Malala Yousafzai’s A level results are brilliant, we need more successes like this

Who could be anything but delighted to see this headline? A-level results: Malala Yousafzai gets a place at Oxford, this is excellent news and a great boost for those campaigning for equal education. In fact, the publication yesterday of A level results in the UK has spurred me to take a slight diversion from worrying about who is moving my brain or my cheese. I certainly would not want to detract from the hard work that any students have put into their A level studies or to take the shine off their success. It is wonderful to see the smiling faces of successful students across the newspapers.

However, success does not come to all and even on a celebration day, or perhaps I should write especially on a celebration day, I think we need to consider alternatives to the stressful stop and test regime that pervades most education systems. I wrote about this in Nature Human Behaviour earlier this year under the heading: ‘Towards artificial intelligence-based assessment systems’ and it looks like it has been read a few times because it is ranked 5,746th of the 237,966 tracked articles of a similar age in all nature journals which puts it in the 97th percentile. This does not seem bad given that it was only a ‘comment’ piece and not a full paper. On a less positive note in an internal REF assessment exercise it was only ranked as 2*, which is not great and probably reflects the difficulty for academics in publishing more popular style articles. However, the modest success of the article in terms of the altometrics that Nature run encourages me to believe that there is some interest in exploring the possibilities that the intelligent design and application of AI could afford for National assessment systems. I therefore draw attention to this possibility here and hope to encourage further debate. The key point I wanted to convey in the Nature Human Behaviour article was that there are alternatives to exams, that are less stressful, less expensive and that allow teachers and learners to spend more time on teaching and learning (shouldn’t this be the point of education?).

This message may not be what others have selected to focus on, but for me, the most important thing is that we have an assessment system that is holistic, fair and that let’s all students evidence their knowledge, skills and capabilities.


Who moved my brAIn? Is this the next self help best seller to get us ready for our AI future?

I’m pleased to report that my ankle is progressing well and I am now once again able to achieve my ‘misfit‘ challenge of 1000 activity points per day: clearly it is a good job I was only mildly curious. However, I want to be more than mildly curious when it come to my intellect, and I want to do this without injury. I had therefore better take care, both of my own intellect and of the intellect of those I am trying to encourage to be appropriately curious. I therefore return to my thoughts about what a useful self-help book to prepare people for their AI augmented futures, might be like. To this end, I also return to ‘The AI Race‘ and specifically to the man behind the survey that was used to calculate how much of different people’s jobs are likely to be automated.


Andrew Charlton is his name and he is economist and director of AlphaBeta, an economics and strategy consulting firm. He did not beat about the bush! AI will impact on ALL jobs and he encouraged the TV audience to embrace AI. His ‘top tip’ was that we must carefully manage the transition from now to the situation when widespread AI augmentation will be common place.

He was clear that we must take advantage of what AI has to offer by increasing the diversity of our own skills sets. He saw AI as an “Iron Man Suit” for humans. This suit would transform us mere humans into super humans. This is a great analogy, who would not want to be super human? BUT embracing AI augmented working is not as simple as putting on a new outfit – especially an iron outfit. And increasing the diversity of our skill sets requires educators and trainers who are themselves skilled and trained in developing these new diverse skill sets. BUT where are these educators and trainers to be found? Who is helping the educators and trainers to gain the skills and expertise they will need to train their students in?


Andrew has little comfort to offer here.  His next comment about education is that 60% of the curriculum that students are studying at school is developing them for jobs that will no longer exist in 30 years-time. We need to re-design the curriculum he advises. So educators need to re-skill themselves as well as their students, and they need to revise the curriculum. Clearly educators will be busy! And clearly there will also be a significant job to be done in (re-)motivating all those students who discover that they have been learning stuff that nobody will want them to know by the time they are looking for a job.

Now we hit the nub of the matter, education and educators must prepare students for the new AI order of things. Educators lives are going to change in significant ways NOT because their roles are likely to be automated away BUT because they will need to teach a different curriculum and probably teach in a different way. To make matters worst: there is no clear consensus from the experts about exactly which jobs educators will need to educate people for. I think educators may be the most in need of a good self-help book to help them cope with the inevitable changes to their lives.


