is doing more harm than good to education across the globe. Shanghai is a case in point.

Education officials in Shanghai feel that PISA, with its crude dependence on test scores, does not give them the  deeper and more meaningful levels of evaluation that other methodologies can offer. An example they offer is that their consistently high PISA score masks the fact that their education system has relied on excessive amounts of homework for its young people:

….teachers in Shanghai spend 2 to 5 hours designing, reviewing, analyzing, and discussing homework assignments every day…Teachers’ estimate of homework load is much lower than actual experiences of students and parent. Although the homework is not particularly difficult, much of it is mechanical and repetitive tasks that take lots of time. Furthermore, teachers are more used to marking the answers as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ while students are hoping their teachers can help them open their minds and point out their problems.

Shanghai is working its way towards what it believes is a much better system of evaluation, known as Green Evaluation, a framework that demotes test scores from being the only criterion to just one amongst ten. It brings factors such as moral development, creativity, psychological and physical health, development of individual potential and talent, and much more into consideration. It even looks at questions of ‘academic burden’, including class time, time spent on homework, sleep time, quality of instruction and overall academic pressure (such a far cry from the Gradgrind mentality of Gove and his acolytes who want to keep on increasing such pressures on our friends in England). It will also help Shanghai move away from the pretence that there can be any truly meaningful international comparison of education systems. PISA can only promote that pretence by its reductionist focus on test scores, and every additional step taken to measure (where measurement is even possible) and analyze the much deeper and broader criteria that must surely be included if we really want to understand an education system multiplies exponentially the complexity involved in making international comparisons.

Where the global economic order that assailed Brazil immediately following Lula’s election in 2002 (and just one amongst so many similar examples in recent times) was deliberately and aggressively malicious, the seemingly-gentler hand of PISA is much closer to the passive end of the aggression continuum. It has in its own way, however,  been just as effective in pushing its coarse agenda by the simple fact that so many governments around the world have chosen to buy in to its reductive methodology. Scotland is unfortunately one of the countries that currently plays the PISA game. Every two years, governments, schools and the media get caught up in a meaningless game of comparison, and every year the same pointless exhortations can be heard around the world pushing schools to do ‘better’ so that countries can climb the ladders of success at the expense of those passing them on their way down the slippery snakes.

But, if more and more jurisdictions can take the potential lead of Shanghai and tell PISA they are no longer interested in playing their absurd and valueless game, education internationally will be all the better for that.


Australia’s Lost Network: Harbour Bridge or Dugout Canoe?

by John Connell

Australia’s then Labour Government (now Labor Party since 2012!) launched its ambitious and far-reaching plans for a National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2010. However, since the right wing Liberal Party won the election in 2013, its Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has killed off any hopes that Australia could join the 21st Century any time soon in terms of its national infrastructure.

As Mary Hamilton writes in this week’s New Statesman, even during the election campaign…..

…Turnbull framed the Internet as a tool for entertainment, not a matter of life and death. The NBN was no longer a crucial infrastructure project: it was an extravagant purchase that Australia could ill afford.

Since winning the election, Turnbull has downgraded the NBN: no longer will they install high-speed optical fibre to every home, institution and business. Instead the initiative merely takes fibre to local cabinets, leaving the ‘final mile’ to Telstra’s ageing and decrepit copper installations to attempt to deliver some measure of broadband. It simply is not up to the task in many parts of the country. With average download speeds of 14.5Mbps and, critically, average upload speeds of just 2.9Mbps, too low to enable, for example, good desktop video conferencing links (using Skype for instance), Australia is now slipping well down the international broadband league tables.

The NBN might have been another Sydney Harbour Bridge: a dazzling feat of design and engineering admired around the world. Instead, its future looks shaky and its eventual usefulness increasingly unclear.

I regularly meet with friends and colleagues in Australia on Skype, on Facebook and on other similar platforms, and the deficiencies of their infrastructure are all too obvious most of the time. It is such a shame when I consider that some of the most forward-thinking and radical movers and shakers in education worldwide are to be found in that country, a community that has long led the way on so many fronts in the global educational conversation. Without the core infrastructure to take education forward, Australia’s education system will struggle to match the vision of its impressive cadre of thinkers and doers in this field.

