Ollie Bray: Innovator

Twitchy about Twitter? Scared of social networking? Check out Learning 2.0 with Ollie Bray

“It’s funny how these things work out,” says Ollie Bray, depute headteacher, Scotland’s national adviser for learning and technology futures, youth expedition leader, kayaker and mountain bike rider. If there was a ‘Most Influential UK Educator’ award he would be on the shortlist.

As happy using Google Earth mashups to teach geography as exploring the depths of Alaska with students or cycling across the United States, he left England for Scotland to improve his outdoor education qualifications. Twelve years on his peers hail him as a visionary for his pioneering work using internet Web 2.0 and gaming technology to enhance teaching and learning.

In a relatively short time he has made his presence felt in Scotland and much further afield. The new Scottish government internet safety and responsible use action plan, available online for teachers and parents, show his influence. While working with East Lothian parents and Lothian and Borders Police, it became clear to him that what learners needed was an enabling rather than a restrictive culture.

“If you look around the UK you’ll see that in places the accent on esafety is about locking things down,” he points out. “But ours is also about responsible use. It’s my belief that we can’t teach young people about esafety – and possibly lock down technology to the point where they don’t want to use it – unless we first show them how to use the internet responsibly.”

'Maps of countries coupled with graphics and animations can bring data to life'

A geographer at heart, Ollie Bray has opened up new practice with his work on emerging tools like Google Maps  and Google Earth. Powerful new uses include the “mashups” where maps can be combined with local data to show regional characteristics and variations. “Look at the BBC statistical presentations,” he says. “You no longer see as many charts and graphs. Now it is maps of countries coupled with graphics and animations that can bring the data to life. That’s what we should be using with our young people.”

Then there’s “educaching” – high-tech treasure hunts for education using GPS (Global Positioning Systems). Handhelds are used by learners to uncover concealed information and objects. An expert in outdoor learning, Ollie welcomes the opportunity to exploit ICT, often seen as an indoor pursuit, to re-energise outdoor activities.
“In much the same way as we have traditionally done treasure hunts, we are doing education versions,” he explains. “We create trails for kids using GPS, and they all have built-in learning outcomes and use appropriate media including sound, image, video and reading and writing.”

Moving to Scotland opened up learning and teaching for Ollie: “I used to work in outdoor education centres down south and I originally came to Scotland when I thought the way to become more qualified in outdoor education would be to become a teacher,“ he says. “I was only going to stay for a couple of years.”

Fluent with both pedagogy and emerging technologies, he regularly used commercially available games to find new and innovative ways to engage the children he taught at Musselburgh Grammar School before being seconded to his current role at Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), the government body responsible for the Scottish curriculum and innovation. Unsurprisingly he is a much sought-after and popular presenter at education conferences.

But none of this acclaim has gone to his head. He talks of being “genuinely overwhelmed” when his “Thinking out of the xBox” project won second place in Microsoft’s prestigious 5th Annual Worldwide Innovative Education Forum Awards, held in Brazil last November. "My project on using computer games to improve the learning and social interaction of children as they move between primary and secondary school was very well received and many of the people at the forum seemed keen to replicate the project in their own countries.

'It has never been a more exciting time in education'

“It has never been a more exciting time in education. And it’s never been a more frightening time as well in terms of what we do and some of the decisions that are being made. But it’s a tremendous time. There are so many opportunities out there and so many tools that are available.”

Ollie Bray has no formal IT qualification and is completely self-taught. He gives thanks to the support he got from Staffordshire Learning Net online community forums, which he joined earlier on in his career and is consequently a champion of online forums and believes teachers should use blogs and their Twitter learning networks to bring educator colleagues into their classrooms.

Ollie Bray presenting at Games Based Learning 2010 in London

There’s no doubt that the open, supportive learning culture in his current school, Musselburgh Grammar, and East Lothian authority, helped his own practice (and that of well-known colleagues like Derek Robertson and Ewan McIntosh) to blossom, and helped him become an important agent for change in continuing professional development (CPD).