The self-help book I need to write might therefore be the updated version of the motivational best seller Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. I suggested this might become ‘Who moved my brAIn? An Amazing Way to Deal with ChAnge in Your Work and in Your Life’


The original book called ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ was a story featuring 4 characters: two mice, called “Sniff” and “Scurry,” and two little people, called: “Hem” and “Haw.” These 4 characters all live together in a maze through which they all search for cheese (for cheese think – happiness and success). Their search bears fruit when all of them find cheese in “Cheese Station C.” “Hem” and “Haw” are content with this state of affairs and work out a schedule for how much cheese they can eat each day, they enjoy their cheese and relax.


“Sniff” and Scurry” meanwhile remain vigilant and do not relax, but keep their wits about them. When horror of horrors there is no cheese at Cheese Station C  one day, “Sniff” and Scurry” are not surprised: they had seen this coming as the cheese supply had diminished and they had prepared themselves for the inevitable arduous cheese hunt through the maze and they get started with the search together straightaway. In contrast “Hem” and “Haw” are angry and annoyed when they find the cheese gone and “Hem” asks: “Who moved my cheese?” “Hem” and “Haw” get angrier and feel that the situation they find themselves in is unfair. “Hem” is unwilling to search for more cheese and would rather wallow in feeling victimized, “Haw” would be willing to search, but is persuaded not to by “Haw”.


While “Hem” and “Haw” get annoyed, “Sniff” and “Scurry” find a new cheese supply at “Cheese Station N,” and enjoy a good feast. “Hem” and “Haw” start to blame each other for their lack of cheese. Once again “Haw” suggests they go and look for more cheese, but grumpy “Hem” is frightened about the unknown and wants to stick with what he knows, he refuses to search. However, one day “Hem” confronts his fears and decides it is time to move on. Before he leaves “Cheese Station C” he scribbles on the wall: “If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct” and “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” He starts his trek and whilst he is still worried, he finds some bits of cheese that that keep him going as he searches. He finds some more empty cheese stations, but also some more crumbs and is able to keep hunting. “Haw” has realized that the cheese did not simply vanish, it was eaten. He is able to move beyond his fears and he feels ok. He decides that he should go back to find “Hem” equipped with the morsels of cheese he has found. Sadly, “Hem” is still grumpy and refuses the cheese morsels. Undeterred, though somewhat disappointed, “Haw” heads back into the maze and a life of cheese hunting. He continues to write messages on the wall as a way of externalizing his thinking and in the hope that “Hem” might one day move on and be guided by these messages. One day “Hem” finds Cheese Station N with all its lovely cheese, he reflects on his experience, but decides not to go back to “Hem”, but rather to let “Hem” find his own way. He uses the largest wall in the maze to write the following (original to the left, my re-interpretation to the right):

Who move my cheese? Who moved my brAIn?
Change Happens: They Keep Moving The Cheese Computers keep getting smarter and intelligent tasks are moving from human to machine
Anticipate Change: Get Ready For The Cheese To Move Prepare for some of your intellectual activity to be taken on by AI
Monitor Change: Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old Keep checking in on your own intelligence and make sure you are really using it and keeping it fresh
Adapt To Change Quickly: The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese Adapt to change thoughtfully (quickly is not necessarily right here), make sure you offload intellectual activity carefully so that you maintain your human intellectual integrity
Change: Move With The Cheese Move with the intelligence (both human/natural and machine/artificial)
Enjoy Change!: Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese! Enjoy intelligence and the experience of your developing greater intelligence – being smart ‘tastes good’!
Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again: They Keep Moving The Cheese Never feel you are intelligent enough and keep striving for intellectual growth

“Haw” is never complacent and continually monitors his cheese store and searches through the maze and hopes that one day his old friend “Hem” will find his way through and that they will meet again.


Whilst the book “Who moved my cheese” was extremely popular, it was also the subject of considerable criticism. For example, that it was too positive about change, that it was patronizing and compared people inappropriately to ‘rats in a maze’. BUT can I learn anything from this as I try to encourage people to want to understand themselves and their changing intellectual capabilities?

I think there is still value in “Haw’s” writing on the wall and I have tried to clarify this nee value for AI in the right hand column of the table above. I also think perhaps that my original revised title of: “Who moved my brAIn?” is not quite correct. The more important question is “Who moved my intelligence?”.

