Tony Parkin checks out emerging trends and ICT policy at the Naace Conference
Each year Naace's conference for its teacher, ICT consultant and industry members highlights current trends in learning with technology. This year 'computational studies' (CS) was a highlight flavour, and unsurprisingly it was joined by 'cloud computing' and its friend, cost savings, as the disappearance of capital funding and government technology initiatives brings an increasing focus on financial sustainability and affordability.
But it wasn't all about scrimping and saving: there was an eclectic range of keynote presentations, including the latest on the incredibly expensive – and inspiring – Bloodhound SSC world land speed record project.
Probably the standout session for capturing the zeitgeist came from the always impressive Steve Moss, of Partnership for Schools, with his account of the 'server-less school'. Tapping the twin unofficial themes of cloud computing and cost-savings, Steve described an innovative pilot for ICT provision at a former independent school, St Ursulas', which was being transformed by E-ACT into a primary academy.
With a cut in the devolved capital budget to schools of 77 per cent over previous years, and pressure from ministers to bear down on costs, all schools are facing ICT sustainability challenges. This radical cloud-based solution excited many in the Naace audience (see "Welcome to Google's first UK 'server-free school"). The school uses Google Chromebooks – instant-on, browser-based, discless laptops that require little or no support – for all curriculum and management activities. The support duties of the network manager take one hour a week!
The key session on the computer studies theme was undoubtedly Vanessa Pittard's for the Department for Education (DfE). Vanessa Pittard always has her 'safe in my hands' status going for her with this audience, which has known her since her days as Becta's director of evidence and evaluation. This year the conference was clearly in the mood to show respect and gratitude for her efforts, rather than use the opportunity to attack the department for what many consider its abysmal performance to date in the area of learning technologies.
As one of the audience remarked afterwards, “There is no point in us attacking the one person who is in the department, making a difference.” Much of Vanessa Pittard's keynote was a careful exposition clarifying and unpicking what Michael Gove has said previously at the BETT Show in January.
She made it clear that the DfE still recognises three separate curriculum strands associated with ICT: digital literacy, embedded ICT and specialist ICT or what is becoming known as 'computational studies' (CS). She was equally clear that all three were of great importance, and that ICT will continue to be statutory even after the intended relaxation of the Programmes of Study in September. She appeared relaxed about the heavy media and political attention being given to CS, and observed drily that it was no bad thing having so long been an area of neglect.
Inside, the Leicester Marriott feels more like a Silicon Valley hotel than one located on a trading estate near the M1 in the Midlands, though the Leicester staff come without the black roll-necks and Bluetooth headsets of their Californian counterparts. The large central atrium, resembling one of those BSF school redesigns where they roof over the space between two wings, was an ideal location for the Naace exhibition, which ran over both the Friday and Saturday for the first time this year. And in another break from tradition Saturday included a parallel teachers' strand catering for practitioners and others who had been unable to attend the whole event.
NAAC profile changing – smaller local authority presence
The changing employment climate in educational technology also meant a shifting profile amongst those attending. Bob Harrison observed that the changing face of Naace was underlined by the largest group being drawn from the commercial industry sector, at 40 percent, closely followed by staff from schools at 31 per cent. Local authority representation, formerly a bedrock, was down to 13 per cent, though this still outnumbered the independent consultants at 8 per cent. Higher education Institutions made up 6 per cent, while the purge of the quangos has meant that government agencies, another traditional mainstay, were down to 2 per cent of the Naace attendees.
The conference had opened with an excellent focus on school and the locality, as Karine George and the pupils of Westfield Junior School reminded us what we were all about, while Josie Fraser, ICT adviser at Leicester City Council described what ICT looked like from the local perspective. Then the eclectic mix of opening keynotes with a philosopher, a neurobiologist and a saviour of Bletchley Park worked superbly to get horizons broadened to set the conference off to an excellent start.
