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December 18, 2005

Schools as gated communities?

Having proclaimed the vital importance of education to the nation's future, the British government is putting its money where its mouth is. It aims to rebuild or renew every secondary school in England over a 10-15 year period in a seventy billion pound programme called Building Schools for the Future (BSF). It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the latest thinking on education into practice on a massive scale.

A lot of attention is being paid to the criteria which will determine how all these schools will be designed. On paper, head teachers and communities, and the architects and designers they work with, have some leeway to do things their own way. But their design space will be heavily circumscribed by public procurement procedures which determine how all this public money may be spent.

Traditional procurement policies would force local authorities to go with the lowest cost proposals for slightly better versions of the types of school that already exist. But there are positive signs that a broader definition of value for money, rather than just cost, will inform the BSF process. One powerful government agency, the Audit Commission, has stated that outputs such as the impact of new school projects on the local economy are as important as inputs, such as the money spent on them. And members of parliament, who are taking an active interest in the development of BSF procurement criteria, have involved expert organisations such as the Design Council to monitor and evaluate the first schools to be built.

A more worrying trend is the way technology and communication networks are procured as part of BSF.

Local education authorities are being encouraged to create a system-wide response, rather than one based on individual institutions. The idea is that by aggregating its resources, an authority may offer learners in its region a wider variety of courses and approaches than if every school determined its own offer.

The danger is that integrating groups of institutions into a single system will have the opposite effect - reduced flexibility and diversity – because of the way technology and communication networks are procured.

An initial two billion pounds has been allocated to information and communication technology (ICT) in BSF. Microsoft, for one, is making a big push to position itself as a preferred supplier. Based on the innocuous-sounding proposition that “ICT should be available to a schools as an industrial strength utility”, Microsoft has persuaded Kent Council Council to make its Learning Gateway platform a key part of its ICT infrastructure for multi-school systems.

”The best way to achieve industrial strength reliability is for the local education partnership to procure a full managed service from an expert partner” says the company. It’s best that a single supplier “will design, suppply, install and support a comprehensive ICT infrastructure and platform for learning”.

For me, Microsoft's offer is incompatible with an educational vision, repeated in dozens of policy pronouncements, in which “the unit of organisation is the learner - not the system”.

Microsoft's technology-based product, Learning Gateway, contains proprietory software products used within a closed system. It turns schools into the ICT equivalent of gated communities.

Forty years ago, Ivan Illich proposed that we should use existing technologies and spaces - the telephone, local radio, town hall meetings - to create learning webs through which learners would connect with their peers and with new contexts in which to learn.

“We can provide the learner with new links to the world,” said Illich, “instead of continuing to funnel all education through the teacher.”

Three decades later Tom Bentley of Demos made a similar point in Learning Beyond the Classroom: “We should think of learning as an ecology of people and groups, projects, tools, and infrastructures. We need to reconceptualize education as an open, living system whose intelligence is distributed and shared among all its participants”.

An open, living system. Not a closed, proprietory one of the kind being pushed relentlessly by technology companies like Microsoft and Oracle.

The trick they play is to scare customers such as local authorities or schools - who have lot of other things to think about - with the incredible complexity and cost of ICT systems. Then they say, "Leave the whole thing to us; we'll provide you with a turn-key solution and look after the whole thing for you”.

Technology is an important enabler of educational ecosystems - but in simple and relatively uncomplicated ways.

As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid write in The Social Life of Information: “Learning at all levels relies ultimately on personal interaction and, in particular, on a range of implicit and peripheral forms of communication that technology is still very far from being able to handle".

Yes, technology facilitates new kinds of interaction between teachers, students, and the external world. But as Sunil Abraham argued so cogently at Doors 8 this year, this kind of connectivity does not need to be complicated, or expensive. And it certainly does not need to be delivered within a closed system.

We already have an "industrial strength utility" - it's called the internet. If Britain's new schools are not based on open systems, this multi-billion-pound “once in a lifetime” opportunity will be needlessly constrained. Open information systems should be be a non-negotiable condition of BSF funding.

Posted by John Thackara at December 18, 2005 02:21 PM


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