Is digital pedagogy a meaningful construct?

by John Connell

Does the term ‘digital pedagogy’ have any validity?

It depends, of course, upon the assumptions we make about pedagogy generally and therefore on the definition of terms that arises out of those assumptions. The first problem, for me, is that too many see pedagogy as a universal category rather than as a category that needs to be re-defined as we go along to meet the needs of changing conditions and the shifting technological basis for education.

Intuitively, I cannot bring myself to agree that pedagogy is a universal category. For someone to convince me that I am wrong in this, they would have to demonstrate (and not simply assert) that every single form of pedagogy used in the context of the many social and collaborative technologies available to teachers and learners today has also been used, and indeed is also being used, effectively and successfully in contexts that are devoid of digital technologies.

As Stephen Downes put it so succinctly:

…if you’re using the same pedagogy with a stick and sand as you are using with a high-speed computer network, you really don’t understand teaching and learning.

Many teachers are, we know, using digital technologies simply to enhance or to shore up pedagogies that are no different from the pedagogies they have deployed at other times and in more traditional settings, and perhaps throughout their teaching careers. But I believe that some teachers are using such technologies in ways that cannot be traced back in any simplistic way to a pre-existing set of pedagogies.

Someone might argue, for example, that collaboration is collaboration is collaboration. In other words, they feel that, like good melodies, there are no new forms of collaboration under the sun. They might argue that the forms of collaboration enabled by social technologies are simply already-existing forms of collaboration that are different perhaps only in scale or in external appearance. The fundamentals of collaboration are the same today as they were in the 1950s, as they were in the 19th century, as they were at any time in history. That would be an interesting argument to see built and sustained.

I, for one, doubt that this is the case, but I would – genuinely – like to see someone try to argue the case.

So, taking that one example as a starting point – the nature of collaboration – we can certainly choose to dismiss the notion of digital pedagogy if we feel we can argue that the fundamentals of collaboration have not changed over time, that digital collaboration is only quantitatively different (perhaps) in some way from all previous kinds of social collaboration.

If on the other hand, we feel that the very nature of collaboration develops and changes through time, and that we are witnessing the development of some forms of collaboration that have never existed before, made possible by digital technologies, then, logically, we have to take the notion of digital pedagogy seriously (even if, by the way, we choose to call it something else).

Of course, pedagogy is about much much more than collaboration. We know that. I know that. But I’m using this one bite-sized corner of the extensive territory that is pedagogy to illustrate the kinds of arguments that those on either side of the debate must be prepared to make and prove. We could do the same by looking at other corners of the territory, such as the nature of curricular content, the evolution of teaching strategies, methods of instruction, and so on. Those who deny the existence of digital pedagogy must be able to demonstrate (and again not simply assert) that these are all universal categories that have not changed in their fundamentals through succeeding historical and social epochs.

Equally, of course, those who agree with me have to be able to demonstrate (and not simply assert) that some of these pedagogical fundamentals are intrinsically different from any pre-digital pedagogies. For instance, genuinely collaborative learning can no longer be contained within the more traditional classroom-constrained relationship between teacher and student. Collaborative learning cannot simply be about collaboration between teacher and student, but must be able to encompass genuine collaboration between students in the learning group, between a student and other people or resources pulled into the mix, and indeed must also be able to include a wide range of informal ‘learnings’ that can happen as a consequence of the more formal process of teaching/learning, but that might have very little connection to the expressed aims and purposes of the original planned teaching. The sheer richness of potential interactions, not all of them within the ken or the control of the teacher, necessitates a high level of flexibility on the part of the teacher (and of the student) and must, I feel, incorporate pedagogical elements that simply do not exist in a more traditional, classroom-constrained context.

