Thoughts from the Education Innovation Conference and Exhibition (@EICEmanchester)

Yesterday I spent the day at the Education Innovation Conference & Exhibition held at the Manchester Central conference centre. Games Britannia had been nominated for an innovation award, and there were a couple of talks and speakers I was interested in going along to meet and listen to

The Manchester Central building was a beautiful, former railway station and for nostalgia’s sake they’d decided to leave in the 1960s PA system. At one point I did expect the “announcer” to notify us that the train on Platform 3 was the 14:15 to London, last call, about to depart at any minute! ALL ABOARD!

The  main hall was set-up akin to a micro-BETT show – a smattering of companies all plying their wares to the education sector. Amongst the stalls were four open-plan spaces dedicated to workshops and talks, with the central hub available for the headlining speakers.

I particularly enjoyed the “Skills for the future: Inspiring young people to pursue STEM careers” talk with a panel including the brilliant Maggie Philbin (@maggiephilbin) who also talked about her fantastic Teentech events. BBC Learning was represented by Saul Nasse and in my opinion underplayed the role that Auntie has in educating the nation. It seems the BBC are still hesitate to take a more active role (as they did with the literacy project in the 80s) in education and are entrenched in this “passive” position where all of the material is made online … but where the public goes and looks for it. My view, as I expressed at the BBC Fusion Games event that the creative/maker movement should be part of the mainstream broadcast schedule and that resources should play a more central role – oh, for the BBC Micro 2.

Next up was Genevieve Smith-Nunes’ (@pegleggen) “workshop” on the use of Greenfoot (http://www.greenfoot.org) in programming related courses. Genevieve delivers Computing courses at Sussex Downs College. I’d not really looked at Greenfoot, since being an Actionscript programmer (who doesn’t teach that much) I’ve never felt the urge to learn Java – though the two languages’ genetics aren’t far away. Greenfoot looked like a great tool to introduce students to Java and OOP, with a clear IDE and a very useful visual object hierarchy list (in it’s defence the Flash Pro IDE does have a similar, but not as child-friendly View-Objects and View-Variables debug). Genevieve also described a brilliant way of using LEGO to describe object oriented concepts – I will have to try that at some point!

After that I wandered into the Raspberry Pi area, primarily looking to chat with Pimoroni’s Paul Beech (@guru) – where Alan O’Donohue’s (@teknoteacher) Raspberry Jamboree was in full flow. There was plenty of stuff going on, and I managed to grab a Pibow case from the chaps at CPC who were supporting the event. My thoughts on the Pi are mixed. Coming from a secondary school were we have almost 700 PCs, and where 90%+ (even though we’re listed as a highly deprived area) of the children come from a home with access to a PC, games console, etc – giving the kids a low-powered device, that’s more difficult to setup, use and doesn’t run the software or games that they’re used to is a difficult sell. BUT the ways in which the device can be used to hack and be allowed to be abused is a breath of fresh air. As with yesterday (and commented on widely on Twitter) the majority of those who are really embracing the Pi are currently enthusiasts and hobbyists – but of an older demograph. I’d be interested to know the take-up in schools and how they have been received by children. Maybe the Google funded donations of the device will greatly improve this? Regardless, the enthusiasm in the Jamboree was infectious – and if you could bottle that and send it into schools we won’t go far wrong. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet Paul, even with a continuing twitter-hide-and-seek game and him wearing an overt slogoned tee-shirt.

After that the shadow-education minister Stepen Twigg MP talked in the central hub. Stephen unfortunately delivered a speech on what was happening in schools with IT, rhetoric that is two years out of date – but a great demonstration of the problem with have in Britain – we are already 10 years behind, and even two years after the Next Gen Skills report we’re still talking about the problem. Mr Twigg highlighted few potential Labour polices, but did extend his disdain for the eBacc and wanted to introduce a TechBacc to deliver vocational skills alongside academic. We used to have a system to deliver this with Grammer schools, Polytechnics (technical college) and Universities, but we abandoned many years ago. At least on policy I agreed with Mr Twigg when he said “CPD, CPD, CPD” – though the Blair-esque soundbyte did make me gnash my teeth!

Jobs for the Girls: Encouraging girls to consider qualifications and careers in IT” was the next talk in the central hub. Criminally under-attended the talk was a fairly brief overview (given the time) of cultural and other problems we face getting more girls to consider careers in IT. The best question came from the floor – “why do we need more girls?” and was roundly and comprehensively answered by the panel. As with our girls-centric event at Games Britannia – there’s no silver bullet for this issue, but we should be open-minded to use every single weapon in the arsenal to overcome it – whether it be using pink, princesses, social, celebrity or otherwise.

BBC Click’s Spencer Kelly closed the event with an light-weight look at technology, closing the event with the awards-ceremony for a range of exceptional projects. I was delighted that Sheffield College won an award for its use of games (Games to Engage) for students with learning disabilities.

Overall, I enjoyed the day. Probably like the majority of teachers/educations/folk-that-are-interested I found particular interest in the workshops and talks. I have no interest in listening to a sales-pitch from a company selling wares to schools. What would benefit – and what we tried to do at GB – was to give the companies’ a platform to  show how the tools can be used in a live classroom/workshop situation. Genevieve did that with Greenfoot and Alan with the Raspberry Pi. On-stand demo’s, leaflets, and sales-talk just don’t do it for me.

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