Sarah’s Blog is about …

… innovations in learning, applications of emerging technologies, Africa, wildlife and other such things that interest me. I invite you to add your reflections to mine.

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eLearning Africa

July 31st, 2013 by Sarah

I have recently return from Namibia,  where I both presented and ran workshops at eLearning Africa - the 8th International Conference for ICT Development, Education and Training with my colleague Dr. Sarah Younie.

Sarah Jones, @ eLearning Africa, Windhoek, Namibia 2013

Sarah Jones, @ eLearning Africa, Windhoek, Namibia 2013

The theme was Tradition, Change and Innovation and I was so pleased to see the first of these three words. So often in our digital world, people think we must away with the old to make room for the new technologies, without really asking, “Why?”

For example, sometimes pen and paper enable greater creativity than keyboard and screen.  I know that I am far more creative when I write by hand. I have often wondered if it is something to do with how the brain works when thinking in conjunction with the physical act of writing. Perhaps … take a look at these:

Clearly, tradition in the context of the eLearning Africa conference, meant a whole host of other things, beyond this superficial viewpoint of pen and paper vs keyboard and screen.

The Keynotes

The Keynotes

There were so many interesting workshops, presentation and conversations. Here are some links, people, quotes and reflections, to give you a flavour:


Solar Powered Classrooms

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There is just too much blah blah blah …

June 26th, 2013 by Sarah

As I was listening to the Radio 4 Today Programme, I heard a journalist being interviewed by John Humphrys. He said he was thinking of giving it all up as there is so much blah blah blah out there…

It got me thinking … are people no longer listeners? Are they just content pushers and what is the quality of that content? Does the brevity of twitter encourage superficiality, for example? We’ve heard it said, but is it really true? As I was preparing for my RS4 during my PhD marathon – a hoop through which to jump on the long and winding road of scholarship towards doctorhood – I was asked by one of my supervisors to describe my PhD in the character count of a tweet. Now that really focused the mind, but how often are people’s minds focused when they tweet and how often are people just saying blah blah blah?

The Japenese Haiku can convey all sorts of thought provoking juxtapositions and are of a similar length to tweets. So is the blah blah blah something specific to micro blogging and/or other technologies? Does the technology get in the way and create a population who don’t seem to be able to work with an idea and shape it, give it depth and colour and rich meaning? I particularly worry about the lack of depth in learning as focus is located on the technological tools, rather than pedagogical approaches.

Sculpture in Ilhow, East Frisia, Germany

Sculpture in Ilhow, East Frisia, Germany

And it is not just the written medium that is shouting blah blah blah. The day before yesterday on another Radio 4 programme I heard a woman imploring the public to leave their cameras at home when they go on holiday. She talked of her dismay in taking a boat out from the Indian coastline to watch a spectacular sunset and being jostled against the rails as people constantly clicked their cameras for that perfect picture, which never comes and rests besides a million other sunset pictures from past holidays in a lost photo library. Why did they do this, she pleaded? Have they really paid all that money to travel all that way to capture a picture to show people back home? The opportunity for a deeper, richer experience of sight and sound and smell and touch is lost behind the camera shutter clicking and clicking and clicking.

As one royal photographer put it, when talking about the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, photography is not just about clicking as often as you can in the hope of a great picture. It needs thought and planning and then you wait all day for that photo and as the time draws close, you have to wait for the particular shot you are looking for, anticipate it’s arrival and time the shot as best you can to capture the smiling gaze into each others eyes, rather than blinking eyes. Now there is some depth.

Maybe we are we more worried about what people think of our words, than taking the chance and the time to creatively shape our own original thoughts? Is it true that there is just too much blah blah blah out there? Are we becoming a bite size knowledge society and a poor quality content bite size at that?

