This week I had the opportunity to attend the Learning Without Frontiers conference in London. I’ve wanted to go to this before but it’s clashed with other things. It’s always a little too close to BETT for my liking, I’d prefer a little bit of breathing space between the two, to be honest.

I arrived early, thanks to an invitation to attend the launch of a new book by Charles Leadbeater “Innovation in Education” written for WISE and published by Bloomsbury.  I’ll blog a review of the book another time, but it’s a study of some amazing education projects around the world, in some very challenging regions. I can’t find a link to it for sale online yet, but when I do, I’ll add it here.

After the book launch I made my way to the main theatre for the speakers, and there was an impressive list of names on show.

The day was kicked off with a video presentation by MIT Professor Noam Chomsky who made some very interesting points. He compared technology to a hammer;  “It doesn’t care if you use it to build a house or crush someone’s skull. The Web is valuable if you know what you’re looking for, if you have a framework of understanding. But you always have to be willing to question whether your framework is the right one.” Technology is a tool, and we need to make sure we harness it for good.

Next up was technology guru Ray Kurzweil, who has an impressive CV but was a slightly disppointing speaker if I’m honest. He spent a lot of time telling us about how much technology has changed over the years and how good 3D printers would one day be. He obviously knows his stuff but he spent a long time telling us that computer power is increasing exponentially, something that most of the room, tapping away on their iPads already knew.

Jaron Lanier was up next, and he gave a rather off-the-cuff talk about various projects he’d been involved in, namely early virtual reality experiments, working on Minority Report and helping produce the Kinect for Microsoft. I was interested by his claim that to use technology well you need to hate it. That “intelligence” built into products such as Word try and work out what you want to do (Clippy the paperclip anyone?) and auto-format for you – which is invariably useless. So we learn to interact with the software in a way that we avoid that happening in the first place. We adapt our use of the software to make it do what we want.

Highlight of the morning session was Dame Elen MacArthur who literally bounded onto the stage and had an amazing energy about her. I was fascinated by her Ellen MacArthur Foundation project working on creating a more cyclical global economy, which makes perfect sense – watch a video here. The education section of her website has good resources and scope for including in Science and Design/Technology classes.

Dame Ellen MacArthur

After Ellen I took a break from the speakers and headed off to explore the exhibition. I loved the inflatable pods that were being used to house each of the exhibitors. Gave the exhibition space a much different feel to the BETT show. There was much less focus on sales too, which was another interesting change from BETT.


I made my way to one of these pods for a debate by Steve Wheeler, Ian Addison, Drew Buddy and Dughall McCormick about whether the VLE is Dead, ably hosted by Michael Shaw of the TES. It was a fun lively debate, which pretty much summed up the arguments for and against the VLE. Myself, I’m still not a fan of the VLE because I don’t think schools know what to do with them. It’s not a fault of the VLE itself, although I do think many are badly designed especially for primary age children.

There were some interesting things on show in the pods – I loved the old computers on show in the BBC pod, and the National Museum of Computing (which I must go visit). The BBC looks like it’s making a move to get invovled in promoting coding again, in a similar way that it did in the 80’s when it helped to push a generation of bedroom coders with the BBC model B computer. Perhaps pushing a product such as Scratch?

I couldn’t stay late, so missed some of the afternoon speakers, but they have been covered elsewhere I’m sure.

I enjoyed the day at the conference, and am glad I attended. I did think, to paraphrase Mark Kermode that there was a lot of “without frontiers” before we got to the “learning”, especially with the speakers that I was able to see. I wish I could have attended the second day as the speakers seemed to be a lot more relevant to education – Steven Heppell, Sir Ken Robinson etc but I had to teach so couldn’t make it.

I’m not sure of the dates for the LWF13 conference yet, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the shifted date for the BETT show next year as well. But I’ll definitely try to attend.