Time to collaborate!

Well I’ve had a marathon of conferences this week, in lovely Birmingham on Tuesday for Becta’s Time to Innovate Next Generation Learning Conference and then the 5th National Digital Inclusion Conference in London for the last two days. Here are some of my thoughts:

Everyone wants a piece of the action now

The recession has really focused minds and now everyone is starting to see the benefits of digital engagement, if only at first from the point of view of saving money. Learning technology and digital inclusion were still almost ‘niche’ issues last year, now they are at the centre of people’s thinking. It’s not a coincidence that at the National Digital Inclusion Conference, all three of the main political parties were present and talked about the importance of Digital Inclusion.

A join the dots puzzleIt’s too complicated and we need to join things up

A recurrent theme was that of the need to simplify and de-clutter the system – I think this issue comes up at every conference I go to! This came up especially at Time to Innovate. I think the key now is that we are being forced to collaborate because of reduced resources – and I think that can only be a good thing. What people need to wake up to is that tools on the internet enable collaboration to happen in a way that has not been possible before.

If the government wants us to be innovative, then they need to loosen up the frameworks in which we operate

Innovation can only happen if people are allowed to take risks. Not all innovations are successful. The current structures in which we work do not encourage innovation, rather they prevent it. John Landeryou, the representative at Time to Innovate from BIS said that they could fund ‘innovation at the margins’. I thought this was kind of ironic given the title of the conference. But can you make innovative practice mainstream or will it always be a fringe activity? I don’t know.

A bus stop that doubles up as a swingLearning to use online services and other ICT skills is nearly always an informal process

Yet the way the government funds adult learning in England is still too tightly focused on skills and qualifications. The competencies needed by people today are more a set of behaviours than traditional skills: flexibility, resilience, entrepreneurship etc. In addition, the skills to use the internet and open source software cannot be taught in the traditional way. The best way I have found to learn things, especially online, is to be shown by a peer and also by playing. This doesn’t fit the traditional educational model and therefore doesn’t attract government funding.

And my final reflection:

A coin being flippedDigital inclusion and lifelong learning should be the two sides of the same coin.

Ever since the pioneering days of adult education through organisations like the WEA or through the work of Paulo Freire in Brazil, learning has gone along with social justice and social mobility. Yet these two conferences this week didn’t really talk to one another. Why does the formal education system not engage well with the informal? I think it’s partly cultural but also partly to do with the artificial barriers put up by the way the government is structured (DCSF doesn’t talk to BIS who don’t talk to DCMS) and the funding regimes learning organisations have to work within. We have a great opportunity, because of the recession and reduced funding to collaborate far more. Why can’t we link up the fact that a mum learning English in a community centre in Bradford is then boosting her son’s attendance at school and in turn being helped by her library to get online and keep in touch with relatives in Pakistan? The agencies that support this would include: an adult education service funded by a local authority; the ‘homestart’ programme run by Becta and a UK Online Centre in a local library. Whatever happened to the concept of cradle to grave lifelong learning?

These issues are partly what I hope will be discussed at the #learning3 Symposium which will be held next week. I have brought together 30 people interested in learning and how it is changing from across these diverse areas FE, HE, Libraries, Business and I hope we might come up with some big ideas that will enable greater collaboration for the greater benefit of the person on the street.

Update September 2012: the Learning 3.0 project finished in 2010. The report can be read here.


  1. Some excellent points here. I could write a lot about how I agree wholeheartedly but I will write about the point where I am not sure.!!
    “Learning to use online services and other ICT skills is nearly always an informal process”
    This point is related to the debate about VLE and PLE. From my point of view, I have felt left out because I do not belong to an institution. I have never been able to use a VLE and so I have had to develop my own PLE. This has had its advantages because I have been able to choose my tools and to try to get them to join together. However, most people need the security of a VLE because many tools are quite immature and not very user friendly. With a VLE, I would expect to learn to use on-line services in a more formal way using methods defined by an institution.
    But outside institutions, many of these on-line services are based upon different ideas of what a web site should look like. Menus vary both in nomenclature and design. Learning to use one site does not often improve one’s ability to use another. Some websites provide little opportunity to develop skills. Only a few are interactive including Chat or some other collaborative feature. Some are positively de-skilling as you have to fall back on the world of email and attachments. Does this need to be so? (to be contd)


