Why was the Christ the King school an Epic Fail?

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Neil Selwyn of the Institute of Education has a very useful 9 point list of things that help make research into educational technology persuasive. It should be a starting point for anyone involved in trying to ensure technology plays an appropriate role in developing high quality education systems.  If Neil reduces his list  to 7 points and writes a book called ‘the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Education Technology Researchers’ he might even make his fortune. In the meantime, the considered use of technology is still not seen as a core issue in education policy making. Usually the issue is trivialised and educational technologies are seen as either a total distraction from ‘proper’ teaching and an embarrassing/expensive one at that – Christ the King school (in Huyton, Liverpool) being a prime example; or a cure-all for teaching students about living in a highly connected world, where showing eight year olds how to create a Powerpoint slide is seen as ‘embedding ICT in the curriculum’.

Christ the King school  was built as part of the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future programme and was jointly run by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches with the aim of being a ‘palace for learning’. It replaced an existing but poorly performing school. Classrooms were designed as flexible learning spaces which would encourage a variety of styles of learning and teaching. The school itself had a curriculum heavily supported by digital technologies such as downloadable learning packages and teachers acting in a mentoring role. The initial cost of the school when it opened in 2009 was approximately £24 million. It is likely to close at the end of the school year as only 500 of its 900 places have been filled.

There are many reasons why the school didn’t work out in practice, and, despite the hysterical reaction in parts of the media, the ideas behind it are potentially promising. I think the fundamental reason why this school failed so spectacularly was that the ‘technical fix’ became the main design aim. The ideas behind the architecture and the role of digital technologies in bringing learning opportunities to students were all radical for the world of education but actually fairly standard for many large service-based companies.

The failure was in not creating an environment that everyone who used it would feel was a real school. The enrolment figures started off low and then continued to decline. This failure to place the technology and associated physical environment into something that the outsiders who mattered (parents) would recognise as a school that they wanted to be part of, but to direct all the attention to the vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty of whizzy technology will cost over £150 million in total. That, if nothing else, shows why educational technology research needs to be more considerate of Michael Cole’s recent observation that “massive change will only occur when…policy makers and the general public… fear for their lives if assembly line schooling… is allowed to continue”.

The school was a brave idea but not enough design effort was aimed at parents;  an understandably risk-averse group who are less interested in big ideas than in an educational environment that mirrors their own conception of what a ‘proper school’ should be like.

Doctoris Jingjing: Valediction

January 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the middle ages, it was the rule that academics spoke to each other in Latin. If you were a student at Balliol College in 1282, for instance, and were caught speaking English repeatedly at dinner, you would be banned from common table, made to eat alone, and be served last. Proper Oxford punishment.

The point about Latin then, and for the next several hundred years, was not exclusivity, but commonality: “Scholarly Western Europe, from the end of antiquity to the seventeenth century, had the advantage of sharing this single ‘academic’ language” (G.R.Evans University of Oxford: A New History 2010:97) which was not pure classical Latin, but something living and practical – “the working language of scholarship”, enabling intellectual exchange across institutional, disciplinary, and national boundaries.

Which brings us to Dr Jingjing Zhang, who has just completed her studies in Oxford, having been a member of our first elearning masters cohort, and the very first from that course to be awarded a DPhil. Jingjing’s thesis looks at how network technologies are changing intellectual exchange and scholarly dialogue, building new global connections between multiple nodes of academic endeavour distributed around the world. I think. It seems we have finally caught up with the communicative sophistication of the thirteenth century, thanks to the Internet.

Jingjing embodies the very same values that those amazing medieval scholars displayed, with or without the Internet: a hunger for knowledge, and a readiness to travel round the universities of the civilised world seeking and offering knowledge and scholarship. Jingjing seemed to make a friend of just about everyone in Oxford while she was here, taking herself into new intellectual pastures whenever the opportunity arose: Paris for a few months at OECD, New York for some time at the UN, international conferences where she would challenge passing academics and enquire about their modes of intellectual exchange.

Now she has packed her bags and as I write is flying back to China to settle down as a fully fledged academic. But I really don’t believe that her journey as a wandering scholar is finished yet. I know she will do great work teaching and researching educational technologies in her new job at Beijing Normal University, but the pull of the spinning world might one day carry her away and deposit her in another strange land that she will make her own. A true global scholar – it was wonderful to have her with us for a while.

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