A Word with Jim Knight

Following the recent general election, ALT spoke with peer Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth, a digital educational pioneer, about the landscape of technology enhanced learning.

“I think that we will increasingly crave places where we can reflect and discuss free from distraction and interruption by the digital world”


ALT: How are you involved with digital technology?

JK: My first real involvement was in publishing before my political career. I took on the task of realising the gain of moving from analogue to digital. In government I became engaged in how we enhance learning using technology and I haven’t looked back.


ALT: How has digital technology changed how education sectors are funded?

JK: In most ways I don’t think funding has changed enough in response to digital technology. We have had discrete technology agencies and grants and the hope is that it is now mainstreamed. However, there is still a tolerance of schools spending money on photocopiers and text books, and little sign of designing in a move to paperless schooling.

What we do see is improvements in management making things like the pupil premium more possible. This in turn could develop into even more direct relationships between data outcomes and funding. Potentially I could see education being moved to payment by results, based on individual employment/research outcomes. This should only be at the margins, or it will horribly distort behaviour even more than testing and tables. However, I do think that pupil premium has been useful in focussing minds on a disadvantaged group, but so far has only been an input payment. I would be interested to debate some of that being paid based on destination twelve months after leaving an institution. This may focus minds on better information, advice and guidance and more practical relevance to teaching.

I also believe it is important to innovate in assessment. I welcome OCR’s comments about allowing internet search into some exams. Equally we should allow other media as assessable content, and group work. All are assessable if we move to a model more familiar for dance and music exams, where the onus is on the judgment of an expert examiner, rather than testing recall of content. That then allows for more 21st century skills to be included in teaching and learning, and in turn to be assessed.


Helping to move people online - The Tinder Foundation
Helping to move people online – The Tinder Foundation

ALT: What is the future of the physical location and face-to-face teaching in FE/HE?

JK: It must evolve to suit the learner. Currently the geography of learning seems to suit the teacher more than the learner. You shouldn’t have to be present to consume content; you needn’t be present to collaboratively reflect on content or to construct new knowledge. However, I think that we will increasingly crave places where we can reflect and discuss free from distraction and interruption by the digital world. This is a huge challenge for education campuses, especially libraries. Should they be highly connected places where it is easy to access learning content or connection deserts that create an oasis of calm to make sense of the content we consume elsewhere?

Teaching will, I think, always be best face-to-face. We need to see the setting, the physical and the mental reaction of learners, and to have an emotional relationship with them as teachers. That is much harder online. However, teaching must change to become learning coaching rather than content delivery. Education will be co-produced between teachers and learning.


ALT: How can we use digital technology to narrow the gap in social economic terms?

JK: Giving access, skills and confidence to everyone is a priority. We cannot afford to ignore the potential of technology to enhance learning, especially for those groups that most need that advantage. It requires a sizeable investment, but one that will give huge returns. In terms of reducing inequality, rather than increasing it, we need to focus more on how digital can enhance the range of services poorer people use. This means a lot more attention in public service design and incentives to digital social enterprise.

“We live in a hyper connected age, but one that consequently generates a lot of noise. The challenge is to find ways of aggregating the practitioner voice and experience so that it is heard by policy makers.”

ALT: Where do you see the best examples of tech impacting on vocational skills and career preparation among younger students?

JK: These are few and far between. Hull has some examples with Youth Enterprise. Plotr is finally showing signs of progress under Jim Birtwell’s leadership and there are some University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools doing good work. There is a lot more to be done. Another example is Apps for Good. Their model of working with KS3 students in groups to conceive of a smartphone app to perform a social purpose is very strong. The teams research the market, devise a business model, wireframe the app, do some basic coding, and then pitch with a video and a Dragons Den-style session. They are mentored throughout by someone from the commercial tech world. It is now very popular in schools and is a superb way of motivating and engaging young people.


ALT: How can researchers and practitioners influence policy?

JK: This ‘bottom up’ relationship is crucial. There is a logical demand for evidence-based policy making right now. I would prefer to see practice-informed policy-making, and practice informed by evidence. The basis of successful education is teaching.  We live in a hyper connected age, but one that consequently generates a lot of noise. The challenge is to find ways of aggregating the practitioner voice and experience so that it is heard by policy makers. Unions are helpful but not the only channel. For schools a Royal College of Teaching is helpful, as is Twitter, but neither is the answer in isolation. If we can find bottom-up channels at an institution, then perhaps aggregating that voice institution-by-institution can have an impact.

Rt Hon Lord Knight of Weymouth  http://jimknight.uk/

Lord Knight is a legislator for Parliament, Chief Education Adviser to TES Global, (influencing matters such as online teacher training, university world ranking and teacher recruitment). He chairs the Tinder Foundation, which networks with over 5,000 organisations to give offline adults the skills to transact online, and chairs Xrapid Ltd, a company that diagnoses malaria with iPhones.


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