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Stories, Identity and the Natural World

May 24th, 2013 by Sarah

I have recently returned from the Michna Palace in Prague where I was at an inter-disciplinary conference on Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative. It was a purposefully small group, by conference standards – perhaps 80 at most and all delegates at some point were speakers, presenting their ‘stories’ or research from a variety of different contexts. We had social workers, architects, educationalists, therapists and photographers amongst others, who discussed the use of stories, storytelling and story gathering from these varied perspectives.

Patrizia Sanguedolce and Sarah Jones outside the conference

Patrizia Sanguedolce and Sarah Jones outside the conference

It’s the first inter-disciplinary conference that I have attended and the mix of people brought a richness to the discussions which followed, helping me to form new ideas and connections that might not otherwise have occurred to me. As well as being inter-disciplinary, the organizers banned power point, citing the never-ending text filled slides as the reason why. So it surprised me, that instead of finding some other creative way to impart research about stories, a large number of the delegates decided to read out their papers, verbatim. It seems paradoxical, that those who have embraced the art form of story telling, were not able to create stories of their own research. If I wanted to read someone’s paper, I could have downloaded it from the conference website without leaving the comfort of my own home. I had a go with a Prezi and you can access it here although you’ll need to read the paper here, to make sense of it.

Of course not all of the delegates fell into this category. There were some truly excellent performances – not least from a Suchitra Mathur from India who discussed the portrayal of men and women in Bollywood Film or the presentation on Andrei Bitov, by Marina von Hirsch about how the Pushkin drafts have been recited to an accompaniment of improvised jazz. We heard 2 minutes of this and the result was really powerful. Although hard to put into words – there was a deep resonance with something almost primeval – perhaps because the focus for me was on the sound as I don’t speak Russian. It reminded me of a Radio 4 programme, which I listened to on the way to the airport, presented by Robert Winston on the Science of Music, where he suggests that our first language as cavemen was sound or music, rather than words.

Later that afternoon, another presenter, Joanna Coleman suggested in her presentation on the Role of Fairy Tales in Environmental Education, that actually our first language, before sound, was body movement. Her presentation put forward the often, alternative Western view that we humans are linked with animals, communicating through mind, spirit and movement as well as sometimes sound. Giving examples from American Indians, she argues that it would do us well to reconnect with this notion. She convinces us to,

put aside our human voices and speak in the tongues of the wild world, or take off our skins and enter the fur of the forest-dwellers. As the impending environmental crisis urges us towards a change of thought and heart, we are confronted with a paradox; how is it that we empathize, to a large extent, only with our own species, when our tales remain those in which courtesy to other species is, according to Marie Louise von Franz, the only consistent moral imperative?

Here she is talking of the role of fairy tales and with delegates from around the world, many shared reflections from their own cultures – particularly from India and South Africa.

Bull Elephant, eating outside our house - Swallows Camp

Bull Elephant, eating outside our house - Swallows Camp

And it made me reflect on how I have changed since we have had our house in Mpumulanga, where we can open the door and a lion might be walking past or hyena might circle us a night whilst we cook outside on the campfire. I have always been interested in nature and have felt ‘in touch’ with the natural world, but the intensity and relevance of this has increased ten fold since we’ve had our house. I listen for the oxpeckers flying overhead, warning us of potential danger, the impala bark telling us a predator is close by or when the frogs stop croaking, suggesting that a leopard is walking past. And I listen to the animals talking to each other, the honey guide and honey badger, the dwarf mongooses and the hornbills and I wonder, how do we attempt to join in the communication with these animals and birds? What do we give them in return for what they give us? Perhaps a sanctuary away from those who choose not to listen, who have thrown away their connection to the wild, those who have lost the story of who they really are.


Coleman, J. (2013) Storytelling and Harmonious Dwelling: The Role of Fairy Tales in Environmental Education Available from last accessed 23rd May 2013

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Online Educa Berlin 2012

January 15th, 2013 by Sarah

At the end of November, I visited Berlin to present a paper, run a workshop and host a Special Interest Group lunch at the 18th Annual Online Educa Berlin conference, in Berlin. All three explored the use of Open Educational Resources (OERs), specifically in relation to Digital Literacy & Creativity.

