Category Archives: learning

You and You and You are the Weakest Links (in the information security chain)

Over the last twenty years or so as an Educational Technologist, I’ve visited literally thousands of schools. When I first started, my point of contact was the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Network Manager. Nowadays, it’s almost always a member of senior leadership. I don’t flatter myself that I’m more important than I used to be. It’s simply that technology in most schools is now integrated in teaching, learning and operations from top to bottom. It’s strategically important.

Of course, with strategic importance comes a sharpened focus, not only on the benefits of technology, but on the issues and threats it introduces. Barely a week goes by without a story about the effects of screen time on children or the destruction wreaked by the latest malware. Where once upon a time, I could guarantee I’d find an administrator password on a sticky note in the office, initiatives such as Safeguarding and Prevent have ramped up the focus on safety and security in schools.

And yes, senior leaders are nervous. Apart from an unwelcome appearance in the media, if a school’s Safeguarding or Prevent arrangements do not meet requirements, then Ofsted is likely to place them in special measures.

As if that wasn’t enough, against a background of growing threat, hardening sanctions and shrinking budgets, the replacement of the Data Protection Act (DPA) with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is going to hit (mostly unwary) schools hard on the 25th May 2018. As of April 2017, only 43% of organisations were actively preparing for GDPR.

Whilst it’s true that the GDPR will bring more clarity and rigour to the discipline of information security, schools may well have more of a mountain to climb than most because they are Data Controllers with sensitive personal data on minors. It’s not clear from the legislation whether the appointment of a Data Protection Officer (DPO) will be mandatory for schools, but it would certainly seem to be sensible advice.

However, the main purpose of this post is not to bemoan the plight of schools but rather to point out an emergent weakness in this layered process of security hardening. It’s mandatory for schools to designate a member of senior management as a Safeguarding Lead. It’s also mandatory to appoint a Prevent Lead. With the advent of the GDPR, it seems there will be a DPO as well. To perform these roles effectively will require:

  • An understanding of the relevant regulatory environment
  • Experience of practical application in a school
  • A grasp of the technology landscape across the school and its supply chain

In the good old days (ahem), when I used to roll up to meet the Network Manager, usually I wouldn’t need to speak to anyone else. They were the Kings and Queens of their IT domains. Perhaps they lacked a strategic perspective on occasion, but at least there was one person who understood every piece of technology in the organisation and the implications of every change that was made.

I’m certainly not advocating a return to the past, but, going forwards, I think the increasing regulatory load is already leading to fragmentation in the security chain. In a world where one IoT device can become a gateway for a serious network incursion, it’s easy for knowledge to exist in silos which lead to Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous unknown unknowns.

My conclusion is that people are usually the weakest link in the security chain and, in this case, the weakness is exacerbated by an approach to safety and security in schools that is evolving in silos. I would simply advocate that domain experts with overlapping interests come together on a regular basis to educate each other and review their mutual challenges. Every school – every organisation – should have a Safety & Security Working Group that aligns and coordinates the work of all stakeholders.

How To Get Your #EdTech Business Off The Ground And Keep It There

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I’ve worked in education technology (#EdTech) for many years now and over the last five years I’ve co-founded and run a successful company (Airhead Education) delivering a web desktop to schools (Airhead). We won a Bett award for ‘Innovation in ICT’ in 2015 and achieved it without investment from any external source. We’re debt-free and we’ve made a profit in every year of operation. No, we’re not Google yet but we’re making our mark in the education sector and we continue to listen and grow. It’s certainly not been easy, but it has been a lot of fun and as we start 2017, I’ve been reflecting on a few of my lessons learned.

I’ve seen technology products and services designed for education come and go (and usually turn up again, reinvented). Often I’ve seen the merit in the idea but the execution has been poor. Occasionally, both the idea and the execution have appeared to be flawed. The thing is, I don’t have an issue with either scenario. Ideas don’t just spring into life fully formed; they need to be shaped in the fire of trial, error and reflection. And of course the same applies to the execution of ideas in the form of products and services. The process of releasing, reviewing and revising is a basic principle underpinning continuous improvement. And I’m not even perturbed if individuals without education experience try their hand at EdTech. Sometimes the education crowd can’t see the wood for the trees. But there’s one thing you must do: survive long enough to learn the lessons you need to learn in order to build a successful business.

