19 Sep 2011

TEDx London: the education revolution

I'm just back from TEDx London: the education revolution, at the Roundhouse in London. A spectacular event aimed at building on Sir Ken Robinson's famous talk on creativity. One after another, enthusiastic sincere people pushed their messages across with stirring words and fancy graphics. The revolution has begun! Or has it? During the breaks unedited tweets were flashed up on a big screen and one read 'Typical TED, smug and empty'. I detected a thread of something a bit more sinister than 'emptiness' though.

Clearly we do need an education revolution, because the current education system is preparing students to further an unsustainable industrial civilisation rather than preparing for what comes next. However, a thread within TEDx seemed to be saying that we need a revolution because current education isn’t effective enough in furthering industrial civilisation - that we need more creativity, improvisation and innovation for students to become more ‘successful’ (in the conventional, and suicidal, way that current society defines success). And, what's more, to achieve success, students need more technology. By technology, they don't mean clever reed-bed filtration systems; they mean high-spec PCs, tablets, gadgets and mobile phones. New media can, of course, be used to resist the structures of an unsustainable society (as this Blog attempts to do). But there’s a danger that just letting them go and be creative and construct knowledge for themselves in the world of new media is delivering them straight into the hands of big corporations.

To take a specific example. The mission of one of the presenters, from the company Tribal, was described on the programme as "embracing the power of web2.0, Social Media and Open Source Solutions to help to make learning work better for all - with a particular focus on hard to reach, excluded or disadvantaged learners."  He described how 1.2 million learners were using their educational materials, with a picture of African school children learning from mobile phones because there were no books. A little investigation reveals, however, that among Tribal’s biggest clients are McDonalds, KFC and the US Department of Defence (see http://www.tribalgroup.com/global/Documents/PO%20-%20AB%20-%20e-Learning.pdf). This potentially gives these organisations influence on 1.2 million people’s education – perhaps not directly, but can Tribal’s educational materials be honest about US war crimes, or the ecological, social and cultural impact of the fast food industry if these are their major clients?

Of course, not all presentations had the uncomfortable combination of technology, cult-like persuasion tactics and big corporations hovering in the background. Dougald Hine, for instance, gave a thought provoking presentation on the University Project - a project which is genuinely radical and is working towards an achievable alternative to conventional education (see http://univproject.pbworks.com/w/page/45692087/The%20University%20Project).

To conclude I’ll just say that before being let loose to construct their knowledge in cyberspace students need critical awareness of the forces that shape information in the new media and a desire to work towards a different kind of society, otherwise the danger is that they’ll end up ‘successful’ in all the wrong ways. 


  1. I left TEDx before the final session. I had got a bit fed up with the hypocrisy of the mixed message: 'inequality in education (and life) is bad; putting energy and resource hungry technology in the hands of every pupil is the solution.' Aside from the question of how this is physically possible in a world of depleting natural resources, it begs the question that if the pupils who can afford the technology get the better education, won't this exacerbate inequality?

    I find technology incredibly useful, but I also like learning from books, conversations, walks in nature and lectures from inspiring people. Is that still OK?

  2. Yes, Morgan, more than okay! ;)

    I'll be at the University Project weekend in London but just for the day on 15th October. Anyone else going? http://univproject.pbworks.com/w/page/45692087/The%20University%20Project