Monday, May 24, 2010

TeachMeet hits its fourth birthday: Coming of Age

The main room awaits TeachMeet Midlands 2009
TeachMeet is entering its fifth year and the unconference for teachers, by teachers has helped hundreds - maybe thousands, in fact - to try out something new, alter the way they already teach and learn, join a community of innovative educators or completely transform their way of working.

The hope was that the model would spread. It has, but as those who have created and helped pull TeachMeet together over the past four years, we want to see it spread further, deeper and with increasing quality of input from practitioners. This post outlines how we think we might manage this. This is the beginnings of a conversation with those who care about TeachMeet. Add your views in the form of any blog post or comment or tweet - tag it #tmfuture

What are the goals of TeachMeet?

TeachMeet was originally designed to:
  • Take thinking away from the formal, often commercialised conference floor, and provide a safe place for anyone to pitch their practice;
  • Provide a forum for more teachers to talk about real learning happening in real places, than one-hour conference seminar slots allow;
  • Showcase emerging practice that we could all aim to undertake; sales pitches not allowed;
  • Be all about the Teach, with only a nod towards tech that paved the way for new practice;
  • Provoke new ways of sharing our stories: PowerPoint was banned. We wanted people to tell stories in ways that challenged them, and the audience;
  • Empower the audience to critique, ask questions and probe, all online, through SMS or, later, Twitter.
Over the years, these 'rules' have altered, leading to some great innovations, others less so. The answer to "What is a TeachMeet?" has become a myriad of meanings, some pretty far off the original goals. We need to help and support people to organise, run and contribute to events that build on previous ones. We need to make TeachMeet as accessible to newbies as it was in 2005. We need TeachMeet to once more find its focus.

Supporting the "infectiousness" of TeachMeets

Organising TeachMeets should not be easy. Taking part in them should be. But more support is needed for organisers:
  • Sponsorship is hard if there's no bank account into which funds can be sent
  • Without sponsorship, any event over 30 people becomes tricky to organise while also giving people a special night of learning, the time, space and mood that gets people over their self-conscious selves
  • Paying for refreshments and venues is impossible if there's no organisation to pay them the precise sum.
  • The best TeachMeets provide social space, social activity, entertaining MCs, good refreshments, good online coverage and some form of online 'conclusion' - this needs coordinating by the organiser(s), but it's not a skill everyone will have the first time around.
  • We've got a superb opportunity to curate the best bits from all these TeachMeets that are happening weekly - this needs a degree of oversight.

A means to make TeachMeet more sustainable, easier to use for sponsors and organisers, and have the ability to do something spectacular.

TeachMeet is owned by the community that shape it - but there needs to be a body to manage sponsorship and sponsors, and provide support for new organisers so that they maintain the TeachMeet goals. We assume that if someone is organising a 'TeachMeet' they would like to emulate the success of those popular early TeachMeets, and better-supported national conference ones (e.g. SLF and BETT).

What would support look like? (is this for new organisers of events? support from the TeachMeet body?)

  • Seeking of sponsorship all year round - including ways and means to get your message to as many teachers as possible;
  • Brokerage of sponsorship - i.e. one place sponsors and those seeking sponsorship can come together, in a transparent manner;
  • Recommendation of onsite support (good venues at discounted rates/free, A/V, event organisation [for bigger venues], catering etc);
  • Suggestions for various formats that have worked in the past;
  • Mentoring from previous TeachMeet leaders including on-the-night help;
  • Featuring of content and promotion of the event in a timely manner on an aggregated, higher profile TeachMeet site;
  • A group calendar so that events can be seen by geography and date;
  • Promotion of TeachMeet through international and national events, using contacts of existing TeachMeeters;
  • In-event publicity (e.g. if you plan an event at a regional ICT day or national event, then we can help broker paper materials for insertion into packs etc).
But, above all, TeachMeet is reaching a point of saturation in the UK - things are going really well in terms of enthusing teachers about their own learning. We have a great opportunity to carry over a small proportion of the sponsorship and contributions towards creating a TeachMeet culture in countries where teacher professional development in this way is still blocked by barriers physical, financial or cultural. This is just one idea, harboured for a long time but unable to realise in the current setup. This body can take the form of
  • A Limited company (with a Director and shareholders);
  • A Charitable Limited Company, with a board of directors and voting rights for fellow 'shareholders' (we could work out some way of people being 'awarded' shares based on [non-financial] involvement?);
  • A Social Enterprise, perhaps formed as a Limited Company (see more information on what this means and how it might work (pdf));
  • A Charity (this feels like a lot more red tape to pull through and perhaps not entirely necessary).
As we take things forward we invite you to contribute your ideas and thoughts to make things work smoothly. We want you to comment, probe and make your own suggestions before the end of June, using the tag #tmfuture