So, fundamentally, I feel that there is some mileage in the notion of digital pedagogy. I feel that there are, within the broad definition of pedagogy, a number of significant components that: a) have changed, and will continue to change, to suit shifts in the technological basis of society, and b) that these changes in society itself actually start to change what it means to be educated, what it means to be literate in today’s world.

When we start to recognise (IF we start to recognise) the changing nature of what it means to be educated in the 21st century, then we have to be willing, I feel, to think anew about pedagogy in the context of thee digital and networking technologies.

Schooling: “the pyramid of classified packages”

by John Connell

Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.

So wrote Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. Illich’s solution was more nuanced than simply deschooling society, by which he meant extinguishing the compulsory aspect of schooling: he also sought to build what he termed learning networks:

What are needed are new networks, readily available to the public and designed to spread equal opportunity for learning and teaching.

But Illich wrote this in the pre-digital era, when his focus was on Latin America, and when the only technologies he could envisage using for such networks were cassette tape recorders. He saw these  as tools for free expression, unlike TV, which he felt gave the bureaucrats “…the power to sprinkle the continent with institutionally produced programs which they-or their sponsors–decide are good for or in demand by the people.”

With hindsight, his views were ideologically sound, visionary and idealistic, but perhaps technologically naive. Today however, Illich’s vision of learning networks are being realised in multiple guises across the Web, some more useful and open than others. Given the profound technological shift that is already making his concept of the learning network viable, it is interesting to look back at how Illich sought to categorize the different approaches he envisaged that would enable the learner to gain access to whatever educational resource they wanted and needed. He offered four categories:

  • Reference Services to Educational Objects – these facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning;
  • Skill Exchanges – these permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached;
  • Peer-Matching – a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry;
  • Reference Services to Educators-at-Large – who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services.

It is clear from this short list that Illich recognized learning as a fundamental human activity that everyone could and should engage in, both as teachers and learner: everyone wants to learn, and everyone should be enabled to teach whatever skill or knowledge they can offer to others. At the same time, he wanted to make it possible for those wishing to learn a subject or skills to find those able to teach that subject or skill. Equally, he saw the need for the mirror image of this learner/teacher relationship, by proposing a system that would enable those with skills and knowledge to teach to find those who want to learn from them. Of course, given the limitations of pre-digital technology, such a relationship could only be either face-to-face or asynchronous (for instance, by the teacher sending tapes to a learner).

Given that such limitations no longer exist, the limitations of Illich’s four approaches also becomes apparent. However, the core premiss of these approaches stands, I would suggest. The logic of his approaches becomes obvious when you consider what he saw as the three central purposes of education (something I have quoted more than once before, both here on the blog and in many keynotes and presentations over the years):

A good educational system should have three purposes:

  • it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives;
  • it should empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them;
  • it should furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

We all sit on the shoulders of giants, and Illich was a giant amongst the giants of education.

Scottish Open Education Declaration

by John Connell

Open education can promote knowledge transfer while at the same time enhancing quality and sustainability, supporting social inclusion, and creating a culture of inter-institutional collaboration and sharing.  In addition, open education can expand access to education, widen participation, create new opportunities for the next generation of teachers and learners and prepare them to become fully engaged digital citizens.

This is take from the early part of the Scottish Open Education Declaration, an attempt to build on UNESCO’s Paris OER Declaration by focusing not just on open educational resources but by affirming the wider significance of education too. In the democratic spirit of the declaration itself this is, if course, an initial attempt at the statement and it is open to any and all comment before it is finalised.

Go and have your say!

The Declaration has been drawn up jointly by CETIS, SQA, JISC RSC Scotland and ALT Scotland, and it  is line with the European Commision’s Opening Up Education initiative.

What is a good teacher today? [part 2]

by John Connell

This is the second part of a 2-part post – read Part 1 here.

What does it mean to be a teacher today? What does it mean to teach?

In an age where learners have access to the same rich information sources as teachers, where the scope for self-directed learning is hugely greater due to the technologies we now have available to us, how does the relationship between teacher and learner change, and what are the implications for what it means ‘to teach’?

