Sunday, 10 July 2011

iTEC, Widgets and Ideal Worlds

I'm currently writing the documentation for our first 'deliverable' in the EU-funded iTEC (http://itec.eun.org) project. Our contribution in Bolton to this large project is to leverage the Wookie Widget server (http://getwookie.org) into pedagogical practice in schools. In being so pedagogically-focused, iTEC stands out from all the other Wookie-inspired developments (like those funded through the JISC DVLE programme). iTEC identifies that what looks like a very technological issue around interoperability has profound implications on the organisation of education, and particularly the organisation of teaching.

I've commented before on the fact that the ready-to-handness of tools means new ways of conceiving of the organisation of education (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2011/04/towards-scenario-driven-education.html). But more deeply than this I think iTEC is an indication of where the TEL (Technologically-Enhanced Learning) endeavour is moving.

In a way, TEL as we've come to understand it, seems dead. It's no longer the domain of a few enthusiastic user groups within institutions. TEL is everywhere, and ubiquity usually indicates imminent death. Our schools, universities and colleges are technologied-up to the eye-balls. Typically, the complaint of the TEL community is now "Ah.. but you're not using it properly!" where 'properly' means "in the way we'd envisaged as a means to transforming the education system". But 10 years ago, most people in TEL would have settled for 'improper use' as a mark of success!

So TEL has changed from the "campaign to use technology in education" to "the campaign to use technology properly in education". But it doesn't know what 'properly' is.

That's where I think iTEC is important.

iTEC combines and connects a number of interventions at different levels in the education system. First, a process of scenario-creation is taking place involving 'pedagogy experts' (that may sound slightly worrying, but it's worth trying...) Then the tooling requirements of scenarios are to be constructed and made available in a form which can be instantiated across many different learning environments. The means by which this is achieved is through the 'interoperability intervention' of Wookie Widgets.

Like a good wedding, there's something a bit 'old hat' about this, and something tantalisingly innovative. The 'old hat' bit is saying to teachers "we've got this wonderful new technology that's going to change your lives"... for which teachers will probably hear "we've got a project and we want you to use this stuff which we've made in addition to the 1001 other things that you're already having to worry about!". We've been there before, so it won't be much of a surprise to see what happens.

But what is 'tantalisingly innovative' is that iTEC is genuinely wanting to get a grip on 'real practice'. What do teachers really do? What tools do they really use? What are the real particular problems they face as they try and do it? If you can provide solutions to those particular problems, what new things might teachers then want to do?

It is this focus on the 'particulars of practice' which I think ultimately will be the real innovation in the project. And I think it's where TEL is going too. For 10 years or more, technologists have idealised teaching practice, prescribing roles for teachers and learners hard-coded in technologies which in reality, people have struggled to engage with. Technologies like Wookie provide interoperability solutions at a micro level which can help learning technologists engage with the real particulars of practice in a way where tiny interoperability solutions that are non-invasive on the practice of teachers can have a transformative effect.

The technical standards that sit behind these initiatives are the key foci of the technical innovation; not the creation of new systems for 'learning' (as in learning design), or 'curriculum design', or 'learner analytics'. These are all behemoths which are founded on idealisations of practice, and which ultimately will meet the needs of few real people (apart from those who thought of them!).

iTEC seems to me to be at the pivot point between a focus on "technical interoperability, human organsation and real practice" and the old-style focus on "large systems based on idealisations about the educational world".

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