Future Shock: Part 2 – Education

Part two of a blog on last week’s NESTA  event, Future Shock.

A New Movement in Education

Panelists for this session included Oliver Quinlan, the programme manager for Digital Education at the innovation Lab at NESTA, Simon Collins, the Deputy Principle at The Brit School, and Debbie Forster, the Managing Director of DDI Apps for Good.

So again, to lay out my stall, my view has been coloured as follows:

  • I have two teenage boys who are incredibly bright, yet whose primary education didn’t help them achieve their full education potential
  • My (unfinished) PhD was around education and identity (a little more obscure and refined than that, but PhDs are!)
  • I believe that education is not schooling or indoctrination – or curriculum, although these things are part of education.
  • I believe that we have forgotten, as a society, to ask what education is for, and that we swallow that education is always a good thing.
  • Schooling should be free at the point of delivery, there is no such thing as a stupid child, and no-one should leave full time formal education without basic maths, reasoning and literacy skills, able to engage with society and with government/authority (ie access to power)
  • Our UK curriculum is completely and utterly misguided, and people mistake the trappings of private education as the things that make it successful rather than examining the real difference: contacts , environment and opportunity
  • Teachers need more room to inspire, and the profession should be valued more highly
  • Your closest school should be the best one for you because they should all be brilliant
  • I’m a huge fan of Freire’s work on conscientization and the principles of educational relevance as key to engagement and learning

So that’s my own, admittedly fairly radical, stall laid so that you can see the eyes through which I viewed this session.

NESTA’s recommendations are an end to barriers to interdisciplinary teaching, to encourage more new entries to higher education, combining academic learning with practical, work-based experience, helping schools buy the best digital technologies to allow parents and teachers to judge the effectiveness of technology products; putting digital onto the curriculum by adding a set of overarching cross curricular skills.

Collins of the Brit School, a city tech focussing on performing arts and technology, from where numerous artistic stars, including Adele, have emerged, is everything an educator should be – passionate about his subjects, knows what he wants to achieve, happy to work within the system but getting the system (notably OFSTED) to work with, and understand, the Brit School’s goals. The school is looking at creating rounded individuals and I adore the three goals they aim for with their pupils: original, responsible and ambitious.

But he acknowledges that it has taken time to become what they’ve become, and 25 years ago, the school wasn’t doing its best work. It’s learned along the way.

He is calling for policy that allows us to teach to meet the needs of students in our care. Because students are very different, policies currently conflict with this desire because of the judgements and measurements in place. The school, for example, welcomes student progress measures, rather than measurement on what structures are in place. I am with him on this page. If selective schools that take the academic cream can’t get a suite of A*s for their students, they are failing!

He also noted the high science bias on the curriculum, and that choices are being narrowed; that it can take 3-5 years for changes to really have full effect in education; and that the success of the school has allowed them the privilege of being able to take risks and having industry behind them.

Forster’s Apps for Good runs competitions that allow the winning team of pupils access to business mentoring to bring that app to ‘market’.  Tis offers student driven learning, coding and technology experience in a real World context.

A couple of interesting points, for me at least, were:

  • STEM should become STEAM (the A being Arts) and should probably even be STEAMED – E for Entrepreneur and D for Design.
  • Educational policy needs to remove barriers to good teaching
  • She’d like to see a kite mark for digital technology
  • We should stop thinking about qualifications as a measurement
  • Children need work based experiences

So, here’s the worry that I have with all of this. There is no shame, whatsoever, in working for someone else. It can be rewarding working with other people. We cannot all be entrepreneurs. The best businesses grow from those with experience. This has nothing to do with age. Zuckerberg may have been young when he designed Facebook, but he had years of experience of coding and saw and fulfilled a need. Forster mentioned an app for recording the movement of bulls which had won Apps for Good support. The ‘inventor’ may only have been 10 or 11 years old, but he had 10 years experience of life on a farm.

Many people don’t start having the experiences that shape their lives until they start work and gain independence from their families. Will we condemn these people as failures because they haven’t started a business before they reach University leaving age? Has anyone thought of the consequences of business failure – something in the order of 80% of small businesses fail. Many more barely scrape a living. A tiny percentage become massive enterprises.

I think it’s time we sat up and smelt the roses and asked what we are educating our children for. The premise of this session was that it’s to prepare for work. Others would claim it’s to be good consumers.

