Group, Action, Technology, Learning, Empowerment, Future… FELTAG inside out

FELTAG Revisited
CC-BY-ND @BryanMMathers

This talk is for the FELTAG 2016 conference taking place on 28 September 2016 in London. Having given plenty of talks about FELTAG in the past few years, I have been pondering what I really want to say to my audience in twenty minutes. Part of being the opening keynote is that you get to speak first and help set the tone for the day, but looking at the agenda of what’s to follow, it feels a bit like every case study and best practice example  imaginable will be well covered. In addition, I had a conversation recently with Bryan Mathers about Revisiting FELTAG, and the resulting visual thought which I have linked to in this post (and which was published here) , made me think about where we go from here – what does the future hold for FELTAG? I hope this talk will help us find the way.

View of Westminster Abbey
CC-BY @MarenDeepwell

Westminster Abbey:  where it all began for me was in February 2013 when I was the new chief executive of ALT and was invited to represent our members as part of this group convened by Matthew Hancock, who was then  Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise in BIS. The picture shows a foggy morning view of Westminster Abbey as seen from the meeting room in BIS where we met. Subsequently I have been part of FELTAG’s cross-sector successor ETAG, the FELTAG Coalition, our own FELTAG SIG, FELTAG panels, responses, updates, its evolution and most recently I revisited FELTAG with Bryan Mathers. But in February 2013 there was only one thing about FELTAG that I was interested in: firstly I was trying to figure out the “G”, namely who the other members of the group were, their aims and vision. Many of them are in the audience today, but others are no longer directly involved. As a group we stopped convening formally as soon as our recommendations were finalised in late 2013. But once the original group had done its work came the time for action. The “A” that gives FELTAG its power.

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FELTAG Report (2014) http://www.feltag.org.uk/

Teachers: The original report included ambitious recommendations and  a vision that demanded a change in culture, in thinking. It was as radical as was possible at the time, but what followed in the Government response, progress updates and so forth was not, at least in my view. However, it is extremely complicated to try and operationalise change in a rapidly evolving technological, social and economic context and  even harder to devise robust drivers for change through funding and inspection mechanisms that hold so much sway across the sector. So trying to define in quantitative terms what progress should be made was in some ways a logical next step. The infamous 10% online learning quota requirement comes to mind here.  This particular recommendation about bringing the workforce up to speed was meant to recognise that teachers play a key role in the intelligent use of Learning Technology, not machines.

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Source: Hack Education http://hackeducation.com/2015/08/10/digpedlab

Technology: Yet while we may have thought a lot about teachers, about people generally, the technology quickly took centre stage. It was clear to all that there is a consistent disparity between different providers across the country, some struggling with providing basic infrastructure while others are investing heavily. At the same time various threats technology embodies became more pronounced as we read about the automation of jobs, the power of big data networks, the might of the technology companies. At times it seemed as if instead of finding ways to empower and support people in learning and teaching, Learning Technology could be a fast track to restructuring them out of the business of education all together.

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Conflict: It think this quote from David Noble from his book Digital Diploma Mills captures the conflict at the heart of the FELTAG recommendations perfectly. It juxtaposes the potential of technology to scale up, reach out and increase output with the power of human agency in learning and teaching, and with the importance of the teacher, support staff, managers or governors. Further Education is passionate about its learners.

Now I have thought about the first three letters (G, A and T), I want to turn my attention to the “L” in FELTAG. L stands for Learning. And for Learners (all of us). It’s at the heart of what FELTAG was and is about.

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Source: YouTube Clips from ALT https://youtu.be/V_a9En4YgH8

Learning Myths: One of the challenges we face in Learning Technology is knowing how to make the best use of it. It’s the “what works and what doesn’t work” dilemma that is hard to answer. However even if we take technology out of the equation, keeping up with what we know about learning and how we learn best can be challenging. Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust recently illustrated how high a percentage of UK teachers still believe in learning styles. The answer to her quiz questions as the one in the picture above is “not true”. Highly recommended viewing.

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The business of learning: I suppose in many ways the crux of the matter is that as an industry Further Education is faced by challenges from many different directions. There is little continuity of strategy or support, competing demands from employers, government agencies and not least a growing base of learners at all stages of life. Fitting what is essentially a messy, individual human experience and life stage transition into a business-enterprise model using technology can often result in a drive to standardise interaction and provision, a wish for being able to predict what happens next, when and to whom. Cue the rise of learning and learner analytics.

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Sheila MacNeill speaking at the OER15 conference. CC-BY-NC ALT

Empowerment: If we compare the power the technology industry has and the pace of technological innovation to what we have, you might get the impression that we like using new gadgets and spend more time online than anywhere else, that we hear about the rapid pace of change, the rise of the machines, the arrival of artificial intelligence… but it can feel like we don’t have a lot of control over our destiny. But that is not true. At some level the forces we feel at work are all in the power of people like us, indeed some of them sat in the room I described earlier, on that damp February morning in 2013 with a view over Westminster Abbey. They were there at the invitation of a Government Minister and represented not only industry and education sectors, but policy, funding, media and other interests. The action I took as a member of the group was to take responsibility to empower those within my sphere of influence to meet the challenges Learning Technology poses head on, together and – importantly –  in the open. Sharing, collaborating and helping each other. As a professional body the Association I serve facilitates, represents and supports this growing community.

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The future is always just beyond the horizon: This quote and the others I have used in this talk I came across while reading Audrey Watter’s excellent Hack Education blog. It’s full of thoughtful and thought-provoking thinking about the future. And it reminds me frequently that each time I read one of these predictions about the future of education(al technology) I am sad to think that people are going about their business, waiting for the FUTURE to arrive and never taking action to make their vision come to life in the here and now. I think for me FELTAG was about that. Coming together to make a stand. We wanted to draw a line in the sand beyond which the future was actually going to materialise, finally. Not just for some, but for everyone in Further Education.

It has been over a century since Thomas Edison predicted the demise of books in schools and his predication has failed to come true. It’s also been over three years since that first meeting of the FELTAG group. We are now beyond FELTAG, we are finally living the future that’s always been just beyond the horizon and that’s a lot of responsibility for each of us.

P.S. Take action. Join ALT.