So if you’re going to invest your time, energy and creativity in developing technology for the education sector, you should be sensitive to the characteristics of the technology and education markets and what they mean for your business. For me, there are three particular EdTech business challenges:

    1. Rapid lifecycles – The pace of change in technology is rapid and and the lifecycle of most technologies is therefore short. Whether it’s software, hardware or the services that support them, rapid evolution of technology means a requirement to make changes just to stay functional and relevant, let alone to evolve with your customers’ needs. Developing, delivering, maintaining and scaling products and services is a costly endeavour which requires unerring financial and technological vigilance.
    2. Tight budgets – The majority of educational establishments are under constant budgetary pressure and, rightly, there is a tension between competing requirements for investment. Educational establishments should not be taking excessive risks with the deployment of technology because they simply cannot afford to squander their budget. The consequence of this is an ever higher bar for the effectiveness of education technology vershe price paid.
    3. Risk Aversion – Education establishments are intrinsically risk averse for a variety of reasons. Limited budget is one of those reasons but so too is the price of failure beyond just money. Organisational failure in an educational establishment ultimately hits the learner and so an ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ culture often emerges to protect the learner from excessive educational experimentation, including with technology.

So let’s be clear about what this means for the prospective EdTech entrepreneur:

  1. Deep pockets – You’re going to need deep pockets in order to get your business off the ground and keep it running when technology is changing apace. You will need to factor in the cost of ongoing technological development because without it, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant just as you’re gaining traction in your market.
  2. Realistic assumptions – Take a long hard look at your business plan in terms of market size, adoption rate and price point. Make sure that enough customers will actually pay the price you need them to pay in order to survive. Be pessimistic and enjoy a nice surprise. There’s no point in creating something that users love but which they don’t value enough to buy.
  3. Solid evidence – Test your product or service in MVP form (Minimum Viable Product) from the beginning and never stop soliciting opinions and analytics about its performance in order to create an evidence base for the efficacy of your creation. Whilst you may think you know how to solve a relevant problem, ultimately your customers need to agree with you and be prepared to recommend you.

Yes, I’ve learned a lot of lessons in the course of co-founding Airhead Education and no doubt there are many more to come. The truth is that I love what I’m doing and so it’s easy to get up in the morning and consistently spend time working out how to make Airhead better. As long as I can say that, I have the most important ingredient for success. Good luck in 2017!

Part 3: Data, analytics and learning intelligence

I’ve been using the learning cycle as a framework for a strategic approach to technology in schools. This is the third post of the series, the previous two having focused on access (mobile) and action (cloud). The next stage is that of reflection. The manifestation of this aspect in my proposed strategy is analytics.

In the basic learning cycle, reflection is the all-important point in the process when we widen our awareness, take a breath and open our senses to some objective evidence of the efficacy of our efforts. Reflections may be fluid and continuous (usually resulting in micro adjustments) or periodic (usually resulting in more macro or strategic reflections). We may self-reflect (internal validation) or we may seek out reflection in the observations of others or in data (external validation). In our journey to becoming more effective learners, an important part of the process is calibrating our self-reflections to more closely match external validation. This is a lifelong process in which external validation continues to be important but we learn to learn more effectively because our internal validations are proved to be getting more accurate.

The calibration of internal and external validation is essential to the teaching and learning process. Without it, it’s quite possible for individuals to entirely miscalculate their progress and consequently focus on the wrong things to generate improvement. I’m reminded of the contestants in singing contests on TV who are convinced they are superstars in the making but who can barely sing. This is an extreme example on the spectrum (perhaps delusional) however the underlying issue is a lack of calibration between internal and external validation of effective learning.

Of course, this is (in part) precisely the purpose of the teacher. The challenge is that, being human, we’re not only capable of a little self-delusion at times but we can also project our delusions. In other words, the teacher as an instrument of reflection for learners also needs to be calibrated. Teacher calibration might come through the formative assessment process, summative assessment, experience and professional development. The challenge is to effectively and objectively benchmark our internal assessments.

