Education needs free, safe spaces for creation, collaboration and discussion.

[ P.S. An abridged version of this post was published in TES magazine 22nd December 2022 ]


Safe spaces in which Scottish Educators can discuss, debate, share our thoughts, enquiries and practice are few and far between these days.

Barely have we had we chance to draw breath post-Covid (no pun intended), but we find we are already diving into a period of National Discussion, examining the findings of a slew of reports and a flurry of thought papers (among them opportunities to redefine the place of the Four Capacities and of IDL in our schools).  In such a time of flux, we would benefit from a safe place to share and explore ideas, but our options are instead reducing.

The Future is the behind us

Could relics from our recent past be our best shot at establishing grassroots opportunities to collaborate, share and discuss - as Pedagoo provided for a while - regardless of our geographic or digital locale, so that we might optimise this season of reform and renewal?

Blogs and Wikis were once ten-a-penny in the Scottish Education sphere, until microblogging rose to dominate the landscape. Unlike social media, these older content-creation tools did not restrict the length of contributions or steal your attention every waking moment thanks to incessant dopamine-releasing notifications. Instead, they allowed developing thoughts to be published, ideas to be shared and shaped, links made to like-minded thinkers, and documents written collaboratively. The very values cherished both by luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment and the creator of the Web.

After all, “when he launched the Web in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee intended it to be used as a collaboration tool, which is why he was dismayed that the Mosaic browser did not give users the ability to edit the Web pages they were viewing. It turned Web surfers into passive consumers of published content.” (Walter Isaacson, The Innovators). Blogging and Wikis were the tools which emerged to mitigate this effect, encouraging user-generated content and collaboration. These tools did not restrict the length of your contributions or steal your attention every waking moment thanks to incessant dopamine-releasing notifications. Instead, they allowed for fully-formed thoughts to be published, shared and shaped, links to be made, and documents to be written collaboratively. The very values cherished by Enlightenment luminaries such as Burns, Hume, Hutcheson, Reid, and Smith. 

A Historical Context

In the early 18th Century, Scotland was recovering from a period of great change and unrest - the economic and climate crises hitting late 17th Century Europe, the failure of the Darien Scheme (1698-1700), the Union of Parliaments (1707), the Jacobite uprising (1715). In the 1730s, there was an explosion of clubs and societies established to improve knowledge in key areas – agriculture, philosophy, industry, medicine among them – and to drive recovery. These clubs were “characterised by their cross-disciplinary focus. The boundaries between different subject areas were not as fixed as they are today. It was quite common for philosophers, artists, scientists, churchmen, and lawyers to be members of the same society and to share ideas and discoveries from their different fields of knowledge” (NLS).

 Two hundred years later, as the world emerged from the chaos of the Second World War, a number of large companies sought to drive innovation and economic recovery. In the process, ways of working were revised and traditional workspaces were redesigned. “Bell Labs director Mervin Kelly guided the construction of a new home for the lab that would purposefully encourage interaction between its diverse mix of scientists and engineers.” explained Cal Newport in Deep Work.  “Bell Labs showed how sustained innovation could occur when people with a variety of talents were brought together. The corridors were…designed to promote random meetings among people with different talents and specialties, a strategy that Steve Jobs replicated in designing Apple’s new headquarters seventy years later. Anyone walking around Bell Labs might be bombarded with random ideas, soaking them up like a solar cell.” wrote Walter Isaacson in his 2014 book The Innovators.

It barely needs mentioning, but we are coming through our own tumultuous period. Over a decade of austerity has impacted on schools and communities across the nation, the Climate Crisis is escalating at pace, and Covid closed our schools and forced us to rethink all that we took for certain in the education of children for the first time since the threat of aerial bombardment in the 1940s. For over a decade now in Scottish Education, Twitter has been the space to share ideas, or more commonly, to show off achievements and practice. The balance of broadcast versus collaboration trod a fine line, but it was convenient for most. Until recent weeks, when we saw an escalation of distressing incidents: racist abuse of staff and learners, personal attacks on early career teachers. Elon Musk’s takeover in November further escalated fears that such incidents would become more commonplace and led to a migration from the platform to the tune of 700,000 users (and growing).

Consumers not Owners

While Twitter use has risen, we have seen a growth in 'consumption' rather than 'creation' around Education. Social Media creators on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube seem alien to the education landscape, where we have become accustomed to simply "searching", "finding" and "downloading", rather than "editing", "creating" and "collaborating".

Away from 'social media', the challenges to collegiate sharing are no less significant. GLOW would once have been the obvious solution, but many Local Authorities are turning their back on the platform to pursue their own needs, leaving users frustrated from the need to jockey login details and switch browsers. Meanwhile, we urgently need to liberate ourselves from the Big Tech 3, who are currently carving Scotland into digital fiefdoms, stifling cross-platform collaboration, luring teachers with shiny badges and gamification - as if being a Scottish Teacher isn't achievement enough!

Resourcing Collaboration

Bringing together colleagues from across Scotland, and across sectors, is one of the notable successes of the Education Scotland PLL team. Their leadership courses provide opportunities for collaboration, sharing and network building. However, capacity is finite and the cohorts of these courses (though expanding) make up a tiny percentage of the teaching body in Scotland. How then can we have meaningful discussion of the many reports and ideas.

It is time then to look to our recent past. A network of blogs, free standing from any one provider, hyperlinking to one another to debate and develop ideas, formed a healthy part of the discussion on all things educational in Scotland just a decade ago. What was missing in 2010 was any sort of directory: a working record of the many blogs, themes and ideas. An attempt at this was made by ScotEduBlogs, though this currently hinges on centralised moderators to update and organise the aggregator. Instead, a “ScotsEduWiki" would quickly surpass this, editable by all, allowing for information to be updated quickly and providing a map for educators, linking ideas, papers and research. In short, providing a one-stop shop to support the National Discussion.

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