  2. I know just what you mean about joining the dots. I talk to several tweeters in BIS and just to let you know that BIS doesn’t talk to BIS let alone Defra, RDAs, Digitalbritain teams LSC etc etc.
    Too many silo thinkers. So little time to catch up.
    Until we all have access to the internet money is being wasted trying to drag the great unwashed online for a bath. You can’t have a bath if all you have is a dripping tap.
    At the digitalinclusion conference yesterday one chap spoke of interactive tvs. great idea, no need to call it a ‘computer’ or learn about spreadsheets if you are 80 yrs old and just want to skype the kids.
    Qualifications are the blight of govt initiatives. Even the ukonline lot have to make people go through unnecessary loops to learn what they want to know.
    Time to get real, get the connections out to the people and stop pushing expensive fixes at them. We didn’t do that when we built roads and railways. Govt thinks people are stupid. We aren’t.
    If there is a decent facility in a library word gets out. If folk can get a connection at home that works then they do. Most areas of deprivation in urban spaces are rammed full of satellite dishes. If something is seen as useful they find the money. It has to be useful.. it really does… and currently there is no incentive when the connection means your site times out just as you are gonna buy something on ebay, or book a holiday, or register your car.
    O boy, sorry, started a rant. your posts always set me off thinking. now do i delete it or submit… ok, i will submit, you delete it if its gone too far off topic.


  3. “Time to get real, get the connections out to the people and stop pushing expensive fixes at them. We didn’t do that when we built roads and railways. Govt thinks people are stupid. We aren’t.”

    Can we explore this statement a bit more? What do we want people to do? All the effort is being made towards the so called disadvantaged. But the advantaged are not taking advantage yet and are not joined up in order to lead the way.


  4. Is it also about ‘how’ the dots are joined up? In many cases, the innovative and successful partnerships / collaborations work because they just ‘happen. The ‘dots’ will mutate and evolve, grow and shrink. The process should be mega simple too (invisible maybe) and not get bogged down in structure and policy etc. Is it possible to stop trying to understand IT all? because this one cannot be nailed down, labelled, compartmentalised etc. Just let it grow, nurture it and give it a helping hand along the way.


  5. Hi, sorry to butt in but your title ‘time to collaborate’ is so true. I can’t understand half of the rest of the post cos of the acronyms but I’m not the target audience so that’s okay. But that one line says it all – there are too many cooks trying to get involved in the broth, and from out here with no qualifications, don’t belong to an agency or initiative, just am a lot of a geek, it looks like there’s a lot of bandwagon jumping and little understanding of the commitment required to actually make digital inclusion happen.

    Also, I find it hilarious that we have gone from a world where the ‘smart’ web users slated AOL so much, but that we’re now in a situation where we’re going to have to concede that perhaps AOL had the right idea and slapping a simple, clear, intuituive front end on something so massive and sprawling was perhaps a good idea.

    Digital TV integration is a brilliant idea. Stream You Tube, let Nan see the videos (clean, we hope) that the kids have submitted. Link in Skype, get them connected. Index popular high street shopping sites in a directory which is visual and cut the spam. Collate newspaper websites and Heat and gossip columns and let people subscribe to them so they get the news when they first switch on their television. Inclusion doesn’t mean inflicting our (difficult word that, but struggling for a better one) perception of what the ‘web’ is but presenting people with what they want in a format they can understand. I’m scared to even ask whether someones bothered to ask the question of the target audience though :O)


  6. Hi Silver you asked for expansion on:
    ‘“Time to get real, get the connections out to the people and stop pushing expensive fixes at them. We didn’t do that when we built roads and railways. Govt thinks people are stupid. We aren’t.” ‘
    I take this to mean the victorians Just Did It. We should JFDI too. They didn’t give people free train tickets and tell them to get on a train. Once the train worked and did what it said on the packet people used them. We built roads. We didn’t give everyone a car. Once people saw what roads could do they saved up and got a car, learned how to drive it and away they went. Same with the internet.
    We have milked the obsolete phone network for Too Long. Time to build the fibre one, and fast. If we want to be part of the global village that is. I don’t see Korea holding ‘digital inclusion’ conferences and dishing out free laptops to ‘poor families’. They just provide 1000 meg for a tenner a month.
    We have far too many people on throttled, capped, or just inadequate connections. We have millions still on dial up. Until it is all easy and the tech/access is dare I say ‘boring’ the internet will not get the people 100% engaged. Access is a utility, it should just work like water from a tap. You get as much or as little as you want, need, or are prepared to pay for. And just like the phone – everyone has to have one/access to make it work and be fun.
    It doesn’t have to be through a pc. It can be through an interactive TV, we are working on a project about that very thing now in our village living lab.
    We have over 90% take up in our community, and add to that all the other communities who visit us because they can’t get broadband and we have a well hammered network. sorry, gone off topic again and dashing out – what was the question… LOL. catch up later…


  7. Who exactly are the advantaged? Those with big fat pipes that aren’t dripping? And what are they doing with their shiny laptops, smartphones and fast connections? Um, I’d say they are using them, and are too busy using them to worry about those on the fringes.