One way and another, some of the problems of education are summarised by a three person panel in a room in London.  There are as many views of the purpose/meaning of education as there are people. There were constant references across the day to the fact that more of our jobs will come from creative fields in future.  Yet arts and creativity are being devalued in every discussion about curriculum that I’ve heard of late. My own experience of the current school system is that language learning, music teaching, art are all second rate citizens as part of primary school ‘basics’. Yet these are enjoyable wealth creators, confidence inspirers and valuable life skills.

There is a huge disconnect between what we need and what we have, and yet our expensive, wasteful juggernaut of an (albeit underfunded)  education system continues on Victorian principles, run by people who put a lot down to their privileged education, when it’s probably little to do with the teaching and everything to do with the opportunities that has engendered their success.

I came away with more questions than answers, but glad that there are people passionate enough to swim against the tide and work within our system to make great things happen. I just wished it was a little more radical and questioning!

Future Shock: part one – health

I have been gently nagged to write up a blog about last week’s NESTA  event, Future Shock.

"Future Shock, next exit"The event promised to look at the important issues for the next election, but which aren’t on the agenda as yet. There were six streams, billed as workshops, and it was possible to attend two – I chose Health: Digital Technology and Patient Power as it’s directly related to a project I’m working on, and A New Movement in Education because it’s a passion. I mention this explicitly because my experience of the event may well have been very different from others who attended.

Part One: Health: Digital Technology and Patient Power

This session opened with a talk about how little technology is used in healthcare, by Dr Kevin Fong, founder and Associate Director of the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine, a consultant anaesthetist at University College, London –  very clearly a man with an enormous brain, and degrees in medicine, astrophysics and engineering to prove it. And I had to accept this as the speaker comes from within the system. But this is at odds with my own experience – last year a close friend, who is living with ‘terminal’ cancer, had a burst appendix. The amount of monitoring technology that was attached to her, the amount of information about what was happening, that the one to one (yes, one to one) nursing staff received whilst she was  in critical care was phenomenal.

I have a strong belief that the NHS should be free at the point of delivery, that it should not be privatised, that there should be stronger links between  clinical/medical and social care, and that we cannot afford to save everyone. Despite the clampdowns in the wake of Shipman, we should sometimes accept that dying in a dignified and pain free manner should be an acceptable outcome when medicine reaches its bounds, or when the amount of money being spent to keep one person alive for two days longer could help cure thirty. But I’m equally conscious that it’s easy for me to say – it’s not me with just a day to live. I just can’t help feeling that our expectations are too high, and unless we adjust them, we may lose what we have.


The panel

Similarly I did some PR work with Action Medical Research, a charity that successfully funds carefully managed clinical research, for which I have great admiration. And the consequences of not having joined up digital records were all too apparent to me when I was pregnant –  both my maiden name and married name are common names, and I regularly sat in front of consultants with the wrong notes. I would happily forgo some data protection to save the life of an unborn child.

These attitudes and beliefs will doubtless colour my view of healthcare and of this session.

Giving talks were John Loder of NESTA’s Innovation Labs; Jenny Barnett, Director of Healthcare Innovation at Cambridge Cognition, and a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry; Bruce Hellman, CEO of uMotif Digital Health; and Barnaby Poulton , regional director for Proteus Digital Health; Mark Bartlett, cofounder of Geneix and a postgrad in Pharmacogenetics; and Diarmaid Crean, Deputy Director, Digital, Public Health England.

That’s a lot of brain and innovation  in a single panel.

Let’s start with NESTA’s healthcare recommendations, and what was, ostensibly, the basis for this conversation. Hugely summarised these are:

  • Peer support networking for patients, funded wit £40m over the next three years
  • More power over the storage of patient data
  • A digital health research programme to help deliver systemic change
  • A review of novel kinds of data collection for health research by the National Information Board.

My first observation was that all speakers had something to sell. Even Diarmaid Crean  in his Digital role at Public Health England is trying to sell ‘digital’ to people internally.  Much of the talk was about the future of companies and how they get into the NHS rather than any kind of altruism, although for the main part there are benefits to the NHS. This balance of self interest and medical need is fraught with tensions.

Despite this, there were some incredible signs of things that could make a massive difference to book balancing within the NHS:

  • Self directed management of conditions and medicines could make a massive saving and help treatment become more effective through the use of data and personalised feedback (“You haven’t been taking your medicines on time”)
  • Information from the field of genetics simply isn’t working its way back into the NHS (Pharmacogenology is fascinating, incidentally!) With a potential estimated saving of £26 billion per annum, this is madness
  • Data is problematic and needs sorting to reach thenpoint of care.