Why? Because I have just completed a project in this very area and I wanted to, firstly, share the sustainable model of OER development - the lack of which is a key challenge and criticism in the OER debate - which we have created. Secondly, I wanted to help others overcome challenges in their own contexts, to use, repurpose and create OERs. As a by product, the three different sessions also enabled participants to explore the landscape of Digital Literacy & Creativity.


Here I am presenting the main paper in the central conference hall in the first session straight after the keynote speakers.

The project I have just completed was jointly funded by JISC/HEA and awarded to the University of Bedfordshire, the Association for Information Technology in Teacher Education (ITTE) and Core Education. My role as the Project Development Officer, was to create a Masters Level 30 credit OER module in Digital Literacy and Creativity. That I did and if you want to access it, use it, repurpose it and discuss it - then please visit THIS ONLINE COMMUNITY where you will find the module and all the resources (if you are not already a member of the Education Communities, you can register for free HERE).

This is the fourth time I have visited Berlin. I have been to the conference for the last three years, presenting in some form or another - however, the first visit was all very different. I was about 15 and the Cold War had not ended, the Berlin Wall still divided the east from the west (that shows my age) and rather than going to present at a conference, I went with the Combined Cadet Force during a summer cap, where we were stationed with the 229 Signals Squadron. It might not have been a conference, but I still learned a lot and that experience has partly shaped who I am today.

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Banning Mobile Phones and CyberBullying

May 11th, 2012 by Sarah

Yesterday it was reported across the UK media, that Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools at Ofsted is about to launch new plans in the battle to crackdown on classroom discipline. The key headline surrounds the banning of mobile phones in classrooms. Of course, I can see the arguments for banning, but none of these are insurmountable. However, we are more likely to create less prepared citizens for a rapidly changing and evolving global society if this learning tool is removed from the classroom.

teacher-and-mobile-phoneWhether he was misquoted or not, I was astounded to see that cyber bullying was cited as one reason why they shouldn’t be used in schools. Firstly, does cyber bullying only take place in schools? Secondly, does it only take place on mobile phones? It would be like banning a plate because you might get food poisoning from it. A mobile phone, just like a plate, is a tool or vehicle and effective education can enable us to use both safely and securely.

Cyber bullying, just like ordinary bullying, is always going to be a facet of our society whether we like it or not. We need to be pragmatic about approaching this terrible behaviour and help support our teachers who can help support their students. There are so many wonderful resources, facilitators and techniques available, that the crime is not a handset in the classroom, it is the inability of schools to proactively engage in minimizing the possibility of cyber bullying. If you’re interested in resources on cyber bullying two great places to start are here:

Cyber bullying apart, if there was to be a blanket ban on mobile phones in schools across the country, then the amazing learning that is currently taking place in some of our more innovative forward thinking schools would be stopped. But don’t take my word for it, have a look at these links instead:

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Changing Educational Landscapes

April 18th, 2012 by Sarah

Here follows an extract from a talk I gave a few weeks back, which I have been asked to post up for reference purposes:

The development of communication through the ages has transformed the way in which we have provided learning opportunities. From primitive mans first attempt at drawing on the cave wall with charcoal, we now find ourselves in a time where people can collaborate synchronously around the world, creating, articulating, refining and publishing new knowledge irrespective or geographical location, cultural/language differences or time zones or of their position in society. In the past, as communication has developed, ‘Authoritative Knowledge’ has grown with it, being “socially sanctioned, consequential, [and made] official” (Jorden, 1992, p.1) by the privileged few through religious orders, societal leaders, universities and printing processes. Concurrent to this, practitioners and craftsmen have developed an oral tradition which, although has been harder to distribute across societies, has also served to educate new generations.