“We took control of getting kids to publish on to the web, but in very early blogging software; getting kids to broadcast, introduce themselves and make these radio weather forecasts; putting audio and video revision content out there that wasn't quality controlled. We took early risks, but people were happy and left us to do it because I think it’s up to the professional to look at it and evaluate whether the content is good or not. That’s part of their job and their responsibility.”

His mission at the moment, he says, is to get more teachers using the appropriate tools available, and to explain how they can use them for classroom practice: “Things like Twitter. Not only is that good for sharing ideas but if you've got a reasonable following, which might only be 30 critical friends that you know and trust, why don't you set up a class Twitter account and use it to gather real data?”

'Teachers should be creative with their ICT strategy'

Ollie gives the example of what he describes as an “off the cuff lesson” he did just before leaving Musselburgh. “It was snowing and the kids were fascinated – we don't get a lot of snow in Musselburgh because it is by the sea – and of course they all thought they were going to get sent home. I put out on Twitter: ‘Where do you live and what's the weather like?’ I am lucky because I've got a lot of people following me and within 10 minutes (people want to help – and they are all teachers) I had 25-30 responses from different postcodes saying what the weather is like.

“The kids were fascinated that all these people in different parts of the country were interested. So I said, ‘Right, let’s get this on the map.’ The student with my iPhone is reading stuff out to the kids on the computer, who are putting it on to a Google map by typing in the post code (we had asked people for their postcode). And we've put the Tweets into speech bubbles so that you click on the map and the Tweets come up all over it – one in the United States, one in Ireland and all over the whole of the UK.

“So we say right ‘Let’s find out why it’s snowing in some of these places and not others. Let’s import that into Google Earth.’ We take that map, click on the import button into Google Earth, overlay the satellite imagery so you can see the cloud cove. ‘Lets click on that one.’ ‘Why do you think it’s snowing so heavily there in Sheffield?’ ‘It’s because of high cloud cover, it’s dense you can't see through it.’ ‘Why isn't it snowing in South Ayrshire?...”

He believes teachers should be creative with their ICT strategy. More important it should be combined with built-in CPD, but not just for the enthusiasts otherwise they could end up with a situation where only the pupils with the really enthusiastic teachers comfortable with the technology will benefit.

“What we are talking about is getting away from the usual kind of ‘sheep-dip’ CPD,” he says, following it up with an example from his time at Musselburgh Grammar School to illustrate his point. “You work together for around an hour and a half to make something that could be useful in your lesson.

“In the animation workshops teachers were actually making the resource that they could show to kids as well as working out how to do it themselves. We spent a huge amount of time really thinking about how it was going to work and how it was going to be successful for the kids so people didn't feel that they had gone to CPD and got nothing out of it at all.”
It takes teacher confidence and expertise to stride through current paranoia about the role of social networking in schools, and Ollie Bray recognises that bringing your Twitter and other social networking friends into your classroom is potentially unpredictable. But when he is asked “What happens if somebody send something through that’s inappropriate?” his answer is simple and direct: “You deal with it.”

“You deal with it in exactly the same way as if you find a child on an inappropriate website. You deal with it and that then becomes part of the learning.”


Conditions for innovation

  • You can only be innovative if you are willing to learn yourself – and listen to others.
  • The thing I am big on is that children have got to be around, be involved. they are a tremendously important source and motor. That’s why I used to love lunch duty at school – kids will tell you what’s going on and give you material.
  • You can’t innovate alone – it would not be innovation because there is no one to recognise it, and contribute to further change.
  • You have to create space to think.
  • And create space to fail, with the time to admit or fix your mistakes. It’s fine to fail as long as you fail fast – most successful people failed fast, realised they had failed, learned and moved on.
  • You need support – the important thing is that it doesn’t always have to be top-down. It should also come from your peers and bottom up.
  • Support is also a numbers game – if you have it from your boss it’s one person. but from your peers it’s a whole community
  • Be willing to take risks, controlled risks. I also work in the outdoors and I am a risk taker in everything I do. However, just because I’m a pretty good climber it doesn’t mean I am not scared of falling
  • Keep it simple – if we display too much complication we’ll fail

Sources of inspiration

More information

Ollie Bray
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Learning and Teaching Scotland
Scottish Learning Festival