    There is a huge amount of innovation happening under the radar, often by kids, but equally by adults who have enough time on their hands to ‘play’. What we all need to be doing is playing. Learning to surf, play online games, upload videos etc is not rocket science. I saw the Alex computer this week (http://www.broadbandcomputer.com) and for anyone who struggles with technology, it is ideal. But it’s all so basic, we need to go way beyond this 15 year old stuff still taught in schools and Online Centres. None of this paragraph is possible without access to the Net. Not some creaking copper that may or may not reach 10Mbps asymmetric (in many of our dreams), but low latency, minimum jitter, fast-as-it-needs-to-be fibre.

    Other countries have gone so far beyond what we think of as The Net today that it is astonishing to me how far behind we are. They don’t talk about fast downloads of movies, they have old people in their own homes who have assisted living technologies which allow them to communicate seamlessly by HDTV with their carers, GP, family etc. Even when bedridden. Through the TV.

    They have green data exchanges through which the whole community connects. Health, wealth, learning and leisure. Gyms which feed data direct to GPs and hospitals from patients taking exercise, easing the burden hugely on the Health Service. Care systems for people with depression, or agoraphobia so they can talk through their issues confidentially without having to face the world if they don’t want to. Community HD TV made by every citizen who wants to. Education facilities that beggar belief – want to learn Mandarin? Here’s your teacher, in Beijing. He will now walk you round the streets so you get a flavour of the culture, hear the language spoken in situ.

    Need to run your business from anywhere in the world because there’s a hurricane coming? Pack the car up, move out to safety. As soon as you get there, plug your laptop in, your entire business is there waiting for you in the data centre. Cost? $135 USD a month for an SME and that’s with the latest version of every single application you might need to run an SME sitting in the cloud for you.

    Security cameras for every home are seeing a massive reduction in crime. These aren’t council run CCTV systems, but personal ones, linked into the community network. Spot something happening near you? Ping the police, they’ll take a look and come and deal with it if it requires it. Fire services who can see the extent of a blaze before they leave the station and can call in extra crews if required without needing to drive there first and assess the situation.

    The people I met recently barely use email. It’s so yesterday anyway. Everything is video. It’s just an online version of what we do every day – stand next to people and talk to them. People are creating their own TV shows, on the fly, live, as they show someone how to make Yorkshire Puddings, and a friend says, “Oh, I want to know how you do it too” so she joins in. If the phone rings during the ‘show’ it pops up at the top of your TV screen and everything is done through the TV – which of course all of us know how to use. The remote is not much harder than a standard one (or the 3 you probably have for TV, DVD, satellite, etc etc!!!) and the keyboard is wireless so you can sit/stand anywhere and type.

    I could go on. The business applications, the thousands of health applications which now exist, the learning opportunities, the innovation that goes on once budgets are freed up by the savings these applications provide and people have more time and less worry, and can PLAY.

    We need to get real in this country. We cannot do even part of this yet.


  8. The answer to it all is fibre. To every home and business and phone mast. Once connectivity is ubiquitous and works and is boring (like electric and water) people will use it, innovate and grow.
    As long as we are carrying water from the well we won’t take many baths…
    Time to move on.


  9. Of course, you are right that the answer is fibre but we have not yet spread the word about what we can do with it sufficiently widely. There are still many many people who do not share the vision of what it could be like.
    I can recall the days when the first question for people wondering if they would continue the contact was “Are you on the phone?” And then we would agree that the people who were on the phone were the sort of people that we would continue to do business with.


    • “The sort of people that we would continue to do business with” This makes me wince. Inclusion is not about elitism. I appreciate that that is the way business is done, and it is why I choose to avoid participating in that world by staying in the public sector, where having a brain is more important than a phone (sometimes). But, ouch.

      However, I also agree with your point about incentivising fibre rollout. At the moment, to a lot of people, the web=shopping and chatting. These are not productive things in the traditional sense though one is consumerism and contributing to the economy and the other is actually networking and contributing to the employement figures. But we can’t expect people to join the dots, therefore we must make it simple.