This is the point at which I introduce the concept of data, analytics and learning intelligence (equate with business intelligence). Before you start telling me about the shortcomings of data in the learning and teaching process, hear me out. I know that human relationships underpin learning. What I also know is that human nature is such that we are simply not objective in our evaluations nor are we calculating machines. It is possible for us to miss patterns, to be ‘mis-calibrated’ or simply to be overwhelmed by too much data. We’re fallible.

‘Big Data’ and analytics are 21st Century phenomena emerging from the already enormous, and still rapidly increasing, speed and scale that technology affords us in capturing, aggregating, storing and analysing data. There is more data available about human behaviour than ever before and a great deal of value is locked up in that data. The promise of analytics is that new insights can be gained from analysis of the data trails left by individuals in their interactions with each other and the world, most particularly when they’re using technology.

The rapid evolution of big data methodologies and tools has, to date, been driven by the business world which recognises in them the potential for unlocking value for their customers and shareholders. In this context the term ‘business intelligence’ is often used to describe the intersection of data and insight. When applied to education, analytics may be sub-divided into two categories: learning and academic. The following table describes that categorisation:

Academic analytics are the improvement of organisational processes, workflows, resource allocation and measurement through the use of learner, academic, and organisational data. Academic analytics, akin to business analytics, are concerned with improving organisational effectiveness.

We can define learning analytics as the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts for the purposes of understanding and optimising learning and the environments in which it occurs. In the same way that ‘business intelligence’ informs business decisions in order to drive success, so learning analytics is the basis of ‘learning intelligence’ that is focused on improving learner success.

Learning analytics are not the goal in themselves. Learning intelligence is the goal. Learning intelligence is the actionable information arising from learning analytics that has the potential to deliver improved learner success. The evidence from analytics in business is that there is deep value to be mined in the data. The objectivity and rigour that is represented by learning analytics provides an empirical basis for everything from learner-level interventions to national policy making.The Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) is an inter-disciplinary network of leading international researchers who are exploring the role and impact of analytics on teaching, learning, training and development. Their mission as an organisation is to:

  1. Pursue research opportunities in learning analytics and educational data mining,
  2. Increase the profile of learning analytics in educational contexts, and
  3. Serve as an advocate for learning analytics to policy makers

Significant potential exists for analytics to guide learners, educators, administrators, and funders in making learning-related decisions. Learning analytics represents the application of “big data” and analytics in education. SoLAR is an organisation that is focused on a building a planned and integrated approach to developing insightful and easy-to-use learning analytics tools. Three key beliefs underpin their proposal:

  1. Openness of process, algorithms, and technologies is important for innovation and meeting the varying contexts of implementation.
  2. Modularised integration: core analytic tools (or engines) include adaptation, learning, interventions and dashboards. The learning analytics platform is an open architecture, enabling researchers to develop their own tools and methods to be integrated with the platform.
  3. Reduction of inevitable fragmentation by providing an integrated, expandable, open technology that researchers and content producers can use in data mining, analytics, and adaptive content development.

From my experience talking to educators, it’s clear they usually know that there is data available and they know how to act on learning intelligence when they have it, but they’re much less sure about the analytics phase. Whilst working on a national procurement for a learning management system last year I realised we really knew very little about the utilisation of key technology assets in the schools we were trying to build systems for. As it turned out this data was sitting, untouched, in log files in servers within these schools. I approached three of the schools and asked their permission to copy this data for the purposes of analysis. They knew it existed and were happy for me to analyse the anonymised data.

I was able to analyse the utilisation of technology assets (software and hardware) across these schools over a period of months in order to understand exactly how technology was used. This enabled me to show where the investment in technology was being dramatically underused and how it could be re-shaped to maximise utilisation of the investment in order to improve the chances of learning gains. I didn’t have time to, but could have mapped this data against the timetable and assessment data to explore how technology mapped against attainment. This would have allowed me to correlate technology utilisation by different teachers, departments and schools against the performance of their pupils.