Although the earliest schools can be traced back as far as 1500 - 1000BC (Gillard, 2011), the model of what many of us in the Western world have come to think of as ‘school’, gained through our own experiences of it, has only been around since the Age of Enlightenment when schools developed outside of church control. At this time, universal education was introduced across Europe. Alongside this, theories of learning to support such education also grew. Schools were used as a way of educating our children, to provide a literate workforce for the approaching industrial age and the manufacturing empires of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries (Robinson & Wise, 2009, in Puttnam et al.) and to a large extent this model of school is little changed (Robinson, 2010).

Up until the 18th century, society had changed very little for the previous 100’s of years. As Sturdy (1971) suggests, if you had transported a man back in time from 1800 to 1500, he would have seen little change in society, however if you transported him in other direction, society would have changed beyond recognition. It is perhaps no coincidence that the recent radical change in society has coincided with universal education.

However, in 1968 Hutchins suggested that current systems of education could no longer support society. In answer to this problem, he proposed that societies needed to change and that learning was central to this - thus the ‘Learning Society’. This idea was also articulated in the 1972 UNESCO report, where the chairman, Edgar Faure writes in his opening letter,

We should no longer assiduously acquire knowledge once and for all, but learn how to build up a continually evolving body of knowledge all through life—’learn to be’.

He went on to suggest that,

If learning involves all of one’s life, in the sense of both time-span and diversity, and all of society, including its social and economic as well as its educational resources, then we must go even further than the necessary overhaul of ‘educational systems’ until we reach the stage of a learning society.

Ransom (1998) asks however, is a learning society concerned with developing new ways for individuals to learn, or is the emphasis on how new societies are created? The notion of a Learning Society is thus discussed by both those who find it useful (e.g. Skilbeck, 2001) and those who find it ambiguous (e.g. Coffield, 2000). Jarvis (2006) suggests that this dichotomy comes from a lack of clear definition. Having reviewed the work of others he postulates that a Learning Society does exist and contains 4 key characteristics - vision, planning, reflexivity and market.

In creating the term ‘Learning Society’, it could be argued that the focus of learning becomes that of society, rather than of the individual. Indeed many academics and leading thinkers (Bentley, 1999; Guile, 2001; Facer, 2011; Puttnam, 2011; Heppell, 2011) are talking of the centrality of education and learning within society as a whole. In a recent publication discussing the future of learning, Facer (2011) sees education at the centre of an interplay between the emerging complexity of systems, the growth of a knowledge economy, changing demographics and ongoing climatic disruption. She predicts massive challenges in the 21st century as a result of this interplay and argues that education needs a radical rethink if we are to address the ensuing developments, problems and changes.

Running parallel to this, a variety of authors (Freison, 2009; Jones et al, 2009; Oblinger, 2005; Seely Brown, 2002; Prensky, 2001) are in agreement that, we have arrived at a renaissance period in the way learners learn.

Still others support these assertions (Small & Leaton Gray 2009; in Puttnam et al.) asking how adaptable are our youngsters going to be in 5, 10, 20 even 30 years time to adapt to new jobs and technologies, solving problems we can not even imagine at this point in time. The modern world is changing. Global economies are now based on a rapidly developing landscape and the skills people require, need to be relevant to this shifting environment and the resultant changing job market. 1978, US Department of Labour statistics suggested that by the age of 38, US citizens would have had between 7 and 8 jobs and have changed career, around 3 times (Arbeiter, et al., 1978, cited in Kolb, 1984). This figure had grown by 2010, with US Department of Labour statistics suggesting that people of the same age will have had between 10 - 14 different jobs (Fisch et al, 2010). Richard Riley, former US Education Secretary stated that the top 10 jobs in demand in 2010, did not exist in 2004. However the quantum leap in formal education that is required to meet these challenges has not yet happened (Wales, 2011). To prepare youngsters for this constantly emerging world, the model of school as we used to know it, needs to change and along with it the theories of learning that underpin it, need to be developed anew.