Becta, Jamie Oliver, and the Romans

Highland Theatre by miss mass. Used under a Creative Commons License.
Something I should say up front: I've done a little consultancy for Becta in the area of learning platforms, but the funds involved went to my employer (Bucks County Council) for my time & travel, and not to me.
[This post was started before the announcement of Becta's closure and completed on the day of it and so the first section has been edited to reflect this.]
With the nascent coalition government already unable to control leaks of Tuesday's forthcoming Queen's Speech to the newspapers, today is the day tomorrow is heralded by many as the day on which it will be has been announced that the government's education technology agency - Becta (formerly the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) - will either be closed  or at least severely cut back. Becta - a non-departmental public body classified as a quango - operates in many different roles  and its roles have changed over the years. It was very much a child of its time - formed in 1998 to oversee the increased levels of investment in education technology which the incoming Labour government of 1997 brought with it. It's fair to say that the UK had never seen such a significant investment in information & communication technology specifically aimed towards education and hence Becta's role could be likened to inventing, then studying, nurturing and then trying to domesticate a new breed of animal - namely ICT harnessed to support education.
Becta has a number of aspects which impact on schools - it was charged with overseeing the Primary Schools  Whiteboards Expansion project in the early 2000s, of the Laptops for Teachers scheme of the and a number of procurement frameworks, in particular the ones concerning Learning Platforms and Infrastructure Services.
It's easy to place oneself at either end of the spectrum of views of Becta - either at the "it never did anything for me, so good riddance, let's put the money straight into schools" or the "it should carry on as it ever was". Whatever the truth is (and no-one will ever know), there are some odd attitudes around. Some people seem to be overjoyed at the prospect - though someone would only toast it with a chilled bottle of wine if they were particularly bitter at feeling marginalised in the past, or didn't quite appreciate that there might be perspectives other than their own. I've seen a lot of messages on Twitter saying things like Becta never managed to introduce technology effectively into schools or I never got anything from it or an unthinking It didn't work - and a lot of these messages come from those whose heads are screwed on normally in terms of educational ICT. There are a few things that these points of view miss:

Becta was not really given the power to make schools do anything.

I recall a conversation with someone involved in the Learning Platforms framework who was referring to the spring 2008 "personalised learning space" target. As this person said "it was a target with no teeth" - meaning that  schools wouldn't face sanctions it they didn't meet it. The drivers which would make it a genuine target - if Ofsted looked at the school's provision of such a space as part of their inspection, or if a school's SEF had a section concerning online support for learning - just didn't exist, and with Oftsed showing such a lack of understanding of Learning Platforms / Virtual Learning Environments it must have felt like trying to explain to a medieval knight how important passenger airbags are. The instruction to make change in schools happen using ICT without any compulsion for schools to engage with this instruction meant that in many ways, Becta were on a hiding to nothing...

You can lead a horse to water...

Every now and then there's a complaint that food facism is taking children's freedom to eat junk food away. Then Jamie Oliver makes the point that maybe it's not such a good idea to feed children Turkey Twizzlers and there's general acceptance that the dietary health of schoolchildren might actually be important after all. Try and implement such a programme, however, and you create a black market of crisps, sweets and sugary drinks run by the children themselves - plus all the usual stories about mothers pushing burgers through the school gates to fat-deprived children. The point is obvious - all of the good intentions, funding, examples of what a difference a particular programme can make - can easily run aground on the rocks of an attitude which says Nope, we don't want to do this or I don't think it's important. Was it Becta's responsbility to force feed the healthy eating of well thought through ICT down the mouths of unwilling schools? Not unless it wanted to be accused of the opposite - of imposing technology on schools no matter what. Take its foot off the pedal and it would be subject to the half-hearted complaints surfacing at the moment - something that gets individuals, schools or Local Authorities off the hook as Becta is a convenient scapegoat when "it doesn't succeed in putting ICT in schools".

My view & experience don't represent everyone else's - and neither do yours.

Part of a mature outlook on many things is to recognise that one's own portfolio of circumstances, attitudes, experiences and environment isn't the only one - meaning those who say Becta failed have taken their own experience, or someone they know, or something they've read and extrapolated it to apply to everyone everywhere for all time. It's true that not everything Becta carried out worked as intended but, as Ken Robinson points out, you can't be creative if you're not prepared to be wrong. Many of those who want to encourage creativity in learners and teachers (often through the use of ICT) don't have time for the possibility of an organisation which they don't control being creative and (quite possibly) getting things wrong. If my experience of Becta (whether positive or negative) leads me to draw a conclusion about its overall worth, then the least I can do is consider those who've had the opposite experience and work out where the truth lies.

