From Ship Building to 3D printing: Belfast’s Future Classrooms 2013

conference-imageWhat happens in the classroom has an impact on the creative industries talent pipeline, and schools have a much longer event horizon until their talent hits the professional world. Dealing with that ten year lag is problematic for political planners and policy makers. The Web 2.0 revolution is barely ten years old, and inventing a curriculum around it ten years ago would have seemed a folly. There was no facebook, twitter, linkedin, let alone bandwidth nor access to support such an endeavour.

We have to assume that tropes like the internet of things, big data and the cloud will only grow in prominence for the creative industries of tomorrow, but we need to match this with flexibility, resilience and an appetite to engage with what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’; namely to engage with disruption rather than build defences against it.

With the sad demise of the Learning Without Frontiers conferencethis year, there’s not a lot of places that these kinds of debates and foresight can erupt off the webpages and into what the cybernauts of yesteryear used to call ‘meatspace’.

School’s Out?

Today 39% of 2-4 year olds have used a smart device, with this jumping to 52% among 5-8 year olds, while a CISCO reportsays the number of smartphones, tablets, laptops and internet-capable phones will exceed the number of humans in 2015. Research by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) concluded that at least 6% of desktop/laptop computers in schools would be tablets by the end of 2012 (4.5% in primary, 6.9% in secondary), with this rising to 22% by the end of 2015.

So the opportunity to attend Future Classrooms 2013, Northern Ireland’s first conference designed to help education leaders and key decision makers develop strategies for the creative use of technology in the classroom was a foray into this area that I jumped at.

Wallace High School have embedded the tablet in their curriculum (credit

Wallace High School have embedded the tablet in their curriculum (credit

In the comparatively heavily regulated and prescribed world of learning, how do we ensure teaching not only makes use of new technology, but also adopts flexible and far-sighted strategies for coping with change, and performs the neat trick of supplying not only the creative thinkers and practitioners for whatever Web 3.0 might be (with presumed trajectories of a world of work prefixed by nano- and virtual- and augmented- connectivities we can only dream of), but also supply fulfilled individuals who can guide and inform such a future.

So many projections revolve around a technological determinism which may be our future undoing. If we unwittingly plan straitjackets for today’s children we end up (with the best will in the world) making the Schools system become the next Kodak, Blockbusters or HMV- failed models from a past era.

Its Creativity Month in Belfast, with a rear window view on a past industrial heritage

Its Creativity Month in Belfast, with a rear window view on a past industrial heritage

In the US, we see the logical extension of doing nothing- the privatisation and unbundling of education, and the apotheosis of the idea that connectivity and distance learning will fill the gaps and technology alone will save the day. The rhetoric can always portray teachers as passive pawns in a teleological narrative they are swept along by. Right now, the guiding lights and guardians of education in the states are Computer Scientists and Edtech providers such as Sebastian ThrunDaphne Koller, and of course Salman Khan.

Often best practice in the schools system can be under the radar, finding its way around the system, in after schools clubs, special bootcamps and projects, local experiments outside the mainstream, and grass roots innovation often away from the political limelight. In the UK we are lucky to have a more humanist tradition evidenced by leading lights like Keri Facer and Sir Ken Robinson, who put the teacher and pedagogy before metrics, and quality before scale.

There’s never been a more critical time to include and empower teachers. That dialogue needs to start with information and exposure to best practice, rather than a sales pitch for new technology alone. As such Future Classrooms 2013 felt like the start of a measured and optimistic approach to how we can make our schools great, and get a real sense that today’s children have the conceptual tools (and yes, the technological tools) to create their own future. However, it wasn’t a start, but rather a progress report, and a celebration of much success.my_lanyard

A Buoyant Titanic

On first of March 2013 school managers, teachers and curriculum leaders from Northern Ireland gathered at the (very buoyant) Titanic Centre in Belfast for a day on how our young people learn and how to prepare our future workforce for a modern competitive economy of tomorrow, yet focus on creative approaches across the curriculum and advice on how mobile technology can be deployed to support this. Significantly it also launched a flexible Mobile Technology strategy for Schools. A range of speakers were complemented and grounded by an exhibition of school children creative work and exploring curriculum with Apps, programmes and even a 3D printing machine, a sort of technology playground of creative activity led by the children themselves.