Sarah Jones 2011

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The Spirit Level

February 24th, 2012 by Sarah

When I was in New Zealand last year, we stayed with some friends who, one evening, invited us to join them at their local café for a monthly meeting they have with around 70 others, under the loose banner of ‘Spirited Conversations’. In a convivial atmosphere of excellent food and cheerful company, the meal is followed with a speaker setting out a thought provoking argument or position and on the night we were there, this was done by a member of the NZ cabinet regarding a book called The Spirit Level (by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett).


The basic premise of the book is this, that as inequalities in society grow, so the problems in that society increase. Last night, we were lucky enough to get one of the authors, Richard Wilkinson, to join us at the Hull Medical Society, to discuss the findings in more detail.


He suggested that in the UK, we live in a broken society. He argued that the evidence demonstrates that whilst on the one hand we have material success, on the other we have social failure. But the UK is not alone. Looking across the board at social dysfunction (including markers such as teenage births, infant mortality, life expectancy, obesity, mental illness, social mobility, homicides etc) the USA, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Greece and others are all up there with us. Where there are greater inequalities in societies - bullying at school is higher, more students drop out of high school and educational scores are lower.

Photo by kind permission of Richard Wilkinson

Photo by kind permission of Richard Wilkinson

It may not be such a surprise that things are likely to be worse at the bottom of the heap, but one factor that did stop to make me think was that of ‘friendship’. Holt-Lunstad et al. (2010) demonstrated that ‘friendship’ is at least as important in health, as smoking and drinking. This in turn has brought me back to the study David Cameron instigated on well being in the UK The National Well-being Project. I can’t seem to find the report, which I believe has been completed, but I did come across an article about it which suggested that around 3/4s of people in the UK rate themselves 7 out of 10 or higher on the well-being scale. This seems at odds with the findings in the Spirit Level. Critics of the well-being study have suggested that the report tells us more about the UK temperament than about our state of mind, which is rather alarming as the lowest score in the whole exercise was associated with how happy people were with their financial situation. I would argue that transformational change on a massive scale would be required, if one of the economically richest societies on the planet is to change a temperament that worries about their financial position. Or were just the ‘bottom of the heap’ interviewed in Cameron’s well being study?

If we are to evolve a sensitivity towards social /economic status with a view to narrowing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, then we need to somehow get people to understand that there is more to life than money. We need more philanthropic role models, big bosses who refuse bonuses or at the least donate them to charitable causes, which bring our society closer together, not wider apart and ‘individuals’ to demonstrate ‘societal belonging’ - ‘ubuntu’ to the rest of ‘their’ community.

If this has been of interest, then you might want to take a look at the following:

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The Communications Revolution: reflections from the Reith Lectures 2011

June 28th, 2011 by Sarah

Every year I tune in to the Reith Lectures on Radio 4. They provoke new ideas, challenge assumptions and often connect previously disassociated notions and concepts. This year sees a break with tradition, as the lectures have been split into two parts, due to a guest pulling out at the last minute. With the overarching theme of ‘Securing Freedom’, Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese opposition politician, started us off this morning with a lecture entitled ‘Liberty’.

In reflecting on her own experiences, she places the human need for freedom into context, touching on the works of Max Weber, on dissidents such as Vaclav Havel, Irina Ratushinskaya and Anna Akhmatova and finally to a comparison about how nations in the Arab world have recently dealt with political change.

And here there is one key difference. She calls it the Communications Revolution (take THIS LINK for examples of this), which has kept the focus of the world on countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt unlike the historical context of uprisings in Burma.

In short, communications means contact.

The current communication revolution has enabled change at a pace never experienced before and as well as bringing about an almost instantaneously new political landscape there are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, inherent problems arising from this. I was talking to an Egyptian friend of mine recently, who was explaining the lack of security and fear that some have at walking along previously safe streets. There seems to be a disconnect between freedom and responsibility, that one necessarily comes with the other and that the rapid pace of change, which we have recently witnessed in some Arab nations, has not given people the time to develop this understanding or capability.

Moving away from political upheaval and towards the communication revolution in the world of education, new technologies can at first glance have created new, more immediate ways of learning. Or have they?