More to come on this in the next blog post…


An iPad shared is an iPad enjoyed

Slide1A little while ago I spoke to Emma Cook from the Guardian about children using iPads. I note that her report in today’s Family section draws a connection to the case of the 4 year old who was reported to be receiving treatment for screen addiction. It is certainly worth taking a moment to reflect on how we use family technology and in particular the increasingly ubiquitous iPad/phone. I have no doubt that the most important thing about this technology within a family is that children and parents can share the activities being completed in a way that was just too cumbersome with previous desktops and laptops. Wonderful learning experiences are possible through the conversations that happen around the activities children are iPadding. This is in stark contrast to the image of the individual child seemingly mesmerized by their technology and ignoring what is happening around them. As ever with technology, it is how we use it that matters most.

In a recent report we noted some of the striking issues about iPads, learning and education.

When it comes to Teaching and Learning students are generally reported to be positive about the iPads, seeing them as essential for 21st century education. Within this report there are examples of iPads being used to support learners beyond simple drill and practice games, to support collaborative learning, to provide personalised learning experiences, iPads to augment and enhance deep learning, as ubiquitous, distributed and connected learning tools. We also discuss the ways in which iPads can contribute to Digitally-Enhanced Monitoring and Assessment.

  • iPads can support seamless learning, allowing learners to easily switch learning contexts – from formal to informal or personal to social – and to take control of their own learning. For example, to supplement what they are learning in class in real-time through additional web-based inquiry, or by making digital notes.
  • The finger-driven iPad interface can motivate and engage students, keeping them interested in content for longer, and allowing groups to interact with the device at the same time and with the same object. This enhances and stimulates simultaneous opportunities for face-to-face social interaction in ways that desktop, laptop and even netbook computing with their mouse-driven screen, ‘individual’ peripherals, fixed location, weight and overall design do not.
  • Research suggests that the adoption and use of iPads in and beyond the classroom allows students to augment and enhance their learning in ways that were previously not possible or not so easy to do.
  • Teachers, students and parents report that the multiple communication features, routine availability and easy accessibility of iPads in the classroom and in students’ homes make communication between teachers and students, and school and home easier and more routine.
  • A key potential benefit of iPad-like devices involves their working in combination with other technologies. In combination with efficient network connectivity and cloud storage they offer ever-increasing capacity for the collection and collation of data about learning activity wherever learners are. The analysis and representation of this data about learning is vital to formative evaluation, assessment, self-assessment and reflection.

The evidence from parents is positive in the main. They identify benefits such as: increased engagement and interest in learning, gains in knowledge and technology skills, more time spent on homework and more opportunity to make learning relevant and authentic. Parents state that home-school communication is improved with the introduction of 1:1 tablet devices and that not having heavy school bags to carry around is a major benefit. Parents do also express some anxiety about breakage, theft, loss or misuse of the devices by children, and express concern about costs and inconsistencies in what parents are expected to contribute.

For learners iPads are easy to use and attractive. The research on iPad use and adoption overwhelmingly reports that tablet devices have a positive impact on students’ engagement with learning. Findings report increased motivation, enthusiasm, interest, engagement, independence and self-regulation, creativity and improved productivity.

For teachers, there is evidence that iPads enhanced the learning experience and transformed teaching practice. Mobility, portability and general ease of use as well as rapid one-touch access to tools (compared with time consuming logins and resource-booking requirements for networked computers) enabled a wider range of learning activities to routinely occur in the classroom. The availability of a wide range of apps and connectivity to cloud computing as well as the immediacy of communication (via email, facetime, etc.) with students afforded by the omni-present iPads enabled teachers to explore alternative activities (3D, interactive, multimodal, virtual tours, etc.) and forms of assessment. In addition, teachers felt that the devices enabled them, as teachers, to promote independent learning, to differentiate learning more easily for different student needs and to easily share resources both with students and with each other. There are however some implications for training and development and we identify that there are recognisable phases in teacher familiarisation with these devices and their integration into classroom activity. The identification of these phases can inform CPD.