The very nature of what it means to be literate, to be educated, is shifting across the world. The deeply social nature of the technologies and digital platforms available today, an ever-expanding set of tools that continue to offer new possibilities for self-expression and for collective expression almost on a daily basis, already puts in question many of the long-held assumptions that have been part and parcel of schooling for so long. The nature of what it means to know, the role of the teacher in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and learner, the diminishing importance of prescribed content within curricula, the inadequacy (some might argue, irrelevance) of the school building as a self-contained place within which learning is supposed to happen, the questionable efficacy of arbitrary ’standards’ to be tested over and over again during a young person’s school career – all of these and many other issues mean that teachers today are faced with a stark choice between an outmoded reality that, if sustained, will render school increasingly irrelevant to most children most of the time, and the new reality, one that recognises the major shifts brought about by the developments in Web technology in recent years.

Of course, in the face of such profound shifts, the attitudes of teachers themselves to change is a critical factor. Teaching is, it has to be said, a conservative profession, and the innate conservatism of most teachers might itself be seen as a significant barrier to change. Teachers will shout, of course, that it is the lack of vision of education leaders and of politicians and policy makers, along with the consequent funding gap, that is to blame, since this is what leads to the current lack of training for teachers in the new kinds of education possible today, as well as, of course, to the inadequacy of the infrastructure and tools required to modernize. They are correct, of course, but I cannot help feeling that the conservatism of teachers and the conservatism of education leaders feed off each other – a cycle of thinking that leads to the fundamental error of: “We just need to do what we already do, but a little better.”

Very many teachers, we know, do not accept such conservative attitudes and lead the way in classrooms, and often beyond the classroom, in every part of the world. But they are as yet few and far between, and too few of them are in positions to influence and inspire more than a handful of colleagues around them.

How do we re-empower the teacher for the 21st century?

The saddest, and in many ways the most galling, trend I have watched in education throughout many countries in the world over the past two or three decades has been the gradual, but unmistakable, neutering of the teacher as an independent spirit in the classroom. In my own country of Scotland teaching has descended to the point where the ideal teacher, in the eyes of the sundry politicians, civil servants, inspectors and administrators who have taken over the asylum, is someone who has forgotten what it means to teach and who is content simply to ‘deliver’ learning.  Different versions of this story have played out in other countries, but the common feature I would hope to see in all of them is that, despite the war of attrition waged for so long on the autonomous teacher, the vast majority of teachers across all these countries would love to be able to shed their ‘automaton’ skins and revert to the humane, creative and passionate teachers they really always wanted to be.

The teacher, it seems, has been relegated from an empowered and self-motivated educator to, for the most part, a mere actor following a long and complicated script. The best teachers, of course, even in this reduced environment, will always be (and have always been) able to find those joyfully subversive little interstices between the scripted elements where they can introduce some spark and variety – some passion – into the teaching and learning happening in their classrooms. But the teacher today, for the most part, has a smaller and smaller space within which to truly inspire learners.

What are the implications of current shifts in our understanding of learning in the modern world for subject-disciplines as we have known them for many generations, and for deep knowledge in the teaching/learning processes?

Many in and beyond the teaching profession fear the demise of the subject expert in the oft-mooted shift towards connective and collaborative learning. However, I would argue that changing demands on categories such as curriculum, pedagogy, subject-discipline do not threaten the requirement for expertise and for deep knowledge in our teachers.

Indeed, I would argue that the opposite is the case. Look, for instance, at the second of Ivan Illich’s three purposes of education: “It should empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them.” Shifting relationships within the classroom do not undermine the need for experts, but it may well require a shift in how those experts interact, both within and beyond the formal educational context, with learners. When pedagogy is recognized as more than mere transmission of knowledge, the industrial model of ‘active’ teacher passing knowedge to ‘passive’ learner is no longer tenable.

How do we bring about large-scale change in teaching practice?