Do we really learn differently because of technology? A simplification of Vygotskian theory, suggests that we firstly learn through social interaction and then secondly through internalizing this experience. Does this still happen when our social interactions are online or is something else at play?

My gut instinct tells me that this may well depend on how learning activities are constructed in the online environment and all too often, little thought is given to this. In using new technologies for education, we should be mindful of what constitutes ‘deep learning’ and ‘superficial learning’. The communication revolution can both help and hinder processes associated with different kinds of learning and all too often I see tools added into learning activities without consideration of the pedagogical implications of the tool upon the learning experience itself. A classic example is the misguided use of the ‘forum’ or ‘conversation’ tool.

Keri Facer, in her new book Learning Futures suggests that, “the relationship between technology and society is far more complex than the narratives of ‘technology-led change’ would have us believe” (2011, p6) and to this I would agree.

In shaping our education futures, we should be giving greater thought to what we are trying to achieve and how we are trying to learn. Only then will we know how best we can support this with the technological innovations of the communication revolution.

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Narrative Role Play and Mahatma Gandhi

May 24th, 2011 by Sarah

I went to a most interesting talk last week at the Hull Medical Society – the last of the programme before the summer break. The guest speaker was Lord Parek of Kingston upon Hull. The title of the talk:

“A perceived conversation between Mahatma Gandhi and Osama bin Laden,”

had been set last year, before the death of Osama bin Laden yet if anything, it made the audience more interested to hear Lord Parek speak.

He opened his talk by explaining the similarities between the two men – both were well educated (partly in the UK) and came from wealthy families, both were highly religious and political and turned their back on the family wealth. Both of them saw a threat from outside nations – for Gandhi it was the British rule in India, for bin Laden – the Americans and both spent some time trying to address this threat from outside their native countries, Gandhi having spent time in South Africa, bin Laden in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, both took a completely different position on how to deal with the threat they faced. Gandhi chose non-violence and bin Laden chose terrorism.

Why? Well that was the basis of his talk and you could have heard a pin drop during the hour that diminished all too quickly.


A sign under a statue of Gandhi in the center of Wellington, New Zealand - revealing one of Gandhi's 5 teachings to bring about world peace

Lord Parek, a philosopher by profession, seeks to explore the reasons for this in a perceived correspondence between the two men, beginning with bin Laden writing to Gandhi, explaining the reasons for his actions. You can read a sample of the letters on The Gandhi Foundation website. A longer version can be found in The Stranger’s Religion: Fascination and Fear edited by Anna Lannstrom.

This technique of ‘narrative role play’ provides a creative way of exploring topics. Richard Millwood reminded me the other day, that we have used it at Ultralab (particularly led by Gill Roberts) in planning new technological interventions, by staff taking on the characters of some of the leading thinkers that have shaped our pedagogical approach, whilst exploring the possibilities of the intervention – for example, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, Carl Rogers, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner. See one such poster invitation to staff below:

Image courtesy of Gill Roberts

Image courtesy of Gill Roberts, 2003

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Conceptual Incubation

March 8th, 2011 by Sarah

A wonderful term isn’t it? I came across it when viewing this TED talk video (2009) about the Tinkering School:

Gever Tulley talking at TED Talks 2009

Gever Tulley talking at TED Talks 2009

In it, Gever Tulley talks about how problems are turned into puzzles and how setbacks and complexities can lead to a period of ‘conceptual incubation’.

He uses the term in the context of children building things - task orientated creativity, however I’m sure it can be applied to almost any context. I find that I have periods of conceptual incubation when ideas I have been reading about for my PhD and the data I have been gathering begin to merge and twist around in my mind whilst I’m walking the dog or going for a run.

I am also interested in how this term applies to the international school on which I am basing my PhD. It is an emerging and constantly evolving environment and requires new thinking in the way technology is used at every level to make it into successful reality …

Tulley has recently opened a new school in San Francisco called Brightworks with Bryan Welsch … director of the Curious Summer workshops. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

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