It was an "Emperor has no clothes" moment when ICT 'evangelist' Russell Prue lampooned the intention of education secretary Michael Gove MP to give teachers powers to search their students for mobile phones.
Acting out one likely result, he said the girls could hide their phones "down here" (indicating the chest area) and the boys "down there" (gesturing towards the groin) with an accompanying "Go on sir" taunt. "You go down there and you will be on the front page of the Daily Mail tomorrow," he quipped. It was probably the funniest moment at the Northern Grid conference in Newcastle, but some serious points came with it along with the question: "Is the man deranged?"
In his keynote to the Northern Grid Conference, Russell Prue, focusing on ICT (information and communications technology) and learning, said that it was "disturbing" that Michael Gove wanted teachers to search children for their mobile phones, and that they should go in into them and change or delete whatever they wanted. Prompting more laughter, he said of headteachers: "This is a group of people who can barely move their phones into silent mode at conferences when asked to do so by organisers, and suddenly they're going to be able to go into my phone's operating system and delete content. Is the man deranged? It's a question that we all want the answer to at the moment.
With student phone ownership at nearly 100%, bans are 'remarkably ignorant'
"It is the 21st century after all, and with mobile ownership approaching 100 per cent in our sector and I am not talking about you; I'm talking about the children here. It seems remarkably ignorant of us to continue to ban mobile phones in our schools. How big are we prepared to build our confiscation drawers?"
The idea that mobile phones are such a social problem that they require legislation to search for them and censor their contents has puzzled many organisations including trade unions. However, coming at a time when students' phones are increasingly being seen as potential resources for schools, subject to 'appropriate use' policies (created with learners), this legislation is simply outlandish for those involved with ICT for learning.
The absolute silence of the Coalition Government on ICT for learning, let alone as a powerful tool for savings at a time of major budget cuts, has led to doubts about the ability of the Department for Education to build a vision for learning that can engage learners – and teachers too. Russell Prue celebrated the success of many young people in using social networking for career success – despite no help from their schools – and flagged up the acceptance of social media as a power for corporate and business success.
He gave examples of free texting services where learners, teachers and parents could text a simple word into a school system to receive instantly updated information on subjects like "menu", "clubs" or "sports". Many of the firms that could advise them on these services were present at the Northern Grid conference, he said.
After pointing out that blogging headed a Wall Street Journal list of new jobs in the US ("You have to write well enough to bring 100,00 readers back to your site – your 'first' from Oxford means nothing in this list") he also highlighted young people's success online. Like Jake and Chris, who had millions of hits on their YouTube clips of humorous mimes to pop songs and earned a deal with Nigel Martin-Smith (see video of them on the Lily Allen Show, below).
Commenting on their success, he said: "The interesting thing for educators is that they have been renumerated not on their talent but on the opportunity thay have presented to someone else. Now you can watch Britain's got Talent from an entirely different perspective."
He also highlighted the success of Gateshead teenager Lauren Luke who started uploading make-up tutorials to YouTube as an 11-year-old with no help from her school which banned YouTube. Now the Lauren Luke make-up range can be bought worldwide.
The answer, he said, was for schools to move from playing "What's in the teacher's head?" and children accruing facts for two years before being tested, to pushing creativity and innovation and working in teams: "Watching The Apprentice showed that the ones who failed were the ones who couldn't do that."
The value of social networking was even affecting employment recruitment he said. Online job applications for Nandos, the most popular company to work for according to The Times/Sunday Times, require level 7 ICT for graduate recruitment: "The world has changed and it's not turning back."
Corporates and brands were now making their way on to Facebook as a place they wanted to do business, he said, and this meant that they value the skills of young employees who could help them achieve this. Dealing with the worries about Facebook that exist in many schools, Russell Prue directed teachers to Facebook's own resources for educators at facebook.com/educators and highlighted the work of Juliette Heppell.
'You will never have to tell students how to use Facebook'
He advised them to set up their own, fresh accounts: "Don't use your existing name – have a teaching name in the account somewhere. Disable chat because it can't be recorded. You don't friend and you don't write on their walls. Follow some simple rules and it becomes very, very powerful – and you'll never have to tell the kids how to use it."
It was a bravura mix of rhetorical challenge, stand-up humour and provocative asides like "Why are we teaching anything that's available in Google?". But there was plenty of food for thought too, like research from the OECD that indicates that what is most needed by the most challenging children is "confidence" rather than the increased discipline currently on offer.
And of course there was technology. Russell showed his latest personal device, the Motorola Atrix, (see photos above and left) a powerful Android device that has its own laptop dock, a lightweight notebook that is driven by the phone via its own little dock. These are available for around £200 and Russell suggested that technology like this could be an affordable, sustainable option for schools so that they could exploit learners' own mobile devices.
He celebrated the technology changes that were coming through, including the increasing popularity of internet radio which uses significantly less power than DAB radio, making the choice simple for anyone interested in sustainability or saving money.
Of course radio is a subject near to Russell Prue's heart. An expert in the use of creative use of radio for learning, he now markets his own 'radio station' technology to schools through his company, Anderton Tiger. And small companies like his know only too well the adverse effects on sales due to the Gove team's silence on technology and the diversion of the Harnessing Technology grant money to free schools. Add to that schools' fear of the effects of government cuts and you get the picture for many companies working in the education marketplace.
Expert teachers, Michael Gove's dream, ran the Northern Grid teacher sessions
However, Russell Prue's performance was anything but a whinge, despite the trenchant criticism of Government ICT policy (or the lack of it). And, had Michael Gove been interested, he would have seen some excellent teaching. The Northern Grid for Learning Conference was packed with sessions from leading educators showing the high-quality teaching he purports to support, and which is certainly not the exclusive preserve of public schools as his recent performance at the Sunday Times festival of Learning suggested..
Expert practitioners like Joe Dale, Bev Evans, Steve Bunce, Jan Webb, Dan Roberts, Bill Lord and Steve Wheeler shared a wide range of the very best practice with local teachers who, in turn, shared their own discoveries. It all went to show that, despite any issues with Government ICT policy for learning, the genie is out of the bottle and will not be returning any time soon.
Russell Prue provided the conclusion: "Shift has already happened and it's not turning back. Nature is finding a way for us. It's a Jurassic Park moment. He's cut off the funding, he's trying to srtrangle us but actually there are little seeds that we planted a little while ago and they are just working their way through. And the refreshing thing for me is that there is nothng he can do about that."