Thoughts on European JRC report on Future Learning

Guest post from Gerald Haigh, freelance writer. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft blog(s).

Do you think all the attention being given to systems, types of schools, local authorities, inspection regimes, exam structures and the rest, is a distraction from what really matters, which is what our young people are learning in and beyond the classroom?

When I suggested as much to a friend, he directed me to this paper, published towards the end of last year by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) . As my friend pointed out, the fact that it attracted relatively little notice in this country when it came out actually makes my point.  ‘We’ve all been far too busy arguing about academies and free schools to read a paper about learning,’ he said.


And sure enough, this really is a solid read, 80 pages plus, on the urgent need for patterns of learning to change if young people across Europe are to survive, and more importantly to thrive, in a largely unpredictable and scary future .

‘This report,’ it says, ‘Aims to identify, understand and visualise major changes to learning in the future.’

The key, say the report’s authors, lies with personalisation, collaboration and informalisation. It’s acknowledged that these aren’t new ideas, but now they have to move centre-stage, and become guiding principles for the whole of life-wide and lifelong learning – ‘A central learning paradigm…shaped by the ubiquity of Information and Communication Technology (ICT)’

The aim is to produce citizens who are, ‘..lifelong learners who flexibly respond to change, are able to pro-actively develop their competences and thrive in collaborative learning and working environment.’

And so, ‘Problem-solving, reflection, creativity, critical thinking, learning to learn, risk-taking, collaboration and entrepreneurship will become key competencies for a successful life in the European society of the future.’

Again, we’ve heard that before. What’s new here is the sense of urgency. Educators at every level are called on to respond both to individual learners’ needs and to fast changing requirements from the labour market. The inevitable conclusion that almost everything we assume about schools -- which skills are important, how they’re learned and taught, where, when and by whom, and how they’re assessed – will have to change. Along the way, there are big challenges which include tackling multicultural integration, reducing early dropout, fostering individual talent, promoting fluent transition from education to work, helping re-entrance to the labour market for the long-term unemployed, and providing career-long opportunities for updating skills and competencies.

That’s just a taste of a paper which puts up a wide-ranging, cogently argued case for a Europe-wide rethink not just of what future education might look like, but of what it will necessarily have to become. And, of course, at the heart of it as a driver, facilitator, motivator, there’s ICT.

The Report specifically mentions some ICT applications and possibilities, including targeted online courses, recognition of informal learning, flexible time schedules, online networks and collaborative tools (including peer to peer and intergenerational models), virtual learning environments, games and simulations.

So after I’d read the paper once, I went through it again, thinking this time about the technologies that we have available in today’s schools and other learning institutions here in UK, and wondering whether we’re anywhere near being ready to surf this particular zeitgeist.

The quick answer is that the major global and national technology developers and suppliers, of which Microsoft is a prime example, are entirely in tune with the JRC message. The growth of cloud services, ‘anytime, anywhere learning’, personal devices, games-based learning, advanced tools for communication and collaboration all ensure that UK education ought to be well equipped to step up to the plate.

All that’s necessary is the right mindset. And there, as Hamlet said when his own train of thought hit the buffers, is the rub.

Because for a long time, perhaps understandably, all of us, from government to lecture theatre to classroom, have stayed in our comfort zones, working the way we know so well, and regarding ICT as teacher’s little helper. That’s how we were taught to use it after all, when computers first arrived in school.

‘Think of it as just another tool,’ our new IT advisers said, ‘Like a blackboard or the library.’

So that’s what we did, and technology became absorbed into a style of working that had, in all essentials, been around for a century. We believed ourselves to be at the cutting edge through discovering that, for example –

Electronic registration is a lot better than paper registers for tracking attendance and catching truants.

Online pupil data improves on traditional reports.

Whiteboards are an improvement on blackboards.

Management information systems improve, well, er, management information.

Learning platforms are more convenient to handle than textbooks and folders of work.

Games enliven lessons.

Personal devices ease the pressure on the computer suite.

‘Anytime/anywhere’ learning means an overlap between homework and schoolwork.

In other words, we treated ICT as one useful tool of choice in appropriate circumstances, and failing to notice that it had the potential to become the very environment in which we live and work.

Well, maybe that’s unjust, and you will hasten to say I’m describing the Eighties and Nineties, and you’re way ahead. And of course there really are exciting things happening, as Microsoft’s Innovative Teachers’ Network shows us, to say nothing of the schools we showcase here on these blogs. Here, we’ve seen Oldham College rejigging its whole management structure to take advantage of the collaborative possibilities offered by SharePoint and Project Manager, ,universities using Lync 2010 to transform the way they engage with students, and, very recently Cadoxton primary realising that its new MultiPoint Server network implies a rethink of the whole curriculum.

The JRC report, though, sees quite a lot further than that. Its emphasis on ‘lifelong’ and ‘life-wide’ learning actually challenges the very notion of what we mean by words like ‘classroom’, and ‘lesson’, even ‘school’ itself. In fact the Report suggests that currently emerging technologies – including ‘cloud’ – imply

‘a seamless education continuum that is centred on the student not the institution.’

Is any of this even on the radar for other than a far sighted few? Do the schools that embrace cloud technology see it as a good and cost-effective way of receiving an efficient ICT service, or are they looking to a time not so far off when the technology will enable them to become something entirely new and different – ‘flexible, open and adaptive infrastructures , which engage all citizens….’?

And if not, then why not? Is it because, as I suggested at the start, we’re thinking too hard about top-down structures and not hard enough about what learning is, what it’s for, where it’s going?

The great thing about these blogs, mind you, is that if I’m wrong about this, you’ll be pretty quick to let us know.

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