For decision makers, such as school leaders, there is pressure to enhance learning and iPads offer potential to help. Many schools have adopted the iPad or similar ‘Post-PC’ tablet devices, whilst many others are looking to do so in the near future. We can learn from their experiences. Our research revealed multiple drivers and implementation models for iPads in schools and classrooms. The majority of 1:1 implementation models were driven by government bodies and school leadersSmall-scale approaches, such as class sets, and shared group iPads, tended to originate from other groups: industry pilots, researcher-supported studies, individual teachers or digital champions and individual schools. Primary schools were more likely to go for shared devices and class sets, whereas secondary schools tended to aim for 1:1 devices. Early adopters tended to fund devices whereas more recent adopters are more likely to seek funding through parental contributions or to arrange leasing options for students.

Our review suggests that schools wishing to use tablets should have a clear rationale for adopting this technology. Successful implementation of tablet technologies in schools requires careful, long-term planning before, during and after the event. Such planning involves consideration of existing technical networks, ownership models, the technology lifecycle, broad stakeholder preparation and on-going engagement (parents, teachers, learners, technical managers, etc.) as well as plans for capturing progress and evaluation.

In the current UK climate, funding in schools is very tight and many feel that the high cost of rolling out 1:1 tablet initiatives requires strong justification. The potential impact of initial and follow-on costs on what is an already limited funding stream is a particularly controversial issue for some, especially in those instances where parents are being asked to ‘take up the slack’. A variety of ownership models were identified. It is important to recognise that the range and variety of ownership models do, however, have implications for organising students’ learning, continuity of access to students’ work and learning data, as well as to management, maintenance and security of the devices.

There are also significant implications for other user groups. The technical support implications are significant. The apparent ease of transition that many of the UK schools that have successfully implemented an iPad initiative exhibited was masked due to the fact that they had recently moved to new, well-equipped school buildings. Beyond the provision of the network, the integration process can be made worse if new devices like tablets are not provided by the school or college and belong to learners, are of different makes and types and use different operating systems. The consistency of the iPad operating system and interface and the availability of apps, as well as issues of security, backup, restore and lifecycle support was identified as an important benefit of iPads over other devices. However, other device manufacturers have upped their game and can now compete in this important area. In this respect, the rapid pace of development in the area of tablet computing is a key issue for schools as they plan for future technology needs and one that requires a process of continuous evaluation.

No technology has an impact on learning in its own right; rather, its impact depends upon how it is used. iPads are no exception to this and in this report we identify ways in which iPads can be used to support teaching and learning. There is evidence that they can help teachers, learners and parents in multiple ways to be more effective. To leverage these learning benefits, the iPad should play the supporting role to the learning activity. The question that should be asked is not  ‘Can iPads support learning?”, but rather “how can iPads be used to support collaborative learning, or exploratory learning”, or whatever. The iPad it is one of a range of tools that can help learning, and when used wisely it can be effective. For schools, teachers and parents thinking of investing in iPads, there is much to be learnt from those who have already taken this path, and an increasing array of devices and ownership options to choose from. As with all technology, this is not a ‘one-off’ decision and the on-going costs, and the need for on-going evaluation and monitoring should not be underestimated.



Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education

This evening Nesta launched their report: Decoding Learning, which was authored by the London Knowledge lab and colleagues at LSRI in Nottingham.

Our starting point for the research we report was that digital technologies do offer opportunities for innovation that can positively transform teaching and learning, and that our challenge is to identify the shape that these innovations take.

Many research studies have addressed the impact of particular technological innovations, and many meta–analytic reviews have aggregated these findings. Typically, these synthesising reviews do find some evidence of positive impact. However, there are two important complicating factors that limit the strength of the claims that can be made.

Firstly, the evidence is drawn from a huge variety of learning contexts: the wide range of teacher experience and learner ability means that too often the impact identified is relatively modest in scale. The breadth of contexts limits the impact.

Secondly, these findings are invariably drawn from evidence about how technology supports existing teaching and learning practices, rather than transforming those practices.

We looked for proof, potential and promise in digital education:

Proof by putting the learning first.

Promise for technology to help learning in new ways.

Potential to make better use of technologies we already have.

In order to ask these questions we need to look beyond the published research and corporate publications, we need to look at what is happening amongst teachers and learners as well.

What is clear is that no technology has an impact on learning in its own right; rather, its impact depends upon the way in which it is used. Accordingly, we have organised our review around 8 effective learning themes, which are based upon an analysis of learners’ actions.

