Karen CatorKaren CatorBob Harrison finds assessment stirring feelings at the ALT-C conference
“Thriving in a colder and more challenging climate” could have been the title of a letter from Sugata Mitra, last year’s Association for Learning Technology (ALT) conference keynote speaker, following his move to Newcastle University from his home in India.

However, it was the title of this year’s gathering of more than 500 further and higher education learning technologists for the ALT-C 2011 event at Leeds University. And the challenging climate is economic rather than the approaching winter.

Sugata was co-chair with academic John Cook this year and the climate certainly heated up during the video presentation from US director of the Office of Educational Technology at the US Department of Education, Karen Cator, when the “elephant in the room” was spotlighted in a question about a recent New York Times article which questions whether the considerable investment in technology has had any effect on educational outcomes.

“Asking whether technology works is a crazy question” replied a clearly irked Karen Cator, former teacher-come-Apple executive who is now in charge of the US National Technology Education plan, "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology" .

“There is so much happening outside education which we need to take into account,” she pointed out. And technology is a “force multiplier” and is not intended to replace teachers but intended to “power them up”, she added.

The US plan is not a million miles from the UK Harnessing Technology strategy promptly dumped, along with government ICT agency Becta, by the incoming Coalition Government in 2010. With a clear focus on learning, teaching, assessment, infrastructure and productivity, Karen Cator believes it will help the 53 individual US states create “an ecosystem for learning technologies research, development and implementation” and that schools will become a “node on a network of learning”.

“Nodes on the network of learning” might not be exactly what education secretary Michael Gove MP and schools minister Nick Gibb MP have in mind with their educational reforms which rely on supply-side reform and the quality of teaching delivering the holy grail of better test scores and a fast rise up the PISA tables.

International examples included Uruguay providing 450,000 laptops for children

International examples of investment in technology highlighted at ALT-C 2011, such as the 450,000 laptops for the children of Uruguay explained by Miguel Brechner in his “Plan Ceibal”, and the recent decision by the South Koreans to phase out textbooks and replace them with e-books, also seem to be a little at odds with Nick Gibb, the schools ministers who seems to have a distinct preference for chalk-boards in the videos accompanying his many announcements on the Department for Education (DfE) website.

Ms Cator was frustrated by the circular argument surrounding ICT and testing – that current assessments are made on the basis of qualifications designed before the introduction of technology. That ways of evaluating the so-called “21st century skills” are entirely absent.

“Standardised tests are not an appropriate measure of how technology improves learning” she said. “The current tests we have are completely inadequate for understanding the complexity of learning with technology…we need better tests.”

“We know that test scores remain flat but what if we had not intervened with technology? When I am asked the question “does technology improve learning… the only answer is, ‘It depends.’”

Karen Cator had been unable to travel to Leeds from Washington because the White House was about to announce a “Digital Promise”   for the nation and will soon launch a new “National Centre for research in the Advanced Information and Digital Technologies” which is intended to “make schools smarter consumers and create more intelligent demand”. She was passionate about the standardised tests issue

“We are building a new way of thinking about evaluation and evidence of impact which needs to be about competency based practice and not set time badge earning”

While there will be some agreement with Ms Cator from messrs Gove, Gibb et al about “powering up the teaching profession” it is difficult to see them being too keen on the rest of the rhetoric from across the pond.

While Government policy is unlikely to change in the short term, at least ALT's members will keep warm, huddling together at their meetings while they try and come to terms with the underlying causes of climate change.

More information

All of the presentations,papers,keynotes at ALT-C 2011 will be made available soon on the ALT website

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services and Toshiba UK. He runs Support for Education and Training.

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