We have to engage with the intractable issue of changing practice on a large scale. It is possible to envisage shifting teachers’ practice at the institutional level – many schools have done so or are doing so successfully. Even at the level of the school district, it is possible to conceive of real change in the nature of schooling and in the way that teachers engage with learners – visionary people such as Greg Whitby, in Parammatta Catholic Schools in Sydney, and so many others, are pursuing such objectives with great vigour and focus.

But how do we plan for, and execute, real change in teaching practice at the regional, national and international levels? Where do we start? Is it with the schools themselves, is it with the teacher-training institutions? Is it with teachers’ professional bodies – is it all three, and more? And what timescales do we need to contemplate for real change to happen within – are we dealing in years, decades, generations? If the timescale is long, will learners wait for the teaching profession to catch up with the economic, technological and societal changes that are driving the required shifts in the nature of teaching?

What is a good teacher today [part 1]

by John Connell

This is the first part of a 2-part post – there is a link to part 2 at the end of this post.

Teachers, we are told, make or break an education system. McKinsey, in its 2007 report How the World’s Best Performing Schools Come out on Top, told us that three things should matter most to any education system that wants to be up there with the best:

  1. Getting the right people to become teachers;
  2. Developing them into effective instructors;
  3. Ensuring the system is available to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.

In other words, the best teachers combined with a highly effective and efficient education system offers the best chance of providing a great education for a country’s young people.

It is a conclusion that, on the face of it, is hard to argue with. However, as a statement of the obvious it begs so many questions, and depends on so many assumptions, that in the end it is rather meaningless unless we can surface as many of those implicit assumptions as possible.

As it stands, it is merely a hollow truism. Defining, for example, who are the ‘right people’ to bring into teaching is not without difficulty: the person best suited to teaching physics to senior high school students is not the same kind of person best suited to teaching the youngest primary school pupils to read How do we determine those differences so that the best people are recruited into every part of the teaching force? What does it mean to be an effective instructor? The language would seem to suggest an approach that is highly teacher-led, as opposed, perhaps, to a teacher who seeks to facilitate learning by a range of means that go far beyond mere ‘instruction’. Was this McKinsey’s intent, or should the terminology be more loosely interpreted? Who defines what is ‘effective instruction’, however interpreted, and by what criteria is such effectiveness measured?

Questioning the terminology also leads me to ask how ‘best possible instruction’ is recognized and measured. At the macro level, should our evaluation of these assertions be based on, for instance, the bi-annual PISA analysis of the relative quality of national schools’ systems, or should other measures be used, and if so, which ones?

At classroom and school level, who determines what good teaching looks like, and who assesses teachers and schools? Is it enough to measure examination passes, or are there other equally valid, or indeed better, measures to employ? Should the social mix of a school’s intake be taken into account in such assessments? Is a national school system that produces large numbers of university-ready students but that also has a high drop-out rate amongst young people of school age more or less effective than a system that produces fewer such higher-education bound students but whose young people are demonstrably less pressured?

Questions such as these, and so many more besides, should give us pause for thought about what a ‘good teacher’ is, not least because our answer simply cannot be universally applicable, whatever artless formula the vote-hunting politician or the career-minded administrator might seek to promote. The attributes that make a teacher good at their job are culturally defined, can shift over time, and depend entirely on how any one society, or even a subset of a society, defines a good education. A ‘good’ teacher in the USA will share some but not all the attributes of a ‘good’ teacher in Finland, or in South Africa, or in Vietnam. The same is true even for different parts of any one education system. The ‘good’ teacher in an English public school (which, by the tortured logic of the English middle and upper classes means in fact a fee-paying private school) will similarly share some but probably not many of the attributes of a ‘good’ teacher in a large comprehensive secondary school in the same country.

We should even question the supposition that the ‘best’ schools necessarily have the ‘best’ teachers, since the definition of what makes a school a ‘good’ school is itself highly contentious. Some of the best schools in the eyes of politicians and parents, for instance, might well be producing the results that please those same parents and politicians, but that do not necessarily do what is best for students from the students’ own perspectives. Teachers in such schools might simply be those who are most willing to be compliant with articles of educational faith imposed from above or from without, and least willing to innovate, taks risks, and permit serendipitous learning in their classrooms.

