Without a doubt, the Learning Without Frontiers conference 2011 had the best programme, format and speakers of all the education conferences. Gamers and entrepreneurs, Lords and ministers, children young and old came together under the banner of disruptive technology.
In true London tradition, the theatrical spirit of the fair abounded on the opening Sunday. Where else could you happen upon an 8-foot Sonic the Hedgehog earnestly conversing with a bearded lady? By Tuesday things had muted down sartorially. Conservatives and mavericks alike donned identikit grey suits, individuality confined to a Nehru collar here, a colourful tie or unusual cloth there. Clearly if one has something ‘serious’ to say, Converse and jeans will simply not do.
Still, here were boundaries being pushed, people out of their comfort zones. Even the theatre-in-the-round lent its own disruption. Confident and engaging speakers dropped critical ideas. Erudite questions popped back from an eclectic audience.
Are Games the future? Will they make education accessible and engaging to young people? I have my reservations, namely:
– Corporate bias: The huge influence of IT sellers talking up their own importance, persuading schools to spend vast budgets on hardware and software. Did you know that under the Building Schools for the Future programme, as much money was being spent on IT as on the physical buildings? Locking schools into obsolete technologies and closed platforms.
– Value: Gaming is entertainment, it is leisure. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it is passive at the point of consumption. Let’s be honest about it – gaming is a zero sum game. Games do not contribute real value to society, other than marginal cultural value. There is value in the creative and technical aspects of their production, and some innovations will cross over into, for example, medical and engineering developments.
– Jobs: Some students will get great jobs working in the industry. Not the ones, however, who think making games is the same as playing them. As in every creative industry, success comes only from hard graft, persistence, communication and active production, and comes only to a few. As oil runs out and with it the times of massive spare resources, game time may become a luxury few can afford, even in the West. Meanwhile, competition from developing countries will make UK salaries untenable.
– Impact: Engagement is only a tiny part of education, albeit a necessary one. If we engage children on the basis of ‘learn this way because it’s fun’, we are teaching them to be lazy, passive spectators. We are not teaching them to engage in real challenges, or to find and set their own challenges. Technologies that offer a very limited number of response options may simulate choice and skill, but they are not the real thing. They do not allow the user to think laterally, beyond the game’s boundaries and rules. Where children are ‘educated at’, games may help to engage them. But far more valuable would be to try to understand why they are disengaged, and how they can gain confidence and interest, and help them to understand that education is not about pleasing adults, but about forging their own destiny.
– Most ‘creative’ technologies stifle creativity: Painting programs, graffiti walls, CAD programs offer a far more limited experience than real creative activities. They are poor simulations, sanitised, contained. The user is isolated, indoors, protected. There are no risks – mistakes can be undone. Ctrl-Z does not exist in real life. We have to be able to distinguish between the creative process, which happens in the mind, in conversation, in collaboration, in the struggle, in physical space with real materials, gravity, light and the laws of physics, and this shallow replica of creativity. I am not talking about programs like Photoshop, Catia or Director, which are amazing and complex tools enabling a creative person to develop and produce the vision they already have, and as such should definitely be available to children from a very you age. I am talking about the many beautiful, well-crafted ‘creative’ Apps and games, which are extremely limited in use. Just as multiple-choice tests do not test intelligence, these Apps and games have only a marginal relationship to real life and to the creativ process, which is complex, dirty and dangerous. Children who spend time choosing one of four options in front of a screen are not spending time choosing from infinite possibilities in the real world. They are not learning to love the creative struggle, the ‘what to do next when you don’t know what to do’, when there isn’t a Restart Level button.
If all this sounds very negative, I apologise. It is not a criticism of LWF11 or its participants. Quite the opposite. It is a measure of the incredible success of this varied, challenging, risk-taking forum that we are having these intense debates, questioning assumptions, getting angry, disagreeing. And moving forwards. LWF11 scored highly on all my D.U.M.B. criteria, which I use to evaluate time well spent: Disruptive, Unrealistic, Meaningful, Brave.
Many thanks to Graham Brown Martin and the LWF team (it can’t be all him, can it?!) for taking us to the edge, shaking the change out of our pockets and the dust out of our skulls. See you in Ghana.