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What Dreams May Come: An Open Letter From Lord Jim Knight on Learning

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ord James Knight, formerly the Minister for Education in England and current Managing Director of Online Learning at TSL Education, took time to answer questions about the state of online and blended learning in education across the globe. Lord Knight’s response to my last question about the future and expanse of online learning speaks, I would imagine, to shared dreams we have all had about the fantastic possibilities quickly becoming realities in education.

Dr. Berger: Have we done a good job of training school leaders on the nuances of online learning and the impact this new world has on physical campuses and curriculum?

Lord Jim Knight: By and large we have not.  There are obvious exceptions.  All the evidence on the impact of educational technology on learning shows that good leadership of the use of technology by school leaders is crucial. But we are not seeing the widespread adoption of online learning in most of the world.  There are parts of the US that are embracing this new world but most are wedded to an older pedagogy.

There are some moves in this direction, with things like flipped learning or Khan Academy.  These are evolving pedagogy but not radically shifting towards a less content driven style.  At TES we are now starting to offer professional development courses for teachers that use a collaborative style of peer-to-peer learning.  I am keen to see this approach more generally. As this shifts we then will see more virtual campuses and a consequent impact on physical learning spaces and the curriculum.  Short of the virtual schooling in areas like Florida, this still feels someway off.

DB: Would it be fair to say that online learning is still in its infancy and if this is true what should we, as school leaders, be doing to fully engage students and staff now so that future blended models will be adapted more quickly?

JK: I agree that we are just seeing the beginnings of what online learning can do. When we were designing our online PD at TES we starting by asking teachers what they liked and disliked about current PD courses.  Most said that courses were too content heavy, too often “death by Powerpoint”, and not enough reflective, collaborative learning.  The best bits were talking to other teachers over coffee and lunch.  When we then looked at most online courses these problems were amplified – too often clicking through slides and then a boring multiple-choice test at the end to test content retention.

This illustrates how much further online learning has to go.  It took us some time and effort to find an online learning platform that was designed with a true social learning platform.  We have found it is possible to replicate some of the best aspects of face-to-face online, but you need to have that ambition to go beyond what is current practice.

The next stage would be to then see networks of trust between teachers so that they start to share video and audio transcripts of their classroom teaching.  The potential to then offer asynchronous, affordable, collaborative and reflective learning is exciting.

School leaders should be thinking about how to challenge online providers in this way.  Start with what they and their teachers and learners want.  Then work out how to develop that trust between learners and then find the technology that meets their needs.  Starting with the technology is unlikely to work.

DB: We hear about the challenges of integrating technology into classrooms (training, time, curriculum integration etc.) some of which are fact and some fiction. Will professional development online offerings for teachers serve a bridge between educator tech skill acquisition and what we end up seeing in the classroom for our students?

JK: Yes and no! Some of the problem lies with the edtech crowd.  Their product development needs to embed teachers and learners from the start.  However wizzy the tech is, it has to have good pedagogy embedded in it.  It then also needs to be sufficiently intuitive in the user interface for hard-pressed teachers to want to use it.

This is amplified with learner facing technology.  Most young people use consumer technology, gaming software and social media.  If their experience of using edtech is poor in comparison, then their motivation will be sorely tested.

That said, I think professional development is essential.  If just a fraction of the money spent on whiteboards and iPads had been spent on training to teachers to teach with them there would be a much better return on investment for that kit.  This is not training in how to use the hardware and all the funky functions they may have, essential as that is.  It is more about how it allows you to teach better.  That training has been sorely missing.

In the UK, TES recently surveyed teachers about professional development spending.  There is no requirement for PD in English schools and we were shocked to find that 12% of secondary schools had no budget for professional development at all.  That in turn means that PD providers need to up their game and demonstrate to school leaders the value of their training.  Online should be cheaper, can be higher quality, and could help those leaders realize a better return on investment in their existing technology.

DB: I think in the beginning of online learning we were excited about ones ability to connect classrooms from around the world integrating lessons and culture. In your view has this become a real day-to-day practice and how can we continue to connect schools from all points on the map?

JK: There are some good examples in higher education of connecting students in global seminars.  Sugata Mitra has done brilliant work in recruiting grandmothers in Gateshead, England to help teach children in India to read.  The British Council has had some success with its Connecting Classrooms programme.  However we are a long way off this becoming real day-to-day practice.

Currently I am working on the World’s Largest Lesson for delivery in September this year.  This is part of a massive effort, led by campaigner and filmmaker Richard Curtis, to raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goals that are being renewed by world leaders at the end of September to end extreme poverty and tackle climate change.  We want every teacher in the world to simultaneously teach a lesson about some or all of the goals.  As we have worked on this with Education International and UNICEF we have realized the obstacles to global collaboration – connectivity, poverty, capability, language, time zones etc.

That said TES also runs TESConnect.  This has over 6.5 million registered users and is the largest network of teachers in the world.  Here educators from every country on the planet are sharing teaching resources with each other.  Downloads of this user generated content now regularly exceed one million downloads each day.  So whilst day-to-day connection of classrooms is still a long way off, day-to-day connection of teachers globally is now a reality.

DB: If we were to peer down the hall to see the future of online learning what might we see on the horizon and what should we be prepared for?

JK: Crystal ball gazing is a mug’s game – especially when it comes to technology!  However here is a vision:


‘Class of 2050’ by Jim Knight

I am woken gently by light filling my room and the gentle vibration of my watch.  I quickly check my schedule for the day.

I need to do some more study at home before going to the campus, for a busy day of meetings.  But first I must check that the component, for the project I am collaborating on with pupils in China and Australia, has printed out OK overnight at their end.

A quick video call confirms that it is OK, but that triggers more research and adjustments to get done before the design team surface in Chile.  I fire off a message to the learning community to try and get some answers to the physics problem I need to crack in the next hour or so before heading off to the campus.

Here at “school” I start by confirming my meetings.

The rooms for my peer mentoring sessions are booked and I quickly scan the data for my mentees.  One of them seems to be struggling to fit into the team role he has been given, marketing is not his strength but at 10 years old he has loads to learn.  I find a 12 year old with similar attributes who has overcome the same problems, who has mentor time and hook them together.

The big meeting of the day is the group presentation to our learning coach.  At the presentation suite everything works, the remote members of the team are all on task and the product itself is ready.  The theory behind it needs tidying up to make sure all the references worked.  All in all it looks good and, as the team leader on this one, I feel pretty confident that the “teacher” will learn a lot on this one.

Before moving on I just check the data on the room environment.  Light, heat, ventilation and sound all look set right to get the most from the individuals in this group.

The final practical thing is to book my sport session.  I review the video feedback from the sports learning coach and see I need to spend sometime on my backhand.  I check in with my friend Jake who the system identifies as playing to that weakness. Something to look forward to after the big presentation.

But first to lunch.  I have almost caught up with Amy on the health challenge, and so happy to take the healthy option suggested for me in the eating area.  This is my favourite part of the campus.  It is light, airy, and clean; sound manages to escape and it is not too hard to find somewhere to sit with my friends.

I love coming on to campus, the environment is perfect for giving my learning focus – even though the really studying happens at home.

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