Microsoft Showcase Schools: Visionary Leaders or Corporate Shills?

Disclaimer: I have anonymised the details of the people who took part in the Facebook discussion below, and redacted some of the comments for legal reasons. However, as information about the individual school and its implementation of the scheme is published on an easily accessible public website,  I have chosen not to anonymise these details.

Showcase Schools. Innovative Educator Experts. Student Ambassadors

There are currently only 21 Microsoft Showcase Schools in the UK. Microsoft describes these as “…premier schools where the school leader has a strong vision for change. These leaders have created a whole-school innovative learning environment enabled by technology, where students participate in their own learning and achievements to make learning more exciting.”

Sounds great!  At least, it does until you begin to unpick the rhetoric.

Are there really whole schools in the UK, tech-enabled or not, where students have no participation in their own learning and achievements? Is this an appropriate benchmark for the definition of visionary leadership?

I recently came across the following Facebook post by an old friend from my home town in Lancashire. She was angry, because her child, due to start at the local High School in September, is required to have a Microsoft Surface 3 as part of his essential school kit. She linked to an Australian newspaper article, which can be accessed here: Computers in class ‘a scandalous waste’. The article argues for the near total rejection of computers in schools; a diametrically opposing viewpoint to that proposed by my friend’s local school. The comments below the line reflect an interesting range of views and I highly recommend reading them.

FB1

Comments on her discussion thread were derogatory about very specific details of a payment plan in which instalments didn’t add up to a promised discounted price and something about it made me want to dig a little deeper. As a Higher Education Practitioner, I know that new practices established in schools and FE could have a huge impact on my own work in the future. In the shorter term,  I also have two children due to begin High School in the next few years, and, if true, this may be something that I need to prepare for as a parent.

So, I visited the website of the school in question, a High School in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, where I found this introductory page describing the scheme. You can explore this at your leisure, although if you’re at all bothered about SPaG in school literature, you will find it very irritating. Ironic, for scheme that is sold as raising standards in literacy.

The Cost Breakdown has ruffled a lot of feathers, and it’s easy to see why. A 30% discount has been secured, parents are told, but only within a very limited time-frame, and, more importantly, only for those parents who can afford the one-off, up-front ‘donation’ (a questionable euphemism to say the least) of £479.29. Parents who must choose one of the instalment plans face an increasingly expensive tariff, apparently inversely proportionate to their disposable income. Those who opt for the £17.99/month option end up paying a total of £647.64 – £24 more than the school’s version of the undiscounted full price. That’s before the ‘New Extra’s’ [sic] of insurance coverage are added to the cost.

A quick scan of the Argos website reveals that this might not be quite the bargain that the parents are being encouraged to invest in, particularly in light of the fact that such devices are often already covered by home contents insurance policies. The lack of the pen in this package makes no significant difference; the second-hand market for such items is cheap and robust.

surface

Subsequent Facebook comments drew the following observations between myself, two secondary teachers also from the Ribble Valley, and the parent who raised the original objection:

FB2

This turned into an extended discussion, involving a wide range of parental and professional educator views, none of which could find any benefits to the scheme. Many made points about inclusivity and safety which, while insightful, unfortunately couldn’t be edited to make them suitable for a public blog.

I then started to consider some of the pedagogic implications of such a project. If I were writing a formal critical evaluation of the scheme, it might begin like this:

A growing body of literature is emerging to contradict the notion that technology will bring about a long-awaited revolution in education. De Bruyckere et al (2015) have argued that the most recent technological device to cause a genuine educational revolution was the blackboard. They also note that, as far back as 1983, pioneering thinkers such as Richard E. Clark (cited in De Bruyckere et al, 2015) were already arguing that instructional media were “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.”

The OECD, in a recent report on technology and learning in schools, suggests that:

“Ensuring that every child reaches a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than can be achieved by expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services.” (OECD, 2015).
It seems unlikely, therefore, that the decision to pursue this scheme is based on a considered critical evaluation of the evidence base surrounding tech-enabled teaching and learning particularly given that, according to the school website, the learning platform, EduLink, is still under development. What other motivations could be at work here?
Several writers have recently delivered scathing critiques of the commodification and commercialisation of education. Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) clearly outline the differences between ‘professional capital’ and ‘business capital’ models of education. They observe that countries engaging with the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement), which believes in objectives that are more characteristic of business models (market-driven competition, standardisation) are consistently associated with low-performing educational systems. The USA and UK are given a special mention here.
More recently, Roberts-Mahoney et al (2016) published a highly critical paper discussing corporate school reform ideologies designed to act as a production line for human labour units, in effect “an advanced form of digital Taylorism”, concluding that “without a clear ethical commitment to fostering the necessary conditions for human flourishing, cooperation, autonomy, equity and democracy in schools and communities, personalized technologies, combined with narrow neoliberal market imperatives in education are likely to do far more harm than good.”
But why would a UK school follow this route, if, as argued above, the only real beneficiaries are likely to be the shareholders of whichever large corporate instution has managed to shoehorn its way into a position of influence with school leadership?
One starting point is a consideration of the significant ideological and demographic differences between the two schools. Sydney Grammar School clearly states in its prospectus that its curriculum is organised around a liberal humanistic educational ideology (Morrison and Ridley, 1988). Annual fees are approximately equavalent to £17,700 a year; comparable with those charged at Dulwich College or perhaps Westminster School when cost of living differences between London and Sydney are factored in (The Economist, 2016). According to the newspaper article cited above, its students are drawn from ‘the sons of Sydney’s business and political elite’.
Ribblesdale High School, on the other hand, is one of two secondary schools in a small Lancashire town. The other school in the town is a selective grammar school. Ribblesdale is rated as a ‘Good’ school which takes pride in its long provision of skilled tecnhical and manual workers for the local economy. As such, it could be argued to have a revisionist ideological perspective (Morrison and Ridley, 1988). The catchment area is relatively affluent, and the school serves a community with a lower than average incidence of children living in deprivation as evidenced by its recent Ofsted report. However, it is, in no sense, an elite school, nor is its headteacher likely to be able to make decisions enabled by access to a large, private budget.
Pig
Dr Vallance and Roberts-Mahoney et al (2016) appear to share the view that human dialogue and conversation are critical to the development of human knowledge within a liberal, Freirean concept of education. There seems to be little overlap with an ideology that seeks specifically to train a workforce. The UK media frequently reports on the growing pressure on school teachers to spend their time evidencing, rather than fostering learning, and meeting ever more onerous targets, requiring them to spend excessive amounts of time on administrative tasks, rather than the planning, evaulating, diagnosing and assessing of quality learning – hence the frequent teachers’ lament ‘you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.
It is easy to see how a systematically demoralised yet genuinely well-meaning workforce could be seduced by the promise of tech-enabled solutions to lighten this workload, allowing them to spend time on the key professional activities of teaching, learning and assessment . However, they should beware. The word ‘efficiency’ often appears alongside ‘effectiveness’, but  it is not its sysnonym. Instant feedback does not automatically equal quality feedback. Learning is unlikely to be more exciting when carried out via computer rather than the genuinely revolutionary blackboard (De Bruyckere et al, 2015) if the teacher does not possess the skills required to teach and assess the subject like a professional (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012). Like many others writing on the topic of educational technology, I fail to see how the greatest achievements of multidisciplinary human endeavour: in science, philosophy, literature, art, music etc., can be ‘chunked’ into easily digestible units of information. If I am mistaken, and the Surfaces are to be used for time-management and record-keeping, then as a parent, I’d be suggesting that the school should fund its own administrative system. This view is echoed by the parent who contacted the local newspaper to express his concern (Clitheroe Advertiser and Times: Parents outcry at having to fund pupils’ tablets.)
Particularly noteworthy is his observation that he was unable to find any evidence for the educational benefits of the Surface that were not written by and/or paid for by Microsoft themselves.
Only time will tell whether Sydney Grammar or Ribblesdale High will be proud of their respective decisions in years to come, or whether they will have moved on to different approaches.
For me, some questions remain unanswered:
  • Is it fair to entertain the idea that an expensive, controversial piece of school kit is likely to serve as a convenient self-deselection policy for parents who may be less likely to co-operate in helping the school to achieve its strategic aims?
  • Has any consideration been given to updating the devices during the pupils’ 5 years at the school? The Surface 3 was launched in 2014 and has already been superseded. Will children currently in Year 6, who will leave Ribblesdale in 2021, have entirely lost any motivational benefit derived from using exciting new technology and be left working on devices that are slow and dated compared to what they might own at home?
  • What tangible benefits does the school receive from their ‘Microsoft Showcase School’ status?

 

gates quote

I will be watching this project with interest, relying on contacts in the local area to provide insider information. However, if even Microsoft’s own founder can state that ‘just giving people devices has a really horrible track record’ (Gates, 2012), then I don’t envisage this scheme becoming widely established in UK schools in the long term. Sadly, I fear that the pupils and their families will be the ones who lose out if this experiment turns out to be the inevitable failure that I suspect it will.

Reference List

Bita, N. (2016) Computers in schools ‘a scandalous waste’: Sydney Grammar head  Online at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/education/computers-in-class-a-scandalous-waste-sydney-grammar-head/news-story/b6de07e63157c98db9974cedd6daa503 [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Chronicle of Higher Education, The (2012) An Interview with Bill Gates Online at: http://chronicle.com/article/A-Conversation-With-Bill-Gates/132591/ [Accessed on: 16, April, 2016]

Clitheroe Advertiser and Times (2016) Parents’ outcry at having to fund pupils’ tablets Online at: http://www.clitheroeadvertiser.co.uk/news/education/parents-outcry-at-having-to-fund-pupils-tablets-1-7831945 [Accessed on: 16 April, 2016]

De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P.A. and Hulshof, C. (2015) Urban Myths About Learning and Education London: Elsevier

Economist, The (2016) Worldwide Cost of Living Survey Online at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-4 [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School New York: Routledge

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2013) The Power of Professional Capital Online at: http://www.michaelfullan.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/JSD-Power-of-Professional-Capital.pdf [Accessed on: 16 April, 2016]

Microsoft (2016) Showcase Schools Online at: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/education/school-leaders/showcase-schools/default.aspx [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Morrison, K. and Ridley, K. (1988) Primary School Curriculum Planning London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd

OECD (2015) Students, Computers and Learning Online at: http://www.oecd.org/publications/students-computers-and-learning-9789264239555-en.htm [Accessed on: 16 April, 2016]

Ribblesdale High School (2016) Ribblesdale One to One Scheme Online at: http://121.ribblesdale.org/ [Accessed on: 18 April, 2016]

Roberts-Mahoney, H., Means, A.J. and Garrison, M.J. (2016) Netflixing Human Capital development: personalized learning technology and the corporatization of K-12 education’ In: Journal of Education Policy DOI: http:dx.doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2015.1132774

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