In each theme there are reasons to feel positive and reason to want more – there are some great examples in this report from traditional technologies such as:

  • Interactive White Boards being used in effective ways, to
  • Learners working with experts to identify solar storms, to
  • Using context-rich life-logs to increase their understanding of their own learning and capability and
  • teachers creating GPS games that meet the learning needs of their students.

It is important to recognise that in addition to the learning themes themselves, which incorporate a variety of learning activities; the learning themes can be combined in interesting and effective ways– for example, the suite of web-based learning tools that was used in one of our highly rated teacher-led examples illustrates one example of Learning in and across Settings providing an overarching framework for Learning through Making. Small groups of learners were taught web design using collaboration scripts and incomplete concept maps. These tools were designed to allow groups of learners to work together on extended tasks using a scripted inquiry approach. The cross-setting opportunities created by the online environment allow classroom support for construction projects that mainly occur at home.

BUT Understanding how technology can be employed to improve learning is only part of the picture.

If innovations are to enter the mainstream, and if they are to fulfil their obvious potential, there are a number of systemic challenges that must be addressed.

We have identified certain trends and opportunities grounded in effective practice and set out what we believe are the most compelling opportunities to improve learning through technology.

For example, there is too little innovative technology-supported practice in the critical area of Learning from Assessment. And yet huge potential through learning analytics and a growing appetite for formative assessment. If, as learners, we do not know what we understand then how can we progress? If, as teacher, we do not know what our students understand, how can we help them to learn?

Making is an effective way of learning. There is much excitement around mending, mashing, and making with digital tools, making it an area ripe with possibility. Robotic kits, authoring tools, and multimedia production tools are just some examples of the technologies that can support learning through making. To learn effectively through making, careful consideration needs to be given to how the process of making leads to the desired learning outcome and to the sharing that is a vital component of learning through construction

What more might we gain by combining these two themes and conducting formative assessment through making and sharing?

All these examples, highlight the fact that Innovation needs to be conceptualised as some learning with a technology used in a particular way in a particular context.

1) We must stop talking about technology generically without being more specific – what technology, how used to support what type if learning, where, with whom and with what else?

To not recognize this is to reduce the value of the question to asking if roads are an effective ay of getting from a to b – of course roads can get me from a to be, BUT which road, what time of day, who else is driving, what are the weather conditions? Will it be faster than the train – well it depends….

… And travel is so much simpler than learning

So,  – Ask rather can games help make the drill and practice activities effective for learners on their own at school? Sure, they can if they are well designed and challenge the child appropriately addressing explicitly what needs to be learnt and offering appropriate support.

Can digital making and mobiles help learners understand more about how energy consumption in their home changes over time and according to their household’s behaviour – well sure it can if they use some sensors for temperature and light, arduino technology and data reporting to an online aggregator, such as for example, and then present and access this through a bespoke mobile phone application that you build yourself and that you can use to check the family consumption while you are travelling home from school on the bus

…And these technologies are inexpensive

Ask the right question and you’ll get a useful answer

2) We need to take more notice of practice and better link this to academic research.

We need to think again about how this type if evidence can be more effectively brought into the picture – can we use technology to create the kind of database of examples that can start to provide a more ‘scientific’ evidence base for us ot use?

3) New pedagogy? or old pedagogy in a new frock?

If you really want to change pedagogy then stop JUST collecting evidence about how to make existing pedagogy work with technology

4) We need to know more about what is happening when technology is used effectively.

We need better evidence about the context in which technology is being used effectively.Evidence about the impact of technology on teaching and learning is gathered from a huge variety of learning settings, and reported without adequate indexing of the contextual factors that influence the nature and scale of the impact recorded. This means that applying the findings of any research study to a fresh setting is severely hampered. We need to know where, with whom, with what …

5) Make better use of what we have got

We need to change the mindset amongst teachers and learners: from a ‘plug and play’ approach where digital tools are used, often in isolation, for a single learning activity; to one of ‘think and link’ where those tools are used in conjunction with other resources where appropriate, for a variety of learning activities. Teachers have always been highly creative, creating a wide range of resources for learners. As new technologies become increasingly prevalent, they will increasingly need to be able to digitally ‘stick and glue’. To achieve this, teachers will need to develop and share ways of using new technologies – either through informal collaboration or formal professional development. But they cannot be expected to do this alone. They need time and support from school leaders to explore the full potential of the technologies they have at their fingertips as tools for learning. School leaders can further assist teacher development by tapping into the expertise available in the wider community.

