Earth Hour 2012, Learning from our Teenagers to turn off the lights on Saturday

One of the pleasures of my job is that we work with learners and teachers through participatory research and design. Recently we have been working with teenagers at several different schools as part of a research project exploring teenagers’ understanding of energy and their consumption of it. With a view to motivating their curiosity to understand more and to want to be thoughtful about their own consumption and that of their peers, families and communities. The nature of the participatory approach helps the learning to work in all directions, so we learn a great deal through the process, not just about the teenagers and their energy lives, but about things like Earth Hour 2012. One of our groups of young people have taken the initiative at their school and organised local events to prompt people to think on Earth Hour. I didn’t know about Earth Hour until they enlightened me, which is a lovely demonstration that teenagers are not just key consumers of energy, they are also key communicators and I wil now be turning off my lights for an hour at 8.30 pm on Saturday

We know that despite the fact that we hear a lot about energy sustainability in political and popular rhetoric, energy consumption is rising. Teenagers are certainly important consumers now and in the future and yet little is known of their conceptions about energy.  There is growing evidence that they find it hard to translate their formal learning about energy  into an understanding of their personal energy consumption. We need to know more about: What energy consumption is relevant to teenagers? Why do teenagers think energy is an issue? Where do teenagers learn about energy? What would motivate teenagers to learn about energy consumption? And to know if they are they concerned.

It has been fascinating to find out more about teenage culture through the photo diaries, focus groups,  activities, questionnaires, and design work that we have completed.

And, there are clear ways in which technology can help, for example through:

  • linking science learning into everyday life,
  • motivating and supporting enquiry into personal energy consumption e.g. thorugh a mobile phone app,
  • linking resources in teenagers’ personal contexts to support enquiry,
  • and helping to communicate and activate their social networks about issues that spark their interest, such as Earth Hour

Let’s talk about what the research says: Industry, Academia, Learning: 7 days to go

Vanessa Pittard DfE, Richard Noss TEL Research Programme Director, BESA, Intellect, ALT, and Demos about research inspired technology enhanced learning to tackle challenges from teenagers’ energy consumption to social communication in a multimodal virtual environment for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorders. What the research says event at LKL now has a waiting list for places! Clearly people do want to talk.

Speak to Me

Industry, Academia, Educators and Learners: It’s good to talk, but why are we all ‘telephobic’?

In my last post I suggested that to improve learners’ experiences we need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that this is hard to orchestrate. But why is this hard to orchestrate?

A large part of the reason is that each of these communities ‘speaks a slightly different language’, because whilst they are motivated by some common interests, such as finding ways to help people learn more effectively or enjoyably, they are also motivated by different and in some ways competing factors. To be honest they don’t have a great track record of talking to each other.

Practitioners and learners are the key players in the interactions that support learning, when they work in sync with the right support from technologies developed with and by industry and informed with and by research they can achieve their best. BUT this does not happen as often as it could in the area of Educational Technology and Technology Enhanced Learning.

Why? Perhaps it’s partly because industry works in quarterly cycles with an eye on the ‘bottom line’ and a need to maintain the competitive edge over rivals in order to hold on to or increase market share. It needs to know what will sell when it comes to developing technologies to support learning and what will help to keep employees in work and products on people’s shopping lists. It would often like to develop products informed by research, but with the exception of large industries that have their own research labs, may not know how and when to find the right people to offer that research advice. Researchers are concerned with rigour and clarity, and very rarely think about a year in quarters, more likely in semesters and terms. Their eye is rarely on the bottom line and the results of their endeavour often take a considerable length or time to mature and reach fruition. With a greater imperative to demonstrate the impact of their research as part of the next REF exercise (the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions), they may well very much like to find a way to work with industry to take their ideas into a wider community and see how they can be applied. However, who do they talk to and how do they communicate what they know? For most academics they have been well-trained in the art of writing journal articles for approval and acceptance by their peers. But, this type of output is rarely very accessible to people who don’t speak that same academic language.

So why does all this matter? It matters, because the problems we face when it comes to developing the kinds of technologies that can solve the really big educational problems and take advantage of the widespread ownership of powerful communities cannot be solved by any one community on their own, so we really do need to get together and talk about how each community can offer their own contribution to a shared endeavour. In order to do this we need to find a way to understand enough about how each other works to be able to build effective conversations.

