Nurturing and measuring the ‘value’ of innovation – BETT and beyond
About a month ago, I attended BETT, the biggest Ed-tech fair in the UK.
Across the two floors of London Olympia companies – large and small(ish) were displaying their newest products for all to see. It was really interesting to see how technologies were being used to display curriculum materials – the most innovative example being what looked like a rapid expansion in 3D projection, alongside increases in content for ipads/tablets.
Certainly I think there’s great scope in some of this content development stuff – one example I particularly like, is the use of map data to create history resources which layer time periods over the top of the map (although I didn’t see anything like this at BETT). That sort of augmented reality tech is something I’ll be keeping an eye out for in the future, and that may have scope for attracting some students – of all ages – to thinking about how they can extend their learning beyond the classroom.
What I found really interesting was the fact that arguably not much of what was on display was really innovative. I don't think that's necessarily problematic – we need staple core technology, we need some stability, and we need a lot of the tech we already have to be developed further. They are all important aims. However, it does raise an interesting question about what the point of events like BETT is – if the products are generally things that people will already know exist, in what sense does attending BETT expose you to new ideas? Are there other models – which would still draw in crowds – that could disseminate more innovation? Perhaps the Learning Without Frontiers fair better fits that model.
I think my overwhelming feeling was that a lot of the materials were focussed on content – new ways of displaying a lot of the same old stuff – rather than on content creation, management and ‘joining up’.
The possible exception is in data management, although here many organisations are still very focussed on manipulating the same old data in the same old ways, without joining up to other sources (which many organisations make deliberately particularly difficult).
Content is obviously important, and I suppose it’s also easy to market – particularly for organisations that essentially consider themselves to be publishers – it, like the 3D projectors, is also something where there are obvious, traditional business models for procurement. The monetisation of content is perhaps easier than for other things. It’s probably pretty telling that many people have been rather excited by Apple’s foray into educational publishing – marketing textbooks for ipads, which will be relatively low cost and will, for example a) allow highlighting/annotation and b) combine those together to produce your own abridged book. It’s certainly an innovative idea (although the significant step is that it’s now a big company, well known for good design marketing it), but it’s arguably being created in quite a conservative way – and there are real issues here to do with access, loss of ‘second hand’ books, and a lack of open standards in a sense innovating by restriction.
Too much innovation?
Immediately after BETT, I saw this article - is there too much innovation in education? – which was a response to this (very good) video discussing innovation, improvement, and measurement of change in the Canadian education system.
In it a distinction is made between ‘improvement’ and ‘innovation’ –
- Improvement – building on successful models; in tech, this is developing the technology more, perhaps integrating tech better – something I think needs a lot of work. In education examples would include test score improvement. In education, we know a lot about good practice – for example, the provision of ‘formative assessment’, rather than just a grade. However, it is often not being put into practice.
- Innovation – in contrast is based around trying new things, but on the understanding that many of them may – when evaluated – be shown not to be particularly useful, but that this constant process of thinking about innovation is important.
The suggestion was that what education needs is more improvement, and less populist innovation – citing the 1:1 laptop:child policy as an example of this which has a poor cost-benefit ratio compared to alternatives. This is a particular area of interest to me given my interest in collaborative group work, in particular where the locus of the group activity is technology use.
There’s a quote from ‘Hard Times’ that I sometimes think of when people talk about education – especially when people use the phrase “back to basics”:
'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'
I bring it up, because although I agree with Levin that we need improvements in education, and our use of technology in it, I also think we need innovation.
On the former, there was a great quote from Finland, When asking what Finland did to turnaround their schools, the response "we took American research & applied it.” – as a researcher (or aspiring-researcher) this is something I’m very aware of, and have some worries about.
One of the innovations we should be looking at is how to improve the dissemination of quality research, and the measurement of its impact.
However, for that to happen, we should also perhaps be looking at how to innovate more in our education system – to the extent that we need to think about what the purpose of education is. I’m literally writing this as Learning Without Frontiers goes on in London, and getting excited (although sad I’m not there) because the speakers are so closely related to my research in both philosophy and psychology. These two tweets jumped out at me:
"A person can do magnificently on tests but understand very little Chomsky" (from @Naace)
"It doesn't matter what we cover this semester. What matters is what you 'discover' - via Noam Chomsky" (from @tbush)
Perhaps part of the issue is that some of the tech-innovations would work – if our education system were prepared to change. And under a changed system – perhaps one in which computers, and their supports are seen as aides not replacers of ability, as in Denmark where computers are allowed in exams – we might also be able to encourage more creative, targeted innovations.
Measuring the ‘value’ in innovation
One of the things we need to think about, is how to make that real, what sort of events and movements can create the changes we need – BETT, Learning Without Frontiers, innovation labs/hubs, versus the arguably more organic ‘startup weekends’ or homegrown projects (supported from outside). We also need to think about how to measure the impact of changes – both improvements, and new innovations. It’s for that reason that I’ve signed up to a (free) open, online, distributed ‘learning analytics’ course – applying analytics to learning concepts (signup here) which I’ll talk about more as the course goes on.