In any case, what it means to be a good teacher today is undoubtedly shifting. The world is changing rapidly and so what it means to be educated in the modern world is correspondingly changing. In this shifting environment, therefore, I believe there are (at least) four critical issues that the teaching profession faces today – and how the nations of the world opt to deal with those issues in the next few years will go a long way to determining the nature and quality of education happening in their schools. Those issues are:

  • What does it mean to be a teacher today? What does it mean to teach?
  • How do we re-empower the teacher for the 21st century?
  • What are the implications of current shifts in our understanding of learning in the modern world for subject-disciplines as we have known them for many generations, and for deep knowledge in the teaching/learning processes?
  • How do we bring about large-scale change in teaching practice?

Go to Part 2…

CommonLearn (from Connect Learning Today)

by John Connell

[This post is cross-published with Connect Learning Today]

“The Web is the learning platform” is a phrase that has gained some currency over the past few years. It is a line I have used many times in presentations in the course of my own work. In fact I used the phrase as long ago as 2004 when I was tramping the highways and byways of Scottish education and local government to promote my vision, which became the world’s first national web-based learning and collaborative platform for schools, known as Glow.

Today, a decade later, in this age of Web 2.0, the Cloud, and the Rich Web, there is even more reason to see the Web as the de facto learning platform. There are many loud and insistent voices telling anyone willing to listen that everything we need to implement effective online teaching and learning is out there on the Web just waiting to be grabbed and used.

Those voices are right, but they are also wrong. They are right because everything we need really is out there, much of it free or low cost. There is a wealth of courses and course providers, content sources, tools, applications, protocols and services that you can combine in powerful ways for educational purposes. However, the voices are also wrong because, unless you can call upon a high level of capability in networking, server-side technologies, programming, database management and a number of other critical disciplines besides, anything other than very simplest and smallest-scale implementations are horrendously difficult to achieve with any certainty of success.

Beyond the sphere of education, there are many ‘rich web’ applications available today fulfilling some very practical purposes. For example, anyone wanting to set up an online retail store has a plethora of easy-to-use e-commerce packages to choose from. You just need goods to sell, a brand and a name for your store – the package and the host do the rest. Another example: anyone intent on starting a blog can choose from a wide range of blogging platforms that let the putative blogger set up in the cloud or on an ISP’s (or your own) servers, with relative ease. The same principle of ‘take it and use it’ software can be seen in many commercial, creative and professional spheres.

To date, however, there is no equivalent, easy-to-use, “clonable” and scalable platform for virtual teaching and learning. There is simply no rich-web application out there that will take care of all the difficult stuff while you focus purely on setting up the online learning facility that you need for your teachers and students, with your preferred pedagogy and with the content you want.

This is where the concept of CommonLearn comes in. CommonLearn will be, in essence, a ‘meta-platform’, an accessible resource that will give you everything you need to let you establish and operate your very own classroom in the cloud according to how you envisage it. The concept is, I believe, the natural evolution of the thinking that began for me more than a dozen years ago with Glow. The digital and networking technologies have of course developed massively since then, and the possibility of a truly open, freely configurable and pedagogically neutral virtual meta-platform for learning is now more than practicable.

As a meta-platform, CommonLearn will not compete with the Web, but will work with the grain of the Web by offering a lean and simple interface in tandem with the minimum core functionality required to enable you to exploit the riches of the web. CommonLearn will be the complete antithesis of the heavy-duty portals that proliferate today and that have done for so long. It will be built on open protocols that will let you provision user-accounts, manage identity and authentication, as well as create, locate, store and manage content.

Beyond these core foundational tools, CommonLearn will simply enable whatever combination of web tools and applications you want to use, along with whatever standards-based audio, video and other collaborative tools you wish to make use of. It will offer complete flexibility, not by trying to do everything for you, but simply by giving you the basic tools and a simple environment to allow you to do everything for yourself, by pressing into service any web application, web service or standards-based tool you want to grab.