Friday sessions started with the policy keynotes, the DfE followed by David Brown from Ofsted. Vanessa Pittard focused on the Concordia metadata studies that showed that the use of technologies was creating an average 12 per cent improvement, and discussed the challenge of working out where effective application of technology was having the greatest impact.
David Brown focused on the recent report into ICT published by Ofsted. No real surprises from either keynote, then, though if you closed your eyes occasionally David Brown bore a striking resemblance to John Prescott, though rather more intelligible. His PowerPoints had the hallmarks of being designed to appeal to political masters rather than to communicate effectively to a large conference audience. Even the young at the back were tweeting about their illegibility. One wonders whether the massive cutbacks in the Central Office of Information means a fall in presentation and communication standards? But to be frank there was little new content to worry about missing – the focus was more on steadying the ship that stirring up the revolution.
At 10.30 the conference split, with one stream spending the remainder of the day focusing on a rich curriculum for ICT, working on defining answers to a series of key questions around the three areas of ICT Vanessa had laid out. Only time will tell whether this has the desired effect of mobilising and enabling community engagement in the issue. Meanwhile the second stream had the usual wide range of practitioner, agency and commercial breakout sessions before reassembling for the plenary from Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth), and the Naace Impact Awards Dinner (see "What about the learning? Try the Naace ICT Awards").
Saturday featured twin strands of practitioner breakouts and parallel keynotes in the main conference auditorium. After some more uplifting awards to schools, this time competition winners and ICT Mark successes, Professor Mick Waters, former director of the QCA got into his stride.
Bloodhound SSC – 'a brilliant story and some amazing video footage'
Seasoned conference goers always perk up when they see the word 'former' in a keynote speaker's profile. They hope for some revealing, humorous and even indiscreet remarks from someone no longer gagged by pressures of office. Mick Waters did not disappoint, and his dry humour and perceptive comments both entertained and gave serious food for thought. Mind you, Mick was always like that when in post, so it couldn't just be put down to any new freedoms.
@deputymitchell) represented practitioners brilliantly, as you would expect of the seasoned professional he has become. Dave spoke of his blogging projects, quadblogging and FEB29th.net, with all his trademark passion and enthusiasm, tempered with humour and self-deprecation, that make him such a superb ambassador for learning with technology.A tough act to follow, but Stephen Breslin of Futurelab did it admirably well, and then Learning Without Frontiers innovation award winner David Mitchell (
Who could follow that, you might have thought, but after the break Richard Noble took to the platform with a large scale model of Bloodhound SSC, a brilliant story and some amazing video footage that had everyone excited, not just the petrolheads like @deputymitchell! My favourite moment? When he casually remarked that they had the latest Formula 1 Cosworth racing engine in the design – to drive the fuel pump! Some story, some vehicle. And as it is showcased in schools it is having a huge impact on the uptake and interest in engineering among school pupils, and, even more impressively, of both boys and girls.
As a panel session brought the main session to a close, while practitioner and commercial sessions continued in the many breakout rooms, it was clear to all that this had been a special and highly successful conference. Not quite over, as after the formal closure there was a 'TeachMeet Naace12', captured on video by Leon Cych. Throughout the conference Lewis Phillips and the excellent team of RadioWaves student reporters gathered opinions in a series of delegate interviews. The ubiquitous Leon Cych was also roaming the corridors and collaring people to capture their impressions, and innumerable bloggers were posting both during and after the event. So if you weren't there, you can still easily get a feel for just how successful this year's event has been. I doubt you will hear anything to the contrary wherever you look.
Radiowaves Student reporters coverage: https://www.radiowaves.co.uk/naace
Naace12's Flickr Photos : http://www.flickr.com/photos/naacephoto/
Leon Cych (@Eyebeams) Audioboo interviews : http://audioboo.fm/tag/Naace12?page=2
Leon's Teachmeet Naace12 videos : http://vimeo.com/channels/naace12