A different kind of Titanic ballroom

A different kind of Titanic ballroom

We often use the term pedagogy without realising its roots- the Greek paidagōgía, for teaching children (Andragogy meaning methods for teaching adults). Future Classrooms 2013 highlighted the role of three Creative Learning Centres who have spearheaded the agenda of creativity and engagement within the schools and the youth sector in Northern Ireland. Funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and managed by Northern Ireland Screen, they are Studio ON in Belfast, The Nerve Centre in Derry/Londonderry and the AmmA Centre in Armagh, acting as hubs for spreading skills development in digital creative media among teachers and young people as well as building new curricula, and collectively work with more than 250 schools. Over 1500 teachers and 3000 young people have benefited from the advice, workshops and resources of these centres. This model of strategic support beyond the school walls has enabled teachers and schoolchildren to explore creative and mobile technology on their own terms, and provided a level of friendly mediation between the often baffling array of ‘Ed Tech’ providers and the end-user.

credit: Creative Learning Centres 2013

credit: Creative Learning Centres 2013

Averil Morrow, Director of the AmmA Centre states “We have seen a huge increase in demand recently for training from teachers and from school management teams in the use of mobile technologies, particularly tablet devices. Head teachers want to be shown how to deploy this technology and how it can help improve the learning process for their pupils.”

Highlights of the Day

The first neologism of the day came from Stephen McGowan, Head of Creativity DCAL who told us of the concept of ESTEAM (I’m assuming that’s how it’s spelt); a neat way of highlighting Enterprise and STEAM– the future components of creativity that the economy craves. This seems very close to Creative Skillset’s new philosophy of Fusion skills, which you’ll hear more about in the months ahead. It’s a good sign that policy makers are starting to understand the power of creativity, as David Willetts has recently been pronouncing on STEAM, but ESTEAM sounds like it may soon supplant this as the acronym de nos jours, which enriches our lexicon. The Creative Industries have been too slow to create adopt snappy terms that encapsulate what’s needed, and gain good PR to promote change.

Education conferences such as this have many stakeholders- educationalists, politicians, young learners and industry representatives, and so the stage is often set for conflict, with teachers who often are the recipients of misplaced and historical school policies, and stern industrialists who chide the system for not supplying todays talent to their specifications, and bemoan having to cope with skills shortages that were precipitated further down the talent timeline. This conference wasn’t one of them.

Bro McFerran MD of Allstate Northern Ireland

Bro McFerran MD of Allstate Northern Ireland

Bro McFerran is Managing Director of Allstate Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland’s largest IT company, employing over 2300 people, of whom around three hundred have been sourced from Europe and India. His keynote speech was refreshing. He explained that the paradigm of the last few years, with education agencies asking business to ‘tell us what you need’ doesn’t work anymore- businesses simply don’t have the ability to project skills supply and demand into the future, so they need to support a proactive education system. Telematics and Analytics are his future growth areas, but he needs an education system that supplies ESTEAM workers ready to adapt. He sees a real shift from the passive “computer point-and-click generation to the mobile tap-and-swipe generation” as the main challenge for schools. He recognises the folly of businesses being too prescriptive about what they want out of schools today, but that businesses need to simultaneously be more supportive within the classroom.

Peter J Scott, Director of the OU's Knowledge Media Institute

Peter J Scott, Director of the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute

Professor Peter J Scott, Director of the Knowledge Media Institute of the UK’s Open University took some of the themes of mobile learning further, reminding us that television itself could often deliver learning by stealth. 8 million viewers saw theBBC’s Frozen Planet, and that this essentially was an OU course. 300,000 people engaged with the OU through this partnership. He explained that the TV programme was the ‘sit back’ gateway that brought you to the ‘sit forward’ and often mobile-enhanced interactive learning possibilities. He also made it clear that pedagogy in this area is always open to change as platforms change. There are 156 postgraduate and 397 undergraduate courses on offer through the OU, and the advent of the semantic web and the leveraging of big data analytics will have an impact on that provision. Scott talked about one of the major design challenges for his team in the future is to provide connectiveness that encourages students to talk and solve problems together.

