Last Friday I went to Senate House at the University of London to attend the annual conference on the Future of Technology in Education which, as you may have guessed, is about the use of technology in academic institutes to connect students and teaching staff, and also about the teaching of technology to students.

I was more interested in the talks surrounding the teaching of technology, given the STEM Ambassador programme and Coding Club activities I’m participating in, so I won’t go into details about all of the talks.  If you want to watch the talks yourself, check out these videos of all the FOTE12 sessions.

I’ll skip the first two talks and start midway through the morning when Yousuf Khan, of the Hult International Business School, described “iPad and Mobility Changing Education.”  He gave us various anecdotes on how and why the iPad was good for education.  I’m not sure it was ever discussed as to why iPad was preferred over Android, but that wasn’t really the point of the talk.  He demonstrated the obvious benefit of digital books, including DRM material, and touched on something that I completely agree with: iPads (and Android tablets for that matter), are generally considered consumer devices, rather than productive devices.  While he gave some examples of apps that might address that balance, with note taking, calculators, and so on, I still feel that any touchscreen device, even one as stylish as the iPad, just isn’t suitable for lengthier production, word processed content, or coding, for example, but I guess for most courses it has more advantages over fixed desktop machines.

There was a Q & A with the previous talks and then coffee and biscuits, before we resumed with a panel discussion: “MOOCs – Educational game changer or just another round of buzzword bingo?” On the panel were:

  • Philip Butler, Senior e-learning Advisor at ULCC;
  • David Webster, Religion, Philosophy & Ethics Lecturer at University of Gloucestershire;
  • Miles Metcalfe, Founder of Relevant Department, an IT consultancy;
  • Jeff Haywood, Vice-Principal for Knowledge Management, Chief Information Officer and Librarian – University of Edinburgh;
  • Chaired by Maren Deepwell, Chief Executive – Association for Learning Technology (ALT);

I hadn’t actually heard of the term MOOCs before the schedule was announced, but I realised that I’d written about Massive Open Online Courses previously, with a previous blog post on Coursera and Udacity.  The panel, and those who provided questions from the audience, seemed to be weighted in favour of buzzword bingo and dismissing it as a good way to learn, in some cases purely on the basis that you got nothing out of it at the end in terms of a meaningful qualification from a recognised institute.  I wasn’t the only one to find it a little pompous to think that a qualification is the only reason to learn, judging by the twitter comments I saw and retweeted.  Many seem to miss the point that some people learn purely for the fun of it, while others learn for personal growth and expansion of knowledge.  Others use it as a springboard into further recognised courses, but for some people on the panel and in the audience, none of this was relevant, apparently.

After lunch, Nicola Whitton, of Manchester Metropolitan University began the first talk I was really interested in: “What is the Future of Digital Games and Learning?” In this talk she described the link between gamification and learning – citing examples from the offline world.  Systems offering a reward and recognition for learning isn’t a new concept, and I realised children naturally tend to turn challenging or boring tasks into games, particularly if they can challenge their friends at the same time.  As an aside, while searching for an actual example of this, I came across this site: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/turn-daily-boring-household-chores-fun-game-children-highscore-house/ which looks quite interesting! So, explicitly teaching through gaming doesn’t sound like such a bad approach – Indeed some children would respond and engage better with it rather than the usual approach of talking at them while they sit around bored.

At the end of the talk she mentioned three things to take away:

  1. Think about rules, games, and game structure.  Think about breaking big goals into smaller goals, rewards, a way to see and visualise their progress.
  2. Do something unexpected in lessons to keep them on their toes.  Breaking the monotonous pattern of working will keep them focussed and they enjoy it more.
  3. Be playful.  An example cited was to throw a cuddly toy at the class when asking a question, and have them pass it about while music is played.  When the music stops, the person with the cuddly toy has to answer the question.

The final talk that I had a personal interest in was from Dave Coplin who works for Microsoft Bing. I recently shared this article (“PREPARING FOR OUR FUTURE – THE NEED FOR CRITICAL THINKING”) where he discussed the topics that he presented at FOTE12, and in his humorous talk “Future Forward”, he described how society interacts with technology now, where it is heading, and the issues facing people who are learning about technology.

The main issue is that for many years, the focus is too much on specific tools, rather than transferable IT skills.  Like a modern day take on the old adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, he showed examples of how tools we learn about at college or university are usually outdated and obsolete by the time we reach working life.  Using a tool to teach the fundamental skills is fine, just don’t test the user’s proficiency with that specific tool as a measure of whether they have passed or failed.

His takeaways were:

  1. Everybody needs to know how to stay safe – child protection, privacy, personal worth of private information, how you communicate and portray yourself online.
  2. Learn to behave responsibly.  We don’t act like decent respectable human beings online, especially to each other.  The media blames the technology when it’s a sociological problem.
  3. Finding data – there is so much data on the web that you need to know how to use a search engine, form a query, interpret results and how to refine the search.
  4. Authenticate information, confirm the validity and authority of sources, recognise bias.
These skills are part of a wider skill of critical thinking, and this is a skill that everyone should have when interacting with the world wide web.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone spread a hoax virus warning or hoax scare story, which can easily be validated, but you are forever fighting against the tide.  Too many people are unable to think critically about the information they receive.  With a little bit of education, everyone benefits.
Again, these ideas apply to both young and old alike, it’s vital that we ALL take this on board.