Becta, Moodle & the market

Before going on I think I should address some of the misinformation going on around Becta and Moodle (or Open Source in general) - particularly on Twitter today. One of the accusations being levelled is that somehow because Becta didn't "get" Moodle (or Open Source in general) it deserves to die. Well, hang on. Moodle couldn't be offered as a platform in the Learning Platforms Framework because the Framework was about services, not software, despite the fact that some servicing companies weren't up to scratch. If anyone knows anything about the way schools, Local Authorities and the wider NEN works they should know that, so saying "Becta blocked Moodle" is uninformed I wrote years ago about how if someone really wanted Moodle under the LP Framework they could get it that way. Did anyone do it? Not that I've heard of. Secondly, here in Buckinghamshire (and in West Sussex, and in Cumbria and Lancashire, and in... etc) we use Moodle to meet the relevant parts of our targets - completely sanctioned and approved of by Becta - they visited us enough times to validate that what we were doing was good enough and were really positive. Our work was featured on their Learning Platforms in Action DVD and in a number of case studies and... and... and... well, after a while I get bored of hearing people moan that they weren't allowed to do things by Becta like "use Moodle" - if that was the case, how do they explain what we did? Answers in a comment please...
(an edit as I originally forgot to include this when I was rushing out to a school) Also, Becta supported & supports the Open Source Schools project in the UK as it starts to work out how to best support and advocate OSS in schools. 

Hang on. What about...?

In all of this, there are some important unanswered questions:
  1. Bearing in mind that most government web sites currently have the disclaimer with words to the effect of all statutory guidance and legislation linked to from this site continues to reflect the current legal position unless indise, but may not reflect Government policy. where does this leave things like online reporting, home access (which was a one-off grant). Do the targets for parental reporting (etc) still apply, or are schools and LAs now not required to meet them? Is the ditching of Contact Point indicative of a large-scale rolling back of projects, meaning that everything will be swept away in a baby/bathwater episode, or will initiatives be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  2. What will happen to the resources on the Becta web site - such as the research papers, resources, guidance, etc. Closure is slated for November, but there's a wealth of resources there which should not go to waste.
  3. What does this say about the Coalition's view on the appropriate use of technology in education? The Conservative party, whose pre-election education information contained no mention of technology in any form, and who had an image of a child writing lines of I will respect my teacher in chalk on a blackboard only a year before the general election appear to have steamrollered the Liberal Democrats' thoughts on education, so it remains to be seen if any green shots appear from beneath the paving slabs. Listening to George Osborne & David Laws announce the extent of  thecuts/efficiencies/savings this morning I was struck by the number of times they thanked the people who'd been working all weekend on them, but didn't hear anything about those who will lose their jobs & professions as a result of them. Ah well. Slightly more disconcerting was to hear David Laws say that they'd fought hard to protect front line services for schools - was this an admission that the Coalition doesn't see effective use of ICT as something important to 21st Century learners? We shall see.

So, what next?

The phrase curate's egg is almost certainly tripping from some commentators' tongues, but the nub of that phrase is that what is good in some parts and bad in others is "completely spoiled". I don't think that this is the case with Becta. What was needed was a leaner, meaner, keener Becta, which could have addressed the wasteful spending in the realm of ICT. I often wonder how much of what is spent at the BETT show is used effectively - at this point some people would start to blame Becta for a waste of government funds, but ultimately the money spent at something like BETT goes to schools and (for the moment) Local Authorities. At this point, I was going to pontificate on what this leaner, keener, meaner version of Becta would look like, but on reflection (since this blog is, primarily, a means of reflecting on what I claim to be my "profession"), I'll leave that to another post after some thought.
In the meantime, reflect on this. Over the past thirteen years Local Authorities and their schools have been, for the most part, like spoiled children in terms of educational technology. I have colleagues in private schools who are green with envy at the funding, support and guidance that LAs and schools have had - and for the most part, those colleagues have benefited from the latter two elements while pining for the former. Like spoiled children, we get bored with being endlessly accomodated to, whether it's more money for this, or this, or that, or... and the moaning begins. It's really interesting to look across at the United States and see parts of President Obama's Stimulus Package, with its $650 million for educational technology, as a direct descendant of the model overseen by Becta in the UK. I'm also aware of the resources made for UK schools used across the globe to measure impact, look at "E-Maturity" and other resources which would never have existed if a group of school leaders had sat down in 1998 and listed what they'd like. However, that's just my view of course. I've had plenty words to say about how Becta could have done things better (and when they've done things well) but that's probably enough for now. I'll edit this post further as things come to mind, or if anything isn't clear. In the meantime, if you want to hear the popular view on Becta, just search Twitter, you might find plenty of bile and celebration overwhelming the worried voices. However, you could always summarise what's being said by listening to a few guys from England put it in just about the most succinct way: