Entries in learning (32)


The Napsterfication of Learning

By Graham Brown-Martin

I’ve recently enjoyed the honour of being invited to present keynote talks at conferences in the UK and US. I rarely give talks at my own events so it’s great to have the opportunity to attend and speak at others.

My general topic has been “Disruption, Innovation and Learning” that being the theme for LWF during 2011 and usually why I’ve been invited. However I like to customise my talks to the audience whom I’m addressing and the general themes of the events themselves plus I don’t like giving the same talk twice.

Will you choose the red pill or the blue pill?


The events I’ve attended have been well organised and well attended with interesting and many inspiring delegates so my comments here are not intended as a critique but a general observation about the teaching profession and our existing formal establishments for learning. Each event has, by their nature, attracted progressive educational thinkers, practitioners and innovators with a keen interest in deploying the kind of technologies that many young people are already using as opposed to the kind of bone-headed technology that has been forced upon many learners by less enlightened practitioners.

However, what has become clear to me during the events I have participated in as a speaker as well as the events I have hosted is that whilst the discussions are around potentially disruptive technologies such as mobile, video games and social media the real impact of these technologies, like an elephant dancing on the table, is rarely considered.

Common themes emerge such as how we might integrate these technologies into the classroom or within existing teaching practice rather than how these technologies might genuinely change or disrupt the way we teach and learn.

So are we to go through another cycle of missed opportunity as a result of trying to fit the 21st century into the 19th?

Are we really going to carry on talking about how we might use clunky learning platforms on mobile and gaming devices? How we might integrate iPads with Interactive White Boards? How the over-priced and over-maintained LMS might integrate with gaming platforms? How we might apply gaming mechanics to tired educational software? How we might enable the teacher with admin rights or other controls on a learners personal device?

I could go on ad-nausea here but I think you get my point.

compare and contrast

There’s been an on-going industrial-institutional complex at play here for at least the past 30 years that has ensured the continued irrelevance of technology to learning in the formal setting which has been a gift to those in government who would like to opt our learners out of the 21st century and return to back to basic teaching practice. This would be fine of course if our learners where joining a back to basics, 1950’s world after they leave their formal education.

You know what I’m talking about here, technology designed to replicate and support existing teaching practices and formal learning environments which quite frankly haven’t changed a great deal since the mid-20th century. As I’ve oft said the problem with this approach is that we get the same, often mediocre, results only quicker.

What do young people say?


When I retired the Handheld Learning Conference after 5 years at the height of its growth and success (2,000 international delegates) it was because I believed that the argument had been won. I just couldn’t see the point of more navel-gazing about devices. There could no longer be a question about the value of the connected learner who had near permanent access to learning via their mobile device.

Or could there?

Naively I didn’t count on the legion of practitioners or IT job-worths who were still thinking in the context of the mobile or tablet device as a laptop replacement and set about retro-fitting these modern marvels with the same garbage that didn’t work very well even on laptops. They must have missed the memo about the shift in computing that has left the desktop PC all but dead and the laptop on death-row.

So my question is what will happen when every learner has their own iPad like device, permanently connected to the internet without filtering and other controls?

What disruption might this enable?

So the analogy or even challenge that I make is what would the Napster of learning look like?

I’m referring to the original Napster that Shawn Fanning introduced in 1999 that despite being illegal changed the music industry and the way we access music forever. I’d venture to say that without this ingenious act of piracy the iPhone and iPad that we know today would not exist. As Matt Mason opined "piracy drives innovation" and as Stephen Heppell has said “technology + people, breaks cartels”.

Napster to my mind was a text book example of this.

The enabling technology for this disruption was the Internet and affordable, readily available computing that sent shock waves through the industry paving the way for legal platforms such as iTunes.

Napster effectively disintermediated our access to music, it took out the middle men, bypassed the record labels, the record retailers and connected the listeners directly to the music. It also meant that many artists, the creators of the music, didn’t get paid and even today it is estimated that 95% of all music downloads are illegal. However the savvy artists and labels who embraced the disruption used file sharing technology to launch themselves and shifted their revenue streams to live performances.

Interestingly Napster and illegal file-sharing didn’t damage the independent record labels who were innovating as much as the majors who were largely innovation-free and relied on re-releasing proven artists and old recordings in new formats.

I think we can draw some interesting parallels here to what is already happening in the world of learning.

Understanding who the client is here is easy. But who or what are the middle-men? Who are the cartels? Who are the artists and who are the new artists that will embrace this inevitable disruption? How will they get paid?

And what of the physical school or university building?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Addendum added August 17th 2011 - Video of talk given at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival 2011


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Sir Ken Robinson

On March 16th, 2011 Sir Ken Robinson presented a talk to the Learning Without Frontiers community followed by an audience discussion where he was joined by Mick Waters, Curriculum Foundation and Keri Facer, Professor of Education, MMU.

Here are the edited highlights of that talk:


And the discussion panel

Be part of the conversation and post your comments below

Get this video on iTunes, Blip.TV or YouTube

Pictures from the evening.


What should be taught in our schools?

On March 3rd 2011, an informal evening of discussion and debate took place featuring Katharine Birbalsingh (teacher and author), Toby Young (journalist and author), Dr Ralph Townsend (Headmaster Winchester College), Dawn Hallybone (senior teacher), Tristram Shepard (online educational publisher and former Oftsed inspector) and Donald Clark (e-learning entrepreneur).

The occassion marked both an exchange of views as related to England's National Curriculum Review and the launch of Katharine Birbalisingh's book "To Miss with Love".

Each speaker presented a 5 minute position statement which was followed for a discussion with the 175 people in attendance.

The evening was supported by LWF, BESA and Penguin.

Here is the audio recording from the evening.

What should be taught in our schools? by learningwithoutfrontiers





I'm a celebrity, let me fix education

Can Jamie Oliver and Joanna Lumley fix our schools or has celebrity culture gone too far?

In 2009, LWF invited the artist and agent provocateur, Malcolm McLaren, to present a keynote talk about learning. What pray-tell could this “célébrité terrible” tell us about learning and education?

This was the last public speech that Malcolm gave before he passed away early in 2010 and he used this opportunity not to tell us what he thought was wrong with education, he admitted upfront that he was not qualified to do so, but to tell us what was wrong with the culture of celebrity.

Prescient as ever, Malcolm lamented the challenge of schools forced to operate in a culture of stupidity driven by the rise of the talent show and popular culture.

He summed it up simply in his opening statement “all popular culture today from Hollywood, television and media, even politics, accepts and goes to great lengths to promote the idea that it’s cool to be stupid and for that it’s a huge problem whatever anybody says about education in the Western world”.

Yet as if celebrity culture knows no bounds we now have Jamie Oliver and friends, Joanna Lumley too, all pronouncing their views on the ill’s of modern education and how they would “fix” it. They are celebrities so surely they must know.

Can Jamie & Joanna save education?Now don’t misunderstand me, I think it’s about time that the priesthood of the education profession opens up and engages with the general public in a full and frank dialogue. The consumers and clients of learning should rightly be informed and be participants in the discussion about what should be taught in our schools and how our schools might function.

But having been relentlessly fed a media diet of celebrity trivia, karaoke talent shows and a general decline in editorial quality across the board is it a surprise that the gullible public would be suckered into this latest wave of celebrity punditry?

Actually this isn’t a particularly recent phenomenon. Our politicians and royals have always been enamoured by the glitz of shiny celebrity. No sooner does a new UK Prime Minister enter No.10 than a series of parties and gatherings are hosted to show the starlets of past and present entering the hallowed doorway for a photo opportunity with our leaders. Make the right noises and a mention in the Queen’s Birthday or New Years Honours list is a certainty after all.

Some have suggested that this is an “upper middle class” conspiracy. But I would posit another suggestion. What we have is the emergence of the “Editorial Classes”. Predominantly based in London this chattering, self-reverential group are determining the popular agenda and rather than informing the public they seek to influence opinion or as Noam Chomsky would have it, “manufacture consent”.

At the risk of losing future invitations to attend swanky dinner parties, or “supper” as we call it in polite society, I must point out that regardless of which newspaper or media channel the members of the editorial class represent they all dine at the same tables, sharing anecdotes and reveling in their moral high-ground for the benefit of our poor learners and the decline of Western society.

I propose that a new association is formed for these willing actors and celebrities who are clearly on the way to rescue us from our wicked ways. Perhaps they could call this society “Actors Really Supporting Education” and then use the #arse hashtag on Twitter so we know where they are speaking from.

Seriously though, I believe that the public should be engaged in an informed, accessible debate about the future of learning that takes us beyond the soundbite nonsense that you typically hear in the back of a London taxi or the mouth of a celebrity selling a book or TV show. Educational supplements in the Guardian, tradeshows open only to education professionals, the TES, etc are understandably targeted at a specific audience whereas learning is the ultimate consumer product. So how does the consumer make an informed choice?