Too many existing online teaching and learning platforms force you along certain paths, limiting you by providing someone else’s content, often constraining you to a fixed pedagogy, and by presenting a predetermined (and often proprietary) set of applications.

The CommonLearn meta-platform will be one that works with the Web, that is lean and intuitive, that is infinitely configurable by you, that is pedagogically neutral and that is content-free (until you fill it with your own content or with content that you source yourself). It will do for you what you want your virtual teaching and learning platform to do, not what someone else thinks you should be doing.

CommonLearn is merely a concept at this stage, but it is one that I am already working to turn into a realisable vision. I am working with some highly experienced cloud architects to create a viable architecture for the platform and I am already planning a project that will seek to build the financial, technical and educational eco-system needed to make CommonLearn real.

To join the conversation, or simply to tell me what you think, visit my blog and watch the screencast at: http://iamlearner.net/commonlearn-explained/

Talk to me on Twitter (@I_Am_Learner) or comment on the new CommonLearn website and blog: http://commonlearn.net

CommonLearn Explained

by John Connell

I have been immersed in issues arising out of the conjunction of education and technology almost from the first year that I started teaching back in 1980. However, I began a very specific and personal process of development and of thinking in the very particular area of virtual learning more than a dozen years ago when I produced, with my good friend Robert Skey, the first ‘seed’ outline description of what would eventually become the world’s first national connected schools platform, Glow.

In 2007, with Glow already up and running and beginning to make an impact, I went to work for Cisco Systems, and for the next 6 years I found myself working across many countries, many school districts, many universities and other entities across Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, all of them trying to do their own ‘Glow’. It was an exhilarating experience, and it also allowed me to continue that personal process of development and of thinking about the fundamental issues involved in virtual learning.

Today, I want to offer my thoughts on where I believe the next logical step ought to be in this area: I have gathered all my thinking, all those years of development, into a concept that I am calling CommonLearn – an automated, template-based service that will deliver a classroom in the cloud to anyone who needs such a platform. In the same way that anyone setting up their own e-Commerce site or anyone setting up their own blog have a range of high quality and reliable platforms to choose from when they come to implement their desired service, CommonLearn will deliver an infinitely configurable, pedagogy-neutral and content-free classroom in the cloud, whether you need it for just 2 learners, 200,000 learners, and possibly even for 2 million learners!

Why ‘infinitely configurable’? Because no two  groups or organisations needing a virtual learning facility ever have exactly the same requirements, and also because, given that the Web is now the de facto platform for learning, the sheer breadth and depth of high quality tools, applications and services available to teachers and learners is there to be exploited for teaching and learning.

Why ‘pedagogy neutral’? Because, just as no blogging platform would ever care what subject matter a blogger writes about, so CommonLearn will never try to decide for those setting up a CommonLearn-based classroom what philosophy of education, what pedagogy, they should employ. That is for the person or group or organization themselves to decide.

Why ‘content-free’? Because, again, anyone setting up their own classroom in the cloud will decide for themselves what content is required to meet the needs of the teachers and learners who will be using the classroom. The Web is replete with wonderful content, but people will always want to make their own content or wish to make use of digitized versions of paper-based and other resources in the physical world. It is up to those building their own classroom in the cloud,and no one else, what content they should wish to use!

At this stage, CommonLearn is merely a concept, but it is one that I am already working to turn into a realisable vision. I am working with cloud architects – and I have met and worked with some of the best in my time with Glow and with Cisco – to draw up an outline architecture for the concept. I am also beginning the process of planning a project that will seek to build the partnerships and the capacity to fund and build the vision that CommonLearn embodies, to make CommonLearn real!

Watch the screencast above, read everything you can on the CommonLearn website and the CommonLearn blog (both still in their infancy) and then join in the conversation! Comment here, comment on the CommonLearn blog, comment on Twitter (https://twitter.com/I_Am_Learner  #commonlearn), write on your own blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, or on any other outlets.

You can even comment using the wonderful Miituu video-feedback application. Just give your personal responses to a series of video questions from me.