      Whilst blue sky thinking is just that, a series of what if scenarios, I wonder if selling fibre rollout to investors is as simple as ‘imagine what you could do if you had the speed and coverage’ – in the same way I attended the conference last week from Lancashire, one day can I attend the British Mountaineering Councils AGM through webcam and Skype? Can I attend Wellcome Institute lectures? Can I learn anything about anything as a school child because of the lesson plans open to me in real time if I cannot attend school for some valid reason? Can I be taught French by a French teacher through the web? How about attending the Royal Opera House to see ballet and opera without paying £60 to feel out of place and uncomfortable? I’ll pay £10 instead for a live stream from a camera permanently set up with in the front stalls with optional subtitle and signing streams.

      The possibilities are endless, but unless you tell people what the possibilities are, the people holding the purse strings will see no reason to invest because they don’t understand the return because they are not geeks.


  10. Lou, we have been telling folk for years…
    we didn’t promote cars, we built roads. We don’t tell them how great it is to see in the dark or create heat, we supply electricity. We don’t tell people to have a bath, we give every home water. They can bath every day or every year, it matters not. The people will use what is available, they will innovate and grow. Promises are just hot air. Policy makers are the ones who need convincing, not the people. The forums testify to the discontent amongst people with crap connections. The majority of those with poor or non existent connections don’t have a voice cos they can’t get online to be heard. The priority has to be to the final third. Get them the fibre and the market will deliver the rest. http://5tth.blogspot.com/2010/03/new-national-broadband-campaign-final.html


    • Hi,
      I know this, but as I mentioned I think investors are the key, without the money to rollout fibre be it aerial or underground, nothing will be built. Roads cost money – the government funded. Was that because the benefits of a sensible road network were obvious from the start?
      Perhaps what I missed is that it’s actually all stakeholders who need to understand the benefits, not just investors.
      The car analogy is a good one, but I’d also venture to say that we have a situation which didn’t happen with cars, I don’t think, which is that we have effectively built a town on top of a landfill site. The foundations are there but they are patchy, unpredictable, not reliable or fast enough where they do exist and there are no foundations at all across massive parts of this town. So while us ‘geeks’ for want of a better word, play in the town, building ever new and amazing buildings with beautiful add ons and innovations, none of this is worth anything if the building falls down because it was built in the wrong place and the router drops, the server fails and isn’t accessible for days on end due to tides, etc etc.
      I don’t for a second suggest we stop the building because some amazing things are being created, but our foundations/infrastructure are not sustainable or adequate and unbundling exchanges, whilst an advancement, is not enough.
      I also know that people have been shouting for years about this, and I’m very late to the party, much to my own shame. And for what it’s worth I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s communicating that to the right people at the right time.


  11. There seem to be too separate discussions here.

    One is around technical access.
    One is around mental access.

    Over 99% percent of households in the UK are broadband Internet access enabled. Some 90% enjoy factual speeds of 2 Mbps. Yes, it could be better coverage. Yes it could be faster. The government can fix this by subsidizing more exchanges and investing in overall higher Internet connection speed. This is a technical solution to a technical problem. And yes, I personally see this as strategic and it should be done.

    In 2009, 70% of UK households actually had Internet access. Of these, 60% were broadband and 10% were narrowband. The 30% percent that didn’t have access did not have access because they could not have, but because they didn’t want to. My two grannies, both aged 89, are both not online. They don’t even have a computer. They also don’t have a mobile. They could. But they don’t want to. What do you think would happen, if I gave them a mobile phone or a PC? Right. Nothing. The problem here is not technical, it is mental. And that is not changed using technology, but by education.

    Ask the government to fix technical problems using technical solutions and mental solutions using education solutions. Conflating these two issues is probably the flawed aspect of this whole discussion.


  12. The separation of these two strands, the Technical and the Mental is very useful. My interest is in the Mental which I think is the more difficult issue to solve and to debate. The Technical issue is a no brainer and the Technical debate is receiving its fair share of attention.

    However, the Mental issue also has two strands. Some will say that it is all too complicated and others will say that they see nothing in it for them. I suspect that the grandmothers fall mostly into this second group.

    It is all too complicated. Social media like Ning where you learn as you go are less complicated than Email and Forums. And then there are key skills which are too complicated for the average person. e.g to insert a link to a URL or a picture. And it is only a matter of clicking the right buttons!!

    There were some very positive models in the videos in the Digital Inclusion Conference but many of the messages are still pretty negative. How can we change opinion to make it clearer that there is something in it for everyone and that the risks can be overcome?


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