XBectaX not #BectaX
Heather Brooke in the Secret State, published in April, flatly states that there is no way that we will invent a “British Google” as the UK Government is far too obsessed with secrecy to allow it to happen. I was part of the team who developed a prototype “Facebook for Learning” for the DfES in 2003, who then paid management consultants £4m to describe it as a “Google for Learning,” which I always assumed was simply out of ignorance about social media. Well it was 2003, and all the expensive management consultants could come up with as a metaphor was Google. So maybe perhaps, yes, that did set off the alarm bells in the Cabinet Office and they closed it down to restrict civil rights, as Heather Brooke suggests. Ignorant Cock-up or knowing Conspiracy? Who knows?
Well that is how I feel about Becta being shut-down. Ignorant Cock-up or knowing Conspiracy; who knows? Cock-up; because no one in government, or opposition, or the Civil Service, knows how to build a socially-inclusive digital economy let alone the education-system we will require to support its citizens. Or Conspiracy; because they know the social media age of co-creation, collaboration and participative learning requires a participative democracy and they aren’t standing for any of that nonsense. As the social media #BectaX crowd concluded, on March 31st, Learning is Delicious and I’m with Ewan McIntosh on that. Far too much fun in learning for the government to countenance using social media!
I find it curious that Becta was announced for closure by Cameron at the party conference last year and despite the intensity, and ferocity, of the budget cuts we require, allegedly, Becta is the only NDPB, or government department, to be fully closed down, neutralised, killed off, removed and where the staff will have to go and meet their jobcentre. And it isnt a quango guys, quango is a useful term when abuse is required. So Becta must have been an appallingly irrelevant and wasteful NDPB, or was Heather Brooke right? Let’s look at some pros and cons.
Off-shore Civil Service Department
When I went to Becta in June 2000 to be Head of Community Programmes and work on the £250m Community Access to Lifelong Learning Programme I had already built learning platforms, learning resources, supported communities of practice and worked on Lewisham’s Citizen Connects. Like everyone in Becta’s Lifelong Learning team, especially the FE-based FERL, I had a lot of experience and was brought into the centre to share it with educational professionals across the country. It was fabulous to be there in such a collegiate culture. Becta built up many good Communities of Practice, like the Senco forum and the FERL ILT Champions list, and my DfES and Lottery funding was also measured against my ability to build and maintain Communities of Practice. Becta started this approach in the last millennium before we had even heard of Etienne Wenger.
From September 2000 however a series of government-sponsored reviews by Management Consultants began into how we worked at Becta, which continued almost permanently until I left on voluntary redundancy in March 2008. At the end of one of these pointless, recurring cycles, around 2004, Becta was told to become an institution addressing educational themes, like Teaching and Learning, rather than educational sectors, where we had built good links on the ground. From then on it slowly became an off-shore Civil Service department run by Project Managers focussed more on carrying out policy rather than demonstrating expertise, although some did. We lost the model of bringing in experienced practitioners and began relying on consultants.
Becta was de-professionalised. I argued that we needed to know our own core-business, become accredited learning technologists (CMALT) and learn how to argue back at technologically-illiterate ministers. It wasn’t a universally held view. As in much of education good work was done despite the institution and its targets, and not because of it. Nonetheless Becta did good work, I always thought much good learning and practice came out of the ICT Test Bed Projects, especially at the socially-challenged Shirelands, the Research base was built up, projects like FITS enabled standards to improve supplier performance and so on. And with the NLN materials Becta was way ahead of MIT with OER; they were scaffolded, mashable and tagged to learning objectives. However Becta became a different beast when it didn’t work through Communities of Practice. Some, like the Champs list, continued; And continues still. But an off-shore civil service department model is increasingly irrelevant in a web 2.0 world where new skills focus around real-time collaboration.
What could Becta be?
I think we do need a Becta. Somewhere that shows what 21st learning can be, that reflects on best practice and collaboratively creates shared standards on a dynamic basis, not on a risk-averse one. It could be an advisory body, acting as a standards advisory to government, not directed by government but sharing good practice. It could a library of expertise, it could co-create learning resources or badge them, it could advise on new buildings and how new technology can make learning inclusive and motivational. It could be focussed on making learning technologies transformational rather than bolt-ons. It could also understand the distinction between Inclusion, Social Inclusion and Digital Inclusion and advise on that, which it failed to do.