6) If you want better innovations, then  Link industry, research and practice to realise the potential of digital education.

There is strong evidence of disconnect between the key partners involved in developing educational technology. This situation makes little sense at a time when technology has become consumerised across society, and there is increasing evidence for the efficacy of technology as a learning tool. Academic and practitioner research is poorly connected and is typically conducted in isolation from the technology developers whose products grace our schools and homes. And yet, both researchers and the developers of educational technology need to know whether, and how, their work enhances learning. Industry, researchers and practitioners need to work closely together to test ideas and evaluate potential innovations at a time when design changes can easily be implemented and products can be improved before they are taken to market. Such a process would benefit industry by providing clearer evidence of effectiveness to boost sales; and it would benefit practitioners who would have access to better products on the market.

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?

Squares in a round world: has research about technology and learning passed its sell by date?

I really enjoyed my trip to see the David Shrigley Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward. And was amused by the endearing hand drawn animation about new friends in which a square enters a round world and … well I won’t spoil it for you. But it made me wonder if researchers run the risk of being squares in a round world. This was prompted by the comment I mentioned in my last post that asked if technological pace was “making traditional research models and institutions look a little archaic?”So has research passed its sell by date in this fast-moving technological space and do we need to re-fashion ourselves out of our squareness, or help squareness to be better appreciated? What do us squares have to offer? Four sorts of research come readily to mind and I am sure there are more.

First, there is basic research about how people learn and about the nature of learning itself that can be applied to education in a digital world, both in terms of how to develop technologies and in terms of how to use technologies for learning, both informally and formally. This research does not go out of date but gets better and better, for example John Bransford and others work on the nature of transfer is mature and well grounded, it is rigorous and has developed over several decades. Perhaps one the reasons that research like this is timelessly useful is that it has a focus upon an ever-present issue: the nature of learning, rather than a changing space: the nature of a particular technology, category of technologies, or indeed particular practices. It is also the case that all those who are doing this research and all those who want to use this research share a common need: to understand more about how people learn. However, there is perhaps a need to better communicate this research in a way that makes it accessible and relevant to technologies as they change.

Second, there is research conducted by those who want to see how the learning and/or teaching process might be better supported through the use of technology. This research can also maintain its value, for example, if it has a focus upon the interactions that are important for teaching and learning and the manner in which different technologies do or don’t support that, rather than how to use a particular technology. Good example here are example Diana Laurillard’s classic work in her book Re-thinking University Teaching and the community of researchers who consider the nature of Instructional Design.

Thirdly, is the work done by those within research labs both in universities and companies that involves developing a technology and using it with learners and teachers, usually in small numbers, to see if it helps them to learn or teach so that learners learn more, or feel more motivated, or collaborate with others in a more supportive manner, or in answer to many other varieties of question. It is harder to see from the usual outputs from this category of research how it can be easily applied within practice, either informal or formal. One of the main reasons for this is that such research is about generating new technologies that are not yet in classroom and may not ever make it outside of the research lab. I have seen hundreds of such research projects very few of which see the light of real application. Sometimes they are only ever intended as a proof of concept to motivate some further research activity, but sometimes they are fit for purpose, but it is not the role of the research lab to take them into a development phase. There is a huge gap here between research and practice that means that many valuable research projects never get tested outside of small scale studies, but that is the subject worthy of more space than I have here.

Fourth, and finally for now, there is research that has a focus upon a particular technology, Video, Integrated Learning Systems, or Learning Platforms, for example. The currency of this research is more limited to the particular technology in question and therefore much more likely to go out of date. Although it has to be said that such research can also provide more generalisable findings: such as that about Integrated Learning Systems, which highlighted the impact of a learner’s context upon the efficacy or not of the technology, in this instance Integrated Learning System.

Research may be square, but most of it is not archaic. Squareness is good, but its beauty is currently only appreciated by a small community and that community needs to find better ways to get the word out to the wider world. At the same time that wider world has something valuable to contribute in the form of innovative practice and communities of people who use technologies in innovative ways and record their experiences in blogs, tweets and forums. Us research squares could do well to pay more attention to what this research in action has to contribute.