Let’s talk about it.



Teacher Education in the Developing World

by John Connell

A philanthropic trust based here in Edinburgh has asked me to undertake a short term research project and feasibility study to examine:

  • the challenges currently facing teacher education in the developing world, and;
  • the potential for developing an open cloud-based platform for learning – CommonLearn – that will serve the varied purposes of teacher-educators, teachers and learners in these and other parts of the world.

The Trust for which work is being done is itself involved in a number of education ands health projects in various parts of the developing world, and it is keen to gather some insight into teacher education in order to better inform its own evaluation of future projects in that sphere. This analysis will be closely linked to my work on developing the concept of CommonLearn, but the preceding post to this one dealt with the concept of CommonLearn in some detail, so I will focus in this post on some of the issues around teacher education, especially (though by no means exclusively) in the developing world.

Teacher Education

The world undoubtedly needs teachers like never before. It needs large numbers of new teachers and it needs those teachers to be proficient and accomplished in what they do in the classroom. UNESCO estimated in 2008 that we would need some 10m new teachers by 2015 to cope with the combined effects of population increase and the increasing numbers of children worldwide being given the opportunity to attend school, as well as to offset the natural attrition of teachers exiting the profession globally.

TeacherandPupil_sml_UgWhile millions more children are now in school than before, there are many parts of the world where the Millennium Development Goal on primary education for all will not be achieved. In 2011, around 60m children were still out of school. Just as disturbing was the estimate of more than double that figure – 123m young people – who were still unable to read and write. Children can spend more than 4 years in school and still emerge illiterate. In addition, approximately a quarter of children who start primary schooling do not finish it, a rate that has not changed since 2000.

In this context, the quality of teaching is of paramount importance. Getting children into school is one thing; ensuring they have a good standard of education when they get there, and that they choose to complete schooling, is another. Many countries simply do not yet have the capacity to produce the numbers of well-trained teachers needed, and we need to look to increase capacity and improve the productivity of current systems in innovative and radical ways if all the world’s children are to be educated successfully.

teacher_pupilThe intention behind this short term research initiative is to review and analyse the current state of teacher education across the developing world, and to gather examples and evidence of effective practice in the training and professional development of teachers across the world. Governments the world over are looking for alternative approaches, and new providers, to schooling and to teacher education.

I intend making contact with a wide range of people and organisations across the globe in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current context of teacher education in different geographies. I want to explore the issues that those I speak with might identify as critical to the needs of teacher educators and to trainee-teachers, as well as the major factors influencing policy-making at governmental level. The aim will be to produce a broad overview of the current status of teacher education across the developing world.

I will seek to analyse the challenges faced by teacher educators and to establish the critical gaps in practice, resources, capacity-building, recruitment and deployment of teachers in the various systems looked at. An awareness of the full set of persistent and recurring obstacles facing teacher education, as well as some insight into successful and effective practice where that can be identified, will establish a base of knowledge that will support the design and development of the CommonLearn concept.

The questions I am focusing on for the moment are:

  • The current state of teacher education around the world, but especially in developing countries:
  • The similarities and differences from country to country and continent to continent?
  • The key challenges facing teacher education around the world at the present time;
  • The persistent and recurring obstacles to change and improvement in teacher education currently?
  • The main shortcomings arising out of these and other challenges?
  • The key strengths, if any, in current teacher education practice?
  • How are the challenges and obstacles being overcome, if they are? And, if not, how should they be overcome?
  • Some examples of effective and successful practice in teacher education?

Anyone wishing to join the conversation around Teacher Education, whether across the developing world in particular, or elsewhere in the world can go the CommonLearn website and blog - feel free to comment or even to register and contribute posts on any relevant topic. If anyone wish to leave some video feedback on the concept via the amazing Miituu application, please go to:

Feedback on Teacher Education

I welcome contributions from anyone by any means you prefer to use, whether email, Skype or Twitter:

Email: johnconnell [at] iamlearner.net

Skype: I_Am_Learner

Twitter: https://twitter.com/I_Am_Learner