How can, to quote Stephen Heppell, the “stellar” examples of radically improved learning that are happening up and down the country cross-over into the mainstream media and engage the public with something other than the dangerous stereotypes that are being presented in todays popular press?

Some of the fault lies at the feet of the education profession itself. It is an insular profession that appears unwilling to enter into discussion in public forum with those who it believes do not merit response. Like many professions it uses an impenetrable language that woe betide you should you get it wrong. Those in the profession that speak out are quickly shouted down. Yet it’s the public who are doing the voting and the media who are influencing the public whilst all the time our editorial and political classes perform their courtship rituals.

My guess is that this won’t bring about the reforms for education that our learners need and we don’t have the benefit of time. The smart suppliers of learning are already looking at new models of supply and this is likely to happen outside of the classroom. Perhaps this is the disruption that Lord Puttnam was alluding to at the last LWF.


Learners Y Factor - London - 2011

Hosted as part of the LWF Festival's Sunday Service the Learners Y Factor is a showcase of young UK talent using affordable technologies from mobile to video games and social media to improve their learning and develop skills that prepares them for a successful future.


The Digital Orchestra is a multimedia, interactive, performance. Pupils, teachers from local schools along with dance and performance specialists and artists and technology consultants from Wandsworth City Learning Centre have collaborated to create a series of unique multimedia performances based on a range of curriculum themes. Participants use various touch devices as part of their performance to create a "live" media scape environment within which additional performers and audience members interact.

The performances utilise video, music, lighting and other stage effects controlled by various touch controllers and interfaces. The performances feature a mixture of dancers, musicians, technicians and audience participation. The basis of the project are the touch controllers? i.e. iPad, iPhone, iTouch and Android phones as well as a cluster of computers running each area such as the video, music and lighting. The pupils have designed the touch interfaces as well as creating the media to trigger both the musical and visual elements. Each controller is deployed to a specific task decided by the students. The students have designed specific controller graphic user interfaces (GUI?s) to their taste in the preparatory sessions as well as creating the musical and video elements as well as choreographing and directing the movement.



Since September 2010, 19 girls between 13-18 years have been working hard to come up with problems they want to see solved through mobile apps in their communities. In teams of 2-5 they have been working through critical thinking, market research, design, technical feasibility, UI design and business models to make it happen. Apps for Good is a program by education charity CDI Europe that is delivered in partnership with Central Foundation Girls School in Tower Hamlets.



We are a group of students who love games based learning but want to help younger students solve problems and their anxiety of the transition from primary to secondary school through the enjoyment of playing games. We without doubt as a group and our project have the Y Factor.

We are currently designing a game that will be played on the Xbox and on PC's, we are using the free Microsoft game making tool XNA to create a video game that younger students in our community can play to learn more about our school so that when they chose to attend this secondary school they are less anxious about moving from their smaller primary school. We have currently programmed the platform of the game, the layout of the school and all images and the next phase of our development is the construction of the content and the game play.



Robot Club began as an after-school club organised for children in Years 3-6 at Loughton School, a junior school in Milton Keynes. One of the school governors, an expert in robotics, set up the club, which met after school once a week. The club was very successful and, in 2008, sent a Year Six team to China to participate in the world RoboCup Finals.

This Y Factor entry is from a group of four children who left Loughton School and moved up to secondary school this year. They were inspired to keep working on building and developing robots. The Robot Club meet at each other's houses and have built a variety of robots inspired by constructions they have found on the Internet and viewed on YouTube.



(note audio disturbances due to technical difficulties at venue)

In November 2010 representatives from three London schools visited the Creativity World Forum in Oklahoma to collaborate with their American peers on creating a Pop Up School.

We hoped to demonstrate the ability of young learners to disrupt traditional notions of what a school could be. Rather than a bricks and mortar establishment, we set about generating social capital online in the months prior to the conference through a variety of social networks and blogs. We conceived and planned our Pop Up School collaboratively. We held Skype conference calls to get to know each other better. We created a website to host our investigations at the conference and we made a presentation to 1500 delegates about how learning is changing.



We are class 6 from St Mary's RC Primary School in Stoke on Trent and we are looking at the Anglo-Saxons because we have the famous Staffordshire Hoard that we can go and visit in our Museum.

We are using Augmented Reality with a program called Second Sight and Sony PSPs. We have been creating media to put on the PSPs so that when the cameras see a semacode (which is a bit like a crossword) the things we have chosen will be triggered on the PSP and then people will get extra information. This lets us provide extra facts about the pieces of treasure in the hoard, making the hoard more exciting!