As many a famous actor has once said on behalf of BT – “its good to talk”, but you need to know the right number to ring and the right shared language to speak if you are going to have any chance of communicating in any meaningful way. So how can we engineer the circumstances in which such vital communication can take place?

Understanding you, Understanding me: is this the best we can do?

The wide-spread ownership of sophisticated computing devices such as smart phones and ipads allows mass access to social media, augmented reality and 3D virtual world applications. BUT are we making the most of these technologies to help learners communicate using all their senses? These technologies make it technically possible for people to share information about themselves and their contexts using multiple media and multi-sensory communication. This ought to mean that learners who may struggle with traditional text and image can explore new ways to express themselves. New ways to communicate what they do and don’t understand and new ways to allow others to understand more about their particular context and perspective.

One of the essential ingredients for effective learning  where a more knowledgeable person, such as a teacher, is helping a less knowledgeable person (or people) to learn something is that both of them share some common understanding of what the less knowledgable person currently understands. The technical possibilities for multi modal communication offered by emerging technologies should provide new ways for people to share their understanding and misunderstanding and to communicate important aspects of their personal context that may help teachers, parents, and friends to  provide more effective support. But are we making enough of this potential?

I suspect we are not. To tackle challenges such as, developing a clearer understanding of how we make the most of such communication possibilities requires research rigour and energy. To develop technologies and applications that make these new formats for communication and interaction easier and effective we need industrial enterprise and innovation. To understand the needs of learners and teachers, we need to bring them into the research and design process. Most importantly of all, to improve learners’ experiences we will need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that is hard to orchestrate.

More relevant than ever…Information plenty, but knowledge famine: are we succumbing to an illusion?

I am curious about knowledge, not in philosophical sense, but in a practical one. I worry about what it means to know something in a world that is increasingly complex, ill defined and interconnected: a world that demands that we develop, and that we ensure that our children develop, the knowledge capacity to solve the problems it manifests and those that we create.

The first recollections that I have of my own curiosity about knowledge date back to 1966 when I was eight years old and growing up in Manfred Mann’s semi-detached suburbia: dad, mum, older brother and me. My father was an aircraft engineer and my mother taught typing and shorthand to women whose working lives were about to be dramatically changed by the word processing power of the digital computer. My brother was 3 years older than me, and his lack of interest in formal education was causing my parents some concern. Their reaction was to invest in ‘knowledge books’, or at least that’s how they saw the children’s book of knowledge and the encyclopedia that now filled up the bureau bookshelf. To keep us up to date, there was also the weekly general knowledge magazine that plopped on the doormat with a reassuring thud: the weight of its knowledge there for all to hear.

I suspect that my parent’s reaction to their son’s educational malaise was not an unusual one amongst the aspiring middle class families of our neighbourhood. My brother’s reaction to the new literary arrivals was cool; he was far more concerned with exploring the world of the woodland around our housing estate, than with sitting at home and reading about it. My father however, became quite addicted to the weekly general knowledge magazine. He did not have a great deal of time to read, but each evening when he went to bed he would sit in his paisley pyjamas and thumb through the pages. The stock of copies soon grew on the nightstand as his pace of reading failed to match the frequency of their arrival. The corners became slightly curled as the months and years passed and the dust gathered in and around the pile that now extended from the nightstand to the floor. His interest never waned and I do believe there were a pile of old issues by his bedside when he died many years later.

Forty years on and it’s a sunny day and I’m walking along the Euston Road in London. I pass the entrance to the British Library and a sign catches my eye, the sign says: “Step inside – Knowledge freely available”. I dislike the suggestion that one can walk into the British Library and just pick up some knowledge like going into Tesco and buying some bananas. I can relatively quickly formulate an explanation for myself about why the sign irritates me, because I have a clear idea about what I believe knowledge to be. I have moved on from the conception of knowledge loved by my father and represented by the pages of his books and articles. I know that I have to construct knowledge from the evidence available to me, that it is not handed to me by others, though they can certainly help me along the way, and that I can aspire to continually increase my knowledge by weaving together the information resources distributed throughout my world.

