Sunday, 9 August 2009

Technology everywhere

Thought you'd enjoy the first draft of an article that will go in Government Technology. Still needs a bit of fine tuning, still not bad for a first cut.

Future gazing is a difficult art form and the likelihood of getting it right is very low. Reading from today into tomorrow is notorious for many hostages to fortune – most of us get it wrong! There are however, a number of relative certainties that can provide a structure for looking at how society might develop and what the role of schools in the future might be. There are a number of things we know now that will impact on our society and economy and that will shape how we develop schools to empower the next generation to face such challenges. We know that the developed countries will see an increasing proportion of their populations being older people – some will want to continue working, some will not. We know that in contrast in China and India the proportion of young people in the population is increasing and these young people are highly skilled, highly technologically savvy and speak English. We know that the growth of the Internet has been expediential and is now seen by many as a ‘must have’ rather than an optional extra. These certainties rest on the knowledge that the next generation will not have a single career but many careers, some estimate that most young people will have as many as 15 different jobs in a lifetime. That will mean a lifetime of reskilling, learning different skills and techniques and using ICT and technology as a mechanism to upskill and change.

As part of a strategy to address some of these challenges, in the UK, there are a number of different Government initiatives that focus on harnessing the technology to develop a 21st century infrastructure that enables children, young people, and their families to harness the power of the new technologies. The national rollout of high speed broadband to all homes is part of a commitment to tackle the digital divide which sees some people with greater access to use the digital infrastructure whilst others do not benefit from such access. The Building Schools for the Future programme, which now has over 80 local authorities involved with a plan for the remaining 70 to be brought on board over the new couple of years, has at its core an approach to technology that sees it as central to improving school performance and creating new ways of teaching and learning.

These policy approaches are based on an acceptance that technology is here to stay and that digitalized forms of learning (through structures such as ICT managed services and virtual learning platforms) can liberate knowledge and provide access to information for everyone. The exponential growth of social networking tools (Face book, Bebo and more latterly Twitter) as well as the development of web2.0 with its ability for anyone, anywhere to set up their website, blog or podcast and to broadcast their view of the world to anyone anywhere represents a significant shift in our approach communication and knowledge.

New technologies can also provide a mechanism for creating new jobs and new forms of economy. The growth of digital jobs where knowledge can be provided from across the globe mean that our young people will need to have the skills that enables them to benefit. More flexible forms of working, combined with the solutions offered by faster more robust ICT infrastructure, mean that people from across the world can be working on one project, sharing information, knowledge and skills as part of a collective ‘we-think’ approach.

So what will this mean for schools over the next 20 years?

The infrastructure that is being put in place as part of the big capital investment programmes will need to be flexible enough to adapt to significant changes in the school population. There is the real potential for students to learn anytime, anywhere and this will change the relationship between students and schools, learners and teachers. For some young people (digital natives who can use and manipulate the technological tools) there will be a need to guide their learning in more mentoring, coaching forms of support. Some of this will need to take place in school. For others, the technology will be part of their skills based learning focusing on vocational courses where the learning relationship is more based on learning through doing. Again, this will mean that students will need to come together to learn from each other. The infrastructure will need to support all these forms of learning and more and enable the facilitation of learning through robust high speed backbones that become as robust and easy as paper and pens!

We are already witnessing the growth of new forms of school organization – particularly in the secondary sector. Schools are joining together – either loosely through mechanisms such as 14-19 collaborations or more formerly through new arrangements like Trusts and federations of academies. At the same time, local authorities are moving towards more flexible models that support their strategic commissioning role whilst ensuring local leadership. These two strands could see the development of ‘mini’ local education authorities – groups of schools that come together to procure services (HR and finance spring to mind as well as ICT managed services). There are already groups of Academies (the Academies Education Trust is one such group) who are running sufficient numbers of schools to require their own back office functions independent of the local authority. Overseen by an Executive Head teacher or Chief Executive, these groups of schools have the potential to become corporate ‘brands’ – marketed across the net with increasing ease and productizing learning and education to the next generation of parents who are increasingly confident in the net as their primary source of information.

So, how can we future proof our current approaches to make sure that we benefit as a society from these technological advances. The first issue will be to ensure that access does reach all corners of our society, which is why the rollout of broadband is crucial. Without it, we are limiting accessibility to some groups and not others. The second issue is make sure the systems that we put into schools (from virtual learning environments to wireless cables and servers) are agile enough to meet the demands of the future without needing more and more investment. We need to maximize the flexibility of the infrastructure to build systems that are equip for tomorrow’s change today. And finally we need to reaffirm the importance of schools since it is schools that will equip the next generation with the skills, knowledge and learning they need to make the best of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead – whatever they may be.

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