This example is the tip of the iceberg in terms of analytics and big data in education. In terms of my technology strategy, identifying and analysing key data in your school to produce learning intelligence will maximise the learning bang for your technology buck in an objective manner. It is a critical part of your strategy because without the analysis, you may well be making unnecessary or ineffective investments in technology. Don’t be driven by technology; be driven by learning outcomes.

School Technology Strategy Part 1: Mobile

The diagram I’ve created for this blog entry is designed to summarise a strategy for technology evolution in schools. The outer ring represents the strategic technology focus to deliver the requirement (the inner ring). Thus my proposed strategic focus for delivering ‘access’ is ‘mobile’. I will split this discussion over four blog entries and in this one I’m going to focus on the ‘access’ quadrant.If the diagram looks vaguely familiar to the educators out there, that’s because it’s organised around the general principle of a learning cycle. Of course, that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, given that organisational learning and evolution is broadly the sum – over time – of the learning and evolution of its constituent parts (or people, as we affectionately call them).

Access is usually implicit rather than explicit in the learning cycle. Clearly, however, access to technology is a prerequisite for learning with or through technology. Access in this sense is certainly not assumed, even in developed countries such as the UK. So let’s start by exploring some of the facts.

One credible and recent report on this subject is from Ofcom on UK children’s media literacy (published in April 2011 but based on survey data from 5 to 15 year olds taken in Q2-Q4 2010). Here are some of the relevant findings:

  • Home Internet use is 67% for 5-7s, 82% for 8-11s and 90% for 12-15s
  • School Internet use is 10% of 5-7s, 9% of 8-11s and 4% of 12-15s
  • No Internet use is 8% of all 5-15s
  • Smartphone ownership is 3% of 5-7s, 13% of 8-11s, and 35% of 12-15s
  • 89% 5-15s from AB homes use Internet compared to 69% from DE homes

I’ve also come across a recently published Childwise Report based on survey of 2,770 age 5-16s in Q4 2011:

  • Among age 7-16s 61% have a mobile phone with Internet access
  • Children use their mobiles for an average of 1.6 hours a day
  • Growth in Internet use through mobile phones is biggest trend
  • More than 75% of secondary age pupils now using mobiles to get online
  • Before school children are now more likely to use mobiles than watch television

Finally a report published in December 2011 by Cloudlearn entitled ‘An End to Locking and Blocking’ provides a compelling insight into the practical value of mobile devices and social media in learning: “The headline is that teachers, departments, schools and individuals have arrived at similar sets of common sense, professionally evolved, cautiously applied, effective and tested policy guidelines for using social media and portable devices safely, effectively and engagingly.”

The combination of these reports tells me:

1. There is still a real digital divide and the eLearning Foundation’s estimate that around 1 million school age young people in the UK do not have access to the Internet is still about right.
2. The data very clearly shows that mobile phones are rapidly becoming the most commonly used technology device through which young people access digital tools.
3. It is quite possible to embrace mobile technology and social media in schools and what’s more, it enhances learning and teaching and engages young people and their parents/carers.

The current landscape of technology and Internet access in schools is less about a digital divide than it is a digital literacy divide between the young digital natives and staff who tend to be digitally naive (and therefore fearful). All schools have Internet access and devices through which to access the Internet. The pertinent question is the efficiency with which the provision translates into access. I have two general observations in this area:

1. School owned technology generally has low utilisation
2. Utilisation of technology is proportional to the digital literacy of the staff

I use the word ‘utilisation’ in its very literal sense, that is the proportion of the total lifecycle of a device that is spent being used for the purpose for which it was designed (as opposed to propping up a shelf etc). The utilisation of school-owned technology is usually low because it’s not personally owned and therefore there’s lots of white space due to timetabling, weekends and holidays. By contrast, the window in which personally owned technology may be used is every day, from the moment a person wakes, till the moment they go to sleep.The difference in utilisation between school-owned devices and personally-owned devices is enormous. Utilisation equates to learning, even if it’s social and/or informal learning. And don’t get me started on the utilisation of schools’ investment in software. Most software in schools is used very sporadically and the total percentage of the feature-set used is 10 to 20%. Taken in the round, the total utilisation of school-owned technology investment achieved by most schools is staggeringly low.

The second point above relates to the fact that many schools and educators are still on a journey towards confidence when it comes to technology (I know there are significant exceptions). In practice, technology in schools is not generally supporting a 21st digital curriculum, nor indeed catalysing a transformation in pedagogy (both of which it could and should be doing). The didactic approach is still the beating heart of most schools. A common technology provision in a classroom would be an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) and a share in a laptop trolley (laptops optional). I see the IWB as a digital placebo. It gives education leaders the feeling they’re ‘doing’ technology without actually ‘doing’ anything (except spend money). Harsh but – taken as the generalisation it is intended to be – true. And don’t get me started on the Internet. Most schools filter out every element of the Internet that young people find engaging. Rather than leveraging its potential to arm young people with essential 21st Century digital skills while teaching behavioural self-regulation, it’s locked and blocked.

The current technology delivery model in schools is, in my opinion, broken. It is expensive to provide, install and maintain, and it is used inefficiently and ineffectively. See my previous blog post for more detail on this but, in short, even if school-based computers were used 100% of the school day, every teaching day of the year, this would still only equate to a utilisation of 21% (1235 teaching hours) compared with the potential utilisation of a personally owned device (5840 waking hours). Meanwhile about 1 in 10 young people between the ages of 5 and 15 do not have access to a device and/or the Internet at home.

The very obvious solution to addressing  both these issues is to provide each and every learner with a mobile device and a means of accessing the Internet from home through that device. This solution is a win-win-win:

1. It addresses the digital divide
2. It enhances access to technology
3. It reduces the cost to schools

Let’s first look at why I think a mobile device is the answer. As we prepare young people for 21st Century jobs, there is no doubt that 21st Century digital skills need to become second nature. The level of confidence we need to instill is gained from embedding technology in their daily lives, both formally and informally. This in turn means using technology in and out of school, with a consistent experience that links the environments. The most efficient and effective way to achieve this objective to is provide a device that is mobile (moving between home, school and any other learning locations) so that it’s on hand 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This achieves a much higher utilisation of the device and delivers a consistent experience between home, school and other learning locations. It is also the reason young people love their phones. (NOTE: although mobile phones are a dominant technology, I’d argue that this is because they’re mobile and personally owned. Any mobile device will leverage benefits of consistency and utilisation).

In my opinion, the investment in such a device should be a shared responsibility between parents/carers and school, with financial support for those parents/carers unable to afford a device and/or Internet access at home (look at schemes such as www.GetOnlineatHome.org). The partnership should see the school providing an educational service layer and an affordable device loan/purchase scheme, with parents/carers paying for the device itself (and Internet access from home). The investment in a device by parents/carers on behalf of their child or children, engages them in a shared responsibility for the device. At the same time, it divests the school of responsibility for managing a large ecosystem of devices and allows them to focus on the educational service layer, i.e. what is accessed on the device and how this is used to enhance learning. This is where schools have expertise (or should), not in the management of technology which is an expensive diversion from their core mission. (NOTE: I fully appreciate that there will still be school-owned technology provision in schools but it need only be for specialist requirements).

The key and only benefit to schools that embrace a strategy of personally owned, mobile devices for every learner, is that more learning will occur because (for example):

  • All students have technology access, anywhere, anytime
  • Mobile access to digital tools underpins a 21st Century digital curriculum
  • Learners and their parents/carers are more connected and engaged
  • Budget can be refocused from technology management to education

For young people, the benefits are (for example):

  • Addressing the digital divide through equity of provision
  • A device that is mobile and personal, delivering a consistent experience
  • Engaging digital tools that reflect their authentic experience of the Internet
  • Development of technology skills that prepare them for the 21st Century

“Access with mobile” is only the first part of my technology strategy for schools but, in a very practical sense, it is the most important issue for all schools to address. Without access there is no action. It is not however the entirety of the strategy, including in the ‘access’ category. What I’m proposing is that mobile is the dominant paradigm in the access category and therefore all related policy, planning and decision making in schools should place a premium on ‘mobile’. In my next blog entry in this series I will look at the ‘action’ part of the strategy – the educational layer I was referring to earlier.