This is not the case for many of the youngsters who attend our schools and colleges. For them knowledge is still to be found in the dusty concepts in the out of date magazines on my father’s nightstand or on the shelves of a library they never visit.

“But what of the internet and world wide web?” I hear you wonder. These technological masterpieces offer information resources wherever we are and whenever we need them. These must surely pave the way for us to become more knowledgeable, both personally and as a human community?

The sheer abundance of this information has thrown into sharp relief our understanding of the relationship between information and knowledge. It makes my modest collection of childhood encyclopedias and my father’s overflowing magazine collection look like a speck of dust on the library shelf. I fear however that our understanding of what knowledge is and what it means to know something has not progressed in tandem with this technological progress. This puts us at risk of succumbing to the illusion that we know more than we actually do, because the more information we have the more we become certain that we know something.

Without helping young people to develop an understanding of what knowledge is in a digital age they cannot progress beyond the well meaning, but limited conception of knowledge promoted by the books and magazines that appealed to my parents. Those of us who understand what we mean by knowledge can indulge ourselves, as my father did with his magazines. But, without actively engaging people in the excitement of connecting the knowledge construction process to their own particular context, we merely encourage them to pass the opportunity by in the same way as my brother did all those years ago.

In a time of information plenty we are at risk of a knowledge famine.

I wrote thsi piece originally for  Learning to Live – Creativity, Money and Love

From User Generated Content to Learner Generated Contexts: the power of technology to build connections

I was reminded earlier this week of the interesting discussion we had at the Learning Technologies exhibition in January about User Generated Content (UGC) and how we can do even more than encourage people to generate their own content: we can encourage them to generate their own contexts for learning.  This is the idea of Learner Generated Contexts (about which you can read more in this book chapter) A Learner Generated Context (LGC) is generated through people (learners, teachers, parents, peers etc.) using technology to organize and interact with their learning resources in a manner that best meets the needs of learners. It is an enterprise that is driven by those who would previously have been consumers in a context created for them.

The resources that can be organized to generate the LGC are the People,

Places: the social and physical environments;

Things: such as digital technologies, books, equipment, and

Knowledge: the subject or skill being learnt.

All these resources exist and are part of a learners’ interactions with the world, the point is that a Learner Generated Context connects and inter-relates them a way that supports learning. The Learner Generated Context can be generated by groups working together or by individuals acting alone. Often teachers, mentors or peers have a key role to play in helping to generate the context, but sometimes a learner can act alone to generate a context that pulls together the People, Places, Things and Knowledge they interact with in a way that meets their learning needs.

For example, I was learning French a while ago and I wrote a blog about my experiences. My blog entry for the 28 April discusses how I was completing a particular piece of homework for the language school I was attending. The People and Things are highlighted in blue, the Knowledge and Skills in green and the Places in red:

“As I sat in front of the TV doing my homework ready for class I was amused to note that I find the gentle flow of French conversation in the background useful. This is a very different situation to that in force when I last learnt French many years ago when TV and homework certainly did not mix. I feel I am benefitting from my decision to spend a section of the day in French immersion as far as possible. This was helped with a good start from William, who was on good form this morning and aided by my understanding a little more of the one o-clock news. I was very amused to see the tractors in Paris as farmers protested about falling prices and stricter regulation: they would prefer to return to the EU rules. The farmers had taken their tractors to Paris and had travelled from Place de Nation to Place de la Bastille and from Place de la Bastille to Place du Republique If I understood the bulletin correctly the Parisians who were interviewed seemed, as ever, patient and understanding of the protest despite the fact that it seemed to be blocking much of the traffic. Mind you I don’t think any motorists were amongst those interviewed. Now that I am back in France, after coming from England, I continue to notice the difference in people’s attitudes to industrial action here.”

With a little bit of thought and some fairly ordinary and readily available technology I can connect and link these resources in a way that supports my needs as a learner to generate my own learner generated context.

As I walk from Malmousque to the French language school my mobile phone beeps to indicate a diary entry that reminds me to try to learn some vocabulary as I walk. The words appear on the screen of my mobile phone and these are linked to their pronunciations from Some of the words are picked from the TV report about the farmer’s protest that I saw on TV yesterday and there is an audio recording of the broadcast for me to listen to that has been taken from the TV station’s website.