It could be a global leader in ICT advice, Stephen Downes has just posted on his regret, from an international perspective, that Becta is “passing away” as 13 years of investment in ICT and Learning has really given us an edge on the rest of the world. A friend in the States also responded with the comment that “myopia is globalizing.” Every country in the world wants a Becta, especially China who translate Becta reports the day they come out. I was asked to go to China and help them develop their learning technology (they wanted Artificial Intelligence, Community Learning & info on how to scale e-learning), as other academics are. I said no because I would like to make a difference in the UK. Already on Twitter I have seen regrets about its closure from USA, Canada, Holland, Columbia, Spain, Sweden, Chile, Latvia, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, India, Rumania and elsewhere. Perhaps we will get a brain-drain now? Whereas we could have used Becta to sell our expertise globally as a Knowledge Economy product, and so have Becta helping us to drive the economy out of recession. Instead the government wanted Becta to e-enable the National Curriculum rather than transforming learning for the 21st Century as many of its staff were capable of.
Problem with that of course is that building the Knowledge Economy will require teaching kids to inquire and solve problems using, say, the Open Context Model of Learning, which this blog is about. But politicians love the National Curriculum as it delivers targets successfully against very narrow measures of what educational success is. We have the most limited measures of educational success in Europe, as Professor David Wood describes our league tables. <Apparently Nick Clegg lead on closing Becta based on the advice of one Headmaster in Sheffield (a city with fine e-learning credentials). If true that just confirms the ignorance of politicians when dealing with 21st Century education -added May 25th> So we won’t be franchising Becta globally; better cut it out now and avoid awkward questions about what kind of learning might just be “fit for context” in the 21st Century.
Can we crowd-source it?
As I said in Some Policy Consequences of #BectaX social media and learning can be broken down into three main areas;
1) Government & Infrastructure; Learning platforms supported by new Tools and new Skills. We have many examples, GLOW in Scotland, FERL in UK, and I was part of a team developing the excellent but under-funded aclearn, a tools-based hosting resource which never got out of beta in terms of its vision as Becta managers didn’t understand it’s socially-inclusive approach. We now have an apps model of development with iPhone and Android and some understanding of games-based learning, so development opportunities are even greater. Good secure infrastructure can set developers free. Government education funding should be about building an infrastructure so that developers, kids and teachers can work together on learning resources, get them recognised, in which ever form is appropriate. By contrast the US Government, have just announced a $665m Stimulus package for Educational Technology along UK lines, the first tranche of a ten-year program I understand.
2) Practitioners & Collaboration; The time is right for the co-creation of learning between teachers and learners. The JISC Llida programme has captured many new ways in which learners learn when they use social media. They develop their own Personalised Learning Environment’s and learning patterns. Graham Attwell blogs on this and there is much good work on mobile learning, games and learning objects too. But schools need to recognise the learning value in technology-enhanced collaboration. It is also a prime work skill now when a degree only confers a “6 months start” to graduates. (Etienne Wenger Digital Habitats). Collaboration should drive staff CPD in the way TeachMeet does.
3) Learners & Participation; Time to move beyond the notion that working together is cheating. I don’t believe in plagiarism, I do believe in bad educational design and we have plenty of that. We learn better together, we need to change assessment practice to recognise this and encourage project-based community-responsive modes of learning. Learning should be designed to create more participative-learners, not adrenaline-fulled high-stakes assessment junkies. The igoogle kids at Cramlington Learning Village claim they could teach technology “to a horse” so perhaps we should let them loose on politicians and headmasters
So could we crowd-source some of this work? Good ICT practice does lead to Communities of Practice. But Becta was shut-down to save public expenditure on government projects. It wont actually save much, far less than quoted, in terms of costs. Presumably then the government is not interested in building an agile, responsive, purposeful, collaborative, light-touch 21st Century Curriculum. It wants to keep the expensive, centrally controlled, National Curriculum system that means that we will be prepared to understand the 1832 Reform Act but not the 1815 Peterloo Massacre. We can crowd-source learning and technology issues, but public-money, I think the phrase is tax-payers money, will be spent in massive sums elsewhere in propping up a technologically-antediluvian education system designed to get everyone thinking, and consuming, in the same way. The Canute Coalition is doing its best to hold back the 21st Century.
So is Heather Brooke right? Is this just typical of an uptight Government concerned with controlling the information we have access too, or does it really know best how learning works in the 21st Century? Are they concerned to give us a better 19th Century Education experience or just to make sure we don’t get a 21st Century one? A bigger concern for me than closing Becta is that government just doesn’t understand learning, technology or society at all; or context as we call it in the Learner-Generated Contexts Research Group. Read Rose Luckin’s new Redesigning Learning Contexts for more ideas about this.
I see there is some concern voiced in the comments below about how difficult this post is to understand. The Future of Learning is a film made by two 15 year-old kids from Peckham (hosted on YooDoo, a safe YouTube built by mediacitizens) explaining some of the ideas I am referring to here. I’ve also used The Machine is Us/ing US video before, but does anyone in government understand, or has even seen, Mike Wesch’s work?