Back to School

David Cleland of Wallace High School

David Cleland of Wallace High School

Such speakers supplied a kind of grown-ups context for learning, but the picture of tomorrow’s school classrooms came alive forcefully with a school case study presentation by David Cleland, Vice principal  of Wallace High School who talked of their journey into mobile learning. They’d had positive experience of Moving Image Arts (MIA), the first A-Level in the UK in digital film-making, assisted by the Nerve Centre and accredited by the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), and this had spurred on a deeper investigation into technology.

In 2010-11 he’d noticed that over 140 pupils had mobile devices, and so germinated an idea that led to the equipping of 530 students at Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) with an iPad 2, the first 1:1 initiative in Northern Ireland. Cleland told how parents had inspired and permitted such adoption, whilst teachers drove the initiative. Open evenings with parents and pupils together gave confidence that the quality of learning would benefit. That was September 2011.

He cautioned against sudden and deep disruption, likening ICT to a double decker bus, were the journey should be one of small progress between stops, and where the next stop is only visible from where you are, not the end of the journey itself.

Cleland also highlighted the need to bring on board naturally wary teachers, and how a “Photoshop and Digital Media” teacher training course had little take-up until it was re-branded as a “Get the most from your digital camera” workshop and re-scheduled before the summer holidays. You have to bring people with you during major changes, and the formation of staff working groups led by Cleland created a new integrated ICT policy.

Schoolchildren immersed in the accompanying exhibition

Schoolchildren immersed in the accompanying exhibition

It took one and a half years to get iPads into the classroom, but only three days intensive training were needed for staff partially because of the near ubiquity of iPads in the home, and a summer to test out teaching issues.

Now the school continues to exploit new learner centred technologies, using Cloud services, and utilising Google Docs with a VLE for their learning materials. Training is integrated and ongoing, and pupils use free Apps as well as Garageband, iMovie, Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. The School is now creating a library of App textbooks for future cohorts.

Nerve logoJohn Peto, Director of Education at The Nerve Centre point out that using the same standardised and connective tool (in their case, Apple’s iPad) across different subjects can lead to important interdisciplinary learning, with the children bringing ideas from other Apps work in other subjects into their current classroom. He talks of some children learning French by default, and how at every stage the parents need to be involved, and how support needs to be constant. The launch of the Creative Classrooms site, produced by the three creative learning centres is a careers resource to support the KS3 curriculum for Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities, and Employability. Students are asked to think about what it means to be creative, and lessons have been designed to encourage students to explore their own nascent creative skills.

Attendees at the conference were also given copies of the new “Mobile Technology handbook for all schools in Northern Ireland” a guide to spreading best practice from planning, preparation to deployment and evaluation. With its objective of one device to one user in the classroom this presages an exciting future to learning in schools, led by teachers and parents, informed and supported by the creative learning centres. The Handbook is crammed with examples of technology currently being used in Schools across Northern Ireland, and the guide leaves it to the schools which mobile technology they should choose, putting power into the hands of the teachers, not the hardware suppliers.

A useful guide to Mobile Learning

A useful guide to Mobile Learning

The handbook reminds us “We are yet to see how new mobile computers will change the ways in which technology is managed, accessed and utilised in schools. However, no matter the mechanism or device the key to success will always be a pupil-centred approach where questioning, creativity and learning are paramount. It is vital that the use of mobile devices in schools is rooted in School Improvement and the enhancement and enrichment of learning at all levels”.

Conferences about education can be heavy on theory, policy and foresight, but the accompanying “Have a Go” Exhibition showed that the future classroom is actually here. Over lunch curious delegates passed through a room of industrious children, seemingly oblivious to the attention they garnered, immersed in their tablets, creating stop-frame animations, solving maths puzzles, and even printing out models on a 3D ‘Makerbot’ printer. Whilst we grown-ups struggle with the ‘internet of things’ and cloud computing, these children are engaging and learning new technologies like 3D modelling and design on a site full of historic resonance- where no doubt some of their grandfathers once built ships out of steel, they build imaginative models out of thermoplastic polymers, ready for tomorrow’s industries.

My thanks to Barry Brennan of Studio ON for arranging my visit.claymation


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