Perhaps because it’s the closest to my own field, the talk I most agreed with, and disagreed with, was Crean’s. Firstly, he suggested that there is a serious lack of digital skills within the NHS. I really take issue with this – people are constantly monitoring, reading etc, I don’t know any nurses or carers without at least mobile phones and there’s some serious digital usage happening within the system.  So whilst there is plenty of evidence suggesting that technology is not adopted to its fullest potential in healthcare settings, and  some forms of digital are perhaps missing from the mix, trying to force digital per se, rather than solve problems using digital, seems a little, if you’ll excuse the expression, arse about face. (Of course, I may just have the wrong impression from this talk, and if so, apologise to Crean, whose talk was otherwise fascinating.)

Secondly, he suggested that ‘change’ should be a value embedded within the NHS. Whilst I believe that a constant striving for better and for innovation (for the same reason – improvement) are essential, I don’t believe that constant change is always a good thing (and those who know me will just have dropped their chins onto their chests for that statement!)

Patients need to know how things work – hospitals, doctors surgeries even, can be alienating environments, and you’re not there, let’s face it, to have fun. There is always some kind of stress associated with attending. The last thing that already ill and/or worried people need is constant change, a lack of predictability. Secondly things happen slowly for a reason – tried and tested in medical fields is important. And last, but not least, digital is not always best. Sometimes something slower and more personal is more appropriate.

Overall I was left with the feeling that less evangelising about digital, and more investigation of how using it can solve current problems would allow a measured adoption of digital at a pace individuals can manage, leaving the way for bigger, bolder innovation, later, with confidence.

Although a little digital evangelism is usually never a bad thing!

Overall, however, I was left with the slightly dirty feeling that the adoption of technology is currently more about money, about people getting rich on the back of the NHS and having a competitive level playing field than about altruism. It would be great if some of the brilliant brains on the stage were inside the NHS making change rather than on the periphery making money.

Ada Lovelace Day: Hedy Lamar

Hedy Lamar 1942

Hedy Lamar 1942

You could be forgiven for believing that as a woman you have to choose one of two paths: pretty little fool (keep your head down, pretty up and bag yourself a husband) or throw away the make up and artifice and get on your inner geek.

Programs like the Big Bang Theory are great fun, and I’m a massive fan, but there is little on television to balance out that women don’t need to be like Amy Farrah Fowler to be mega clever geeks. This is a hard piece to write because, of course, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with being like Amy. The trouble is that not all clever girl geeks are like Amy, any more than you have to look like fellow character  Penny to be a waitress/actress. The show cleverly plays on stereotypes for its humour, but where are the real ‘Amy’s in our media representations?

Things ARE getting better. Maggie Philbin and Carol Vorderman have been admirable poster children for female scientists/mathematicians, yet pop culture continues only nominally to portray women as successful leaders, let alone as leading in technology and science. As technology and science are getting more airtime as they become more ‘consumery’, surely the time has come for this to change?

So for this year’s Ada Lovelace Day, I’m choosing Hedy Lamar as my unsung hero. Unsung? Many have written before about her achievements, but people write about her achievements as an actress – a very beautiful one at that –  or as a technologist: Hedy’s thoughts underpinned secure communications (and weapons) technology for the military and now ubiquitous mobile communications . In 1942, during the War, along with composer George Antheil, she patented the “Secret Communication System” –  changing radio frequencies simultaneously to prevent the enemy detecting messages. The idea was ahead of its time – the technology wasn’t yet ready,but once transistors arrived, and were small enough, it underinned ‘mobile’ as we know it.

Read more »

Digital Growth Day

Digital Growth

The end of last week saw the London Digital Growth Day, a  day of great talks and presentations at London’s TechHub, followed by the humming Digital Summer Party.

The two talks that I  found most  interesting were ‘Disruptive Content’, by Microsoft (was Nokia) with some insights from the social media team, and a talk by Sam Noble of Koozai on the thin line between personal and social presences. Sam’s talk was a great discussion based on their approach to the ownership of social media presences, and one I’m contemplating building out to a blog for State of Social. Watch this space!

(Incidentally, my last post there was on Social Media Guidelines.)

A couple of interesting points (worth sharing) made included: Read more »

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