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Technical support

Technical support

Keri Facer offers ideas for moving 14-19 education forward with digital technologies.

So then, 'how do we solve the problem of the 14-19 phase?' to paraphrase the Reverend Mother in The Sound of Music. This question is unlikely to be answered, however many prayers we offer up, by a hastily arranged marriage between competing political and educational philosophies.

While many are still reeling at the Tomlinson report outcome, there is a shared feeling in the air that something needs to be done and that this cannot simply be a tinkering around the edges of the existing system.

At Futurelab, we are interested specifically in the role that digital technologies might play in supporting many of the goals in Tomlinson and more recent DfES proposals.

Digital way forward

To this end, we have recently published a review of research and projects involving 14-19 and we believe there are a number of areas in which digital technologies can play a key role.

First, they can enable young people to create links and develop coherent pathways - the developments in e-portfolios combined with mobile technologies shows much promise in letting young people learn across a range of sites and institutions.

Work by the QCA and various exam bodies, combined with the increasing availability of powerful handheld devices, suggests that this may happen in the quite near future.

Second, digital technologies can help young people to combine 'doing' with 'knowing', through simulations that require engagement with a range of complex theoretical and practical issues.

One case study, for example, describes how a simulated workplace in a German school has enabled young people to develop practical and theoretical skills in tandem rather than separating these as either vocational or academic.

Third, digital technologies can allow young people to develop personalised - by this we do not mean individualised - approaches to learning which may include different settings, communities, and methods (modalities, differentiation etc) depending on personal preference.

Finally, digital technologies should, and already do in some places, allow young people access to wider resources of people, information and experience, than are currently on offer in their current institutions.

Inherent tensions

Crucially, however, before we begin to view digital technologies as the magic bullet to solve the challenges of the 14-19 phase, there are a number of key issues and tensions to acknowledge.

This period of young people's lives is clearly one of increasing independence and autonomy, and indeed, much of our educational efforts are directed at achieving and supporting this.

There will be tension between using digital technologies to provide learning opportunities that support more independent and adult forms of learning, and the need that many teachers feel not to lose control over the curriculum and associated modes of learning.

At the same time, we need an underlying educational philosophy to make sense of how and when to introduce digital technologies into education for this age group. Reviewers propose a number of ways of assessing new learning environments with digital technologies for 14-19 year-olds.

They suggest that we need to ask:

  • Are the intended outcomes flexible, functional, meaningful, generalisable, and application-oriented?

  • Are thinking, learning and collaboration skills being taught?

  • Is there a shift towards experiential learning: active, constructive, goal-directed and diagnostic?

  • Is there a shift towards discovery-oriented, contextual, problem-oriented, case based, and socially and intrinsically motivated learning?

  • Is there conscious effort to gradually increase independence according to the sequence of independent work, strategic learning and self-directed learning?

  • Are modelling, external monitoring, scaffolding, metacognitive guidance, self-evaluation, skills practice, feedback and reflection built in?

In all of these areas, digital technologies can act as a powerful tool; however without this underpinning critique and philosophy, digital technologies will only partially fulfil their potential.

While we're waiting for the review of the Tomlinson proposals that seems to be on the cards for 2008, this Futurelab review offers a number of ways to begin to explore and experiment with digital technologies in the 14-19 phase.

It raises a number of questions about how we design the powerful learning environments that meet the challenges of this massively complex period in young people's education.

Keri Facer is Learning Research Director at NESTA Futurelab (www.nestafuturelab.org).

To order a hard copy of 14-19 and Digital Technologies: A review of research and projects, or to download a free copy, go to www.nestafuturelab.org/research/lit_reviews.htm

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