Gordon muffs it again

Gordon Brown’s pre-Budget announcement on school funding has been widely reported already, mainly as an example of New Labour’s long-established vice of reporting every piece of funding at least three times. My interest lies more with the timeframe of his proposals.

Brown is promising money to refurbish school buildings over a 10-15 year period. It is clear that we would benefit from warm, clean, dry and well-lit classrooms next year or the year after – but what will be relevant by 2022? Actually, I don’t take issue with the warm, clean, dry, well-lit bit. It’s that word classroom that denotes an invention I think won’t last into the next generation.

The classroom as we have come to know it is a room where 30-odd children can conveniently be lectured to by one adult. It doesn’t have much else going for it. It is typically inconveniently far from those childrens’ homes (especially after the age of eleven), and it is an intrinsically sterile place that makes it much harder for the teacher to nurture or stimulate the children incarcerated in it.

Classrooms are like this because this way they require minimum resources. A school can run on a pupil:teacher ratio of 20:1. To propose a better solution requires us to find more resources. And, over the next generation, I am completely confident that we will do just that.

They won’t be human resources of course, but computers. Or perhaps computer-intermediated humans, because computers may replace human intellect but are unlikely to replace the educationally equally essential human ability to emote.

So far, you’ve seen computers in schools as things for kids to do spreadsheets or, gawdhelpus, Powerpoint presentations on. A combined typewriter and adding machine. But in fact, you already use one supercomputer regularly; it’s called Google. In future you will use many more without even thinking about it. And just how super do I mean? According to futurologist Ray Kurzweil, we can expect computer intelligence to match our own by 2020 (see graph) – just thirteen years from now.

A slight outframe from my argument here – before you start making mental images of shiny talking robots lecturing to your students, which you then dismiss as implausible, try this mental test. Thinks of fairly complex web search, the sort where you are not confident Google would give you the answers you need. Now imagine that Google gets a program that would allow it to write back to you and ask questions about your search, to understand it better. Plausible? Good. Now imagine that over four or five years, Google refine this program to the point where you can’t really tell whether it’s the program asking you questions, or another human being. Still plausible? Well guess what, your imaginary Google has just passed the Turing Test, the best-established benchmark for human-like intelligence in computers. But as I said, that’s an outframe. Back to the main argument.

The future this all points towards is one in which every child has an intelligent, artificial, mentor permanently available to him or her. And don’t assume that mentor will look like a computer; my money is on it being accessed via an evolution of the mobile phone. The intelligence itself will be out there in the ether, just as knowledge is now.

In this future, which is only half-way through Gordon’s funding cycle, I can’t see much relevance to a classroom built for didactic presentations. Can you?

No more individual worksheets

One of my greatest failed inventions was selling worksheets individually, like these (scroll to the bottom of the page). Teachers often complain that they buy a Chalkface pack then use only half the contents, so it seemed a good service to allow people to pick and choose the bits they wanted.

It wasn’t. Everyone said it was a good idea; nobody (well, hardly anybody) actually bought an individual worksheet. In retrospect, the flaw is obvious. To know if you want to teach with a resorce, you need to see the whole thing. We did allow teachers to download print-disabled copies of each worksheet first, but that is simply too time-consuming for a busy teacher. As the whole thing is only £25, more cost-effective to simply buy the whole thing.

I mention this now because the individual worksheets are going soon, as part of a general revamp of the site. So if you actually have been sitting there agonising over whether to spend £1.17 on It’s OK to be Angry, now’s your last chance.

Quarter of a million Yacapaca users

When I decided last August to stop charging for Yacapaca, I knew I was taking a big risk. It was already making a good income and growing strongly, but I wanted the growth rate to speed up, and this seemed the best way to do it.

I reasoned that as a school starts to use Yacapaca across the board, they will find our training & support package a very sensible investment at £295. With 5000 secondary schools in the UK alone, we could make enough to cover the running costs. With luck, there would be enough left over for me to afford the car of my dreams as well.

Ever the optimist, I set us a target of 250,000 users by the end of this term, double the July figure. Some of my colleagues pulled that face, but I stuck to my guns. I believed we could do it.

And today, we sailed through the quarter of a million users a full month ahead of schedule. As of today we have 9,000 teachers and just over 241,000 students registered on Yacapaca.

I just can’t tell you how delighted I am that the concept has been validated in this way, and how grateful I am particularly to those teachers who have got behind it and pushed colleagues to try it out. Thank you!

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More Chalkface babies

In a comment on my previous baby post I jokingly promised that we’d ramp up production. Little did I know…not only have we ramped it up; we’ve even outsourced some to Ukraine!

I am therefore delighted to celebrate the arrival of Maria Skokova (top in photo). Igor, her father, built the Yacapaca ePortfolio pilot which has garnered so much acclaim.

And hot on the heels comes Cameron Lunn (bottom in photo). Katherine, his mum, was responsible for the creation and updating of Chalkface packs up to the point in 2002 where we moved all our energies into online materials. If you look in the front of one of the Chalkface packs in your stock cupboard, you will most likely find her name there.

Congratulations Igor, Katherine and your respective spouses.

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Yacapaca INSET

Around the end of last term I came across Mike Highfield’s excellent SPB Helper for DiDA (here’s his demo). I was so impressed with the quality of Mike’s screencasts that I immediately approached him to produce a short series of screencasts explaining Yacapaca.

The original plan was that these would simply be freebies would help promote the system but, one thing led to another and what we ended up with was a massive project containing no fewer than 74 separate little movies talking you through every detail of the system (example 1, example 2).

What I’m hoping is that people will use it to introduce Yacapaca across a whole school. From experience of running Yacapaca INSET days, I think there’s about three days-worth of material here, if you are starting with novices. It will be interesting to see who uses it in formal day trainings, and who puts it on a school network so teachers can access it as and when they need.

By the time we’d done all this, the project had cost too much to just give away. Actually, this solved a problem. I want as many people as possible to be able to use Yacapaca, and charging money for using it gets in the way of this. At the same time, we have to do something to keep a roof over hour heads. The solution was to make using the system entirely free, bundle the screencasts with a support contract and sell that to schools. Give away the product, but sell training & support to those who want it. It’s the classic ‘open source’ model.

In the nature of projects that grow beyond their original scope, this one also grew beyond its original schedule. Finally, I’m pleased to say, it’s ready, and the first disks are going out this week to customers who pre-ordered it.

If you’re interested, there’s a downloadable demo here, and more information here.