Open Education: It’s not impossible, it’s already here

Imagine a world whereby our borders are open, where data is open, where organisations are open… where education is open.

Those of you who read my blog are pretty au fait by now with the open principles of data and organisations, and we live in a world of pretty open borders – so now, just bear with me through the open education thing.

There is an almighty (thank goodness) brauhaha at the moment about teaching programming in schools, indeed upping the interweaving of digital teaching throughout all subjects (beyond googling the best essay ever on any given subject). But there is the huge gap in enthusiasm amongst the young generations – relatively easy to solve – and the ability of teachers to teach all a young person needs to know in this future digital world, one that many have not grown up in, let alone been taught how to teach, this is harder.

But is this a deal breaker?

Many (many many many) people say to me: but I taught myself how to code and I am fine, I have a career and I do well, if it was taught to me maybe I would not have found it so interesting.

Fair point, but you are all over 25. The under 25s do not agree – well not 100% anyway.

So I think that we can accept, just by reading all there is online right now about this subject, that there is a need, a very real need; and it is not just for the younger generations whom we may be letting down by not doing anything about this. Can we take that for granted for the sake of this post?

However, there is a big problem that we need to be addressing at the same time as we fight for recognisance of the need to teach 21st century computing – and that is that the teachers we have now, indeed the teachers we are training now, are not equipped to teach this.

I am a part of a network called Computing at School, and have recently been included in their google group. This group is full of teachers who are supporting each other, sharing resources, introducing people from outside the education community who are programmers, are building software and hardware (open source), or who are parents with rudimentary knowledge or extraordinary knowledge – robotics anyone? or those just wanting to help somehow.

In this google group I am a party to many conversations between teachers crying out for help and information, and helping each other. They share links, wack up a wiki when a subject gets too big for just an email list, bring in industry experts – and all in their spare time. Those teaching Computer Science degrees helping the primary/secondary school teachers and vice versa. It is all an open forum, anyone can ask anything, and they do. I cannot tell you how humbling it is to read some of the conversations, enthusiastic and daily, sparked in this group – and it completely negates the publicly perceived view that this task is impossible because the IT teachers are crap. It is simply not true.

Yes, many of them did not train in IT, but they trained as teachers, and as teachers they take the education of the UK’s next generation extremely seriously. (I am sure you can all haul out a rubbish teacher to point to, but let’s play to the masses and not the exceptions). These are people who love what they do and want to do their best, they know that they need help to get this right, but I do not see any reticence there.

What I do see, is the occasional call for help – to assist with making the case for changing the stuff they are teaching, often a cry of:

The head gets it, but will ask the *usual* questions. Anyone help me?

Now I am not a teacher, so have no idea what these questions are, but taking a wild stab I would assume that they are on a par with the senior management teams in organisations who can only approve things if they fit with industry approved measurements of success – and struggle when there is no such thing (yet).

Yet schools are already being forced to move into measurements not yet measured. Schools are no longer valued just on the say so of Ofsted (oh I know it is still a big thing, but for how much longer, open data?)

Open education?

Well, it’s not impossible it is already here. Computing at Schools is an excellent example of open education. The head of ICT might not know how to teach Python to a bunch of 9 year olds and make it fun – but Mrs Miggins down the road does.

So please, when you hear the counter-argument to teaching kids to code being that teachers can’t do it, that’s not true, they can – it will be a good decade until they are officially trained to do so, but even then all they really need to know is how to teach, then they can choose what they teach, and it is an ongoing learning path, I am sure (unless it’s Latin or Ancient Greek).

Until then, let’s nurture open education. If you can code and know that you might be able to help a teacher, or write some open source software for use in schools – please do it.

I would encourage everyone to start with Computing at School (CAS) as it is already here and already plugging right into the heart of the teaching network. CAS is a grass-roots organisation and that is the only place we can start. Top-down simply will not work – anyone think we will still be learning Scratch in 2020?

Let’s accept that government has a lot to do and that it will take time to make the necessary policy changes, and let’s make sure that our voices are heard as people living in a democracy, use the petition system, the voting system and the fact that we are actually allowed to speak to our politicians, and they will listen (again please let’s play to the masses not the exceptions here).

But at the same time, let’s just do what we can to make it all work a little bit better in the mean time. Besides, we can experiment (a bit) and if we experiment with the best minds we can lay our hands on (in an open education way) then the risk is greatly reduced.

And I think the next generations will forgive us for trying, they may not forgive us for giving up. I hope they wouldn’t anyway.

Please take time to sign the e-petition –

And here is a link to Computing at Schools –

1% of Big Society is a good thing

Much has been made of volunteering in the Coalition Big Society. Probably best described as confusion on how it is funded through plundered ‘dormant’ bank accounts, to how we are all supposed to find the time to volunteer to run this country whilst the politicians work out a way to pay back money “we” have borrowed. Culminating in a relieved glee that even the dude assigned to voluntarily oversee this, Lord Wei, couldn’t hack it and was off to make some cash and spend time in the real world.

I have to admit that the half an eye I was keeping on this was basically relieved that I was not still expected to set up a local school in my spare time; most people I knew had no idea what the Big Society idea was – still – but revelled in the Wei irony anywei.

However, a funny thing happened on my way to Tescos. Whilst regaling my family about this apparent nail in the coffin of Big Society, I started thinking about how the Big Idea had actually properly affected me. How I had actually become more aware of my civic duty. How I did actually realise that although it had been a big government theory that couldn’t possibly work – it had made me more aware of my own responsibility as a person living and working in a struggling country. I had actually changed a bit of my behaviour. I was more aware of those around me. Through Martha Lane-Fox’s constant cry to help those with no digital experience get online so that they could benefit in some small way (digital being my field I widened my horizons… to my elderly neighbour who is hugely active in our local community but can’t work her computer, to my daughters’ schools who struggled with teaching IT), also to my own business in Rewired State, how we could continue our fight for a transparent society into perhaps helping coders of a different generation understand simple things they could do to support this in the large perceived evil organisations they had given their careers to. I am definitely more aware of my very local community, in a tiny way, but does that matter?

Then an even more inconsequential thing happened. I was reading a book where someone volunteered to help on a crime – yes it was a novel and one of those designed to help you sleep well by providing nice short chapters – nevertheless I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that we all sacrifice a bit of our lives to help others anyway, most of the time without thinking.

I have no idea why this sentence in a made up bit of prose nudged my silly brain into a very small realisation, but it did, and the realisation is this: big, brave government statements/policies, that seem to carry an ambition way beyond the reality a democratic society can deliver, are perhaps not actually meant to be delivered as reality. Sometimes, perhaps, the point is to cause disruption, to cause people to cry “Impossible”, to make people work to disprove the theory. If only 1% of those change their behaviour – even if they are completely unaware of doing so, then life may become a little easier for a number of other people, who may then change their behaviour – and so on.

Then I saw how actually irrelevant it was that Lord Wei had said or done anything – I did not know who he was before today anyway but I knew of Big Society ambitions. The point is that some of us are thinking differently, and those few will affect a few who will affect a few &c &c. It’s not going to win a war or make a massive PR-able difference, but it will change a significant number of daily lives. And that is worth it.