Teachers make mistakes

When you’ve watched this TED video by Brian Goldman, I suspect you’ll find yourself quite emotionally charged in response to his plea for a culture change in medicine. It hits close to home for many of us. He articulates a theme common to many professions, but particularly prominent in professions where ‘esteem’ and ‘authority’ are valued. His theme is the cultural denial of failure in the medical profession and the conspiracy of silence that accompanies it.

But of course they do! And Brian eloquently and passionately describes why it’s essential to change the culture of medicine to one in which mistakes are openly acknowledged and embraced as learning opportunities.

I remember when I first embraced mistakes in learning (and it wasn’t at school). I was in my mid twenties and a keen climber. As a relative beginner, I still tended to cling to the wall rather than dance with it. The nervous tension in my muscles precluded fluid movement! My more experienced climbing partner told me that I would relax when I began to trust him, myself and the equipment more deeply. However, the only way to learn that trust, and to move beyond my self-imposed limitations, was to try new moves, fail and come off the rock face – a lot. Rather than define success as staying on the rock face. He re-defined success for me as coming off the rock face. If I wasn’t falling, I wasn’t learning. If I wasn’t falling (and surviving), I wasn’t learning to trust him, myself and the equipment.

As a consequence of this learning, I’m guilty of tweeting the following aphorism on a regular basis: “Learning is inversely proportional to the intolerance of failure.” It takes a few seconds to untwist the words but that’s deliberate. I could’ve said, “We learn from our mistakes” and no doubt you’d nod sagely and move quickly on. But the phrase “the intolerance of failure” is important. In principle, we understand that we learn from our mistakes yet in so many situations we are intolerant of failure, both in ourselves and in others, and therefore we limit the potential for improvement.

Can you think of another profession in which this culture is rife? John Hattie can. John is a well known education researcher and author of the book Visible Learning. If you’re a teacher I would thoroughly recommend you explore his research. There’s a very challenging, two part video of him speaking on Youtube (here and here). In his book and in this video, he’s very clear that teaching is one of those professions that’s intolerant of failure. Mutual respect for colleagues is code for, “When I go into my classroom and close my door I’m going to teach any way I like so leave me alone.” John’s evidence indicates that most teachers spend less than a minute a month discussing teaching with each other. This is indicative of a culture of silence around performance.

When I attend my 14 year old daughter’s academic review meetings, I’ve never heard a teacher say, “I’m failing your daughter and I need to work out how I can better meet her needs.” On the other hand, I regularly hear, “Your daughter could do better if she…” But who is  failing who here? The focus on under-performing teachers tends to organise itself around the ability of head teachers to sack teachers who don’t meet certain standards. In my opinion, this is a minor symptom of a much wider malaise facing the teaching profession. The bigger issue is that the profession’s definition of ‘under-performing’ is hopelessly skewed towards extreme failure. I’m more concerned with the large number of average teachers who are chronically complacent about their own personal development than I am about the very small number of acutely failing teachers.

There’s no doubt that many teachers are beginning to build PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) and that learning events such as Teachmeets are becoming more popular. Nevertheless, a culture is not something which changes overnight. It takes time, data and strong leadership. There is a deeply ingrained bias to label children as failing as opposed to teachers. This is the wrong way around and John Hattie’s experimental evidence demonstrates it clearly.

I’d like to see a teaching profession that accepts it is making mistakes, and that actively invites data-led, teacher performance evaluation as a way of learning from those mistakes. I don’t want this data to be used as a stick to beat teachers. I want every individual teacher to seek out this data as a means of steering their personal development within a supportive and vibrant culture of learning.

If mistakes aren’t acknowledged then personal learning isn’t happening. If personal learning isn’t happening then organisational learning isn’t happening. If organisational learning isn’t happening then the teaching profession is not only failing students, but it is failing to learn from its mistakes. This is the unacceptable face of failure. Failure to learn from our mistakes.

UPDATE : I tweeted this today (5th Feb 2011): ‘Failure week’ at top girls’ school to build resilience http://bbc.in/yEHKe1 #education #edchat