Scotland’s first ever government-backed hack event could herald new ways of navigating the learner journey
The Scottish Government held an event last weekend in Edinburgh unlike any other it has hosted before. Except for the handful of civil servants invited to speak at its launch, you would not have been able to tell it was a public sector affair. It ran throughout the weekend of 12 April, late into the night; its participants were fuelled by beer and pizza; and everyone in a suit was politely asked to leave by eight o’clock on the Friday evening. Most remarkable of all, over the course of three days, those who attended produced a range of working prototypes for cutting-edge, expertly designed digital products that could help deliver one of Scotland’s key education goals, and all for the cost of the food and drink they consumed. Much of the time, government can only dream of being so agile or cost effective.
Scotland’s first government-backed ‘hack’ event, the Learner Journey Data Jam – held at Edinburgh’s start-up incubator, TechCube – saw developers use data provided by the Scottish Government and state bodies, including complete course lists and lists of learning institutions, to produce prototypes of tools and techniques of using that data to help learners. Open data is still a relatively new concept in Scotland, and some data sets that would have been useful, like a list of college courses, weren’t available. “It’s something that they’re still quite anxious about – you mention open data, and people still flinch a bit,” says Lizzie Brotherston, a designer contracted to the Scottish Government’s learner journey project who instigated the hack event. “This event is about being far more lean and agile in the way that we build stuff,” says fellow designer Sarah Drummond, director of Snook, the service design agency brought in to drive the effort to improve the learner journey. “Technology should never, ever be built in a two-year project that has a million-pound budget. The guys building things at the weekend, they’ll build things in eight hours.” The prototypes developed over the weekend will be taken back to learners for them to try out and give their views on.
The event last week follows a report produced by Snook for the Scottish Government last year, which clearly illustrated the potential of the ‘design-thought’ model that the organisation has brought to public policy. Improving the learner journey doesn’t look like a government report, with pages of findings punctuated by recommendations. Instead, Snook went into schools and colleges and asked learners to plot the journeys they had been on so far, indicating where they felt they had been supported in making decisions about their future, and where they felt let down by the system. The result was a series of individual learner journey maps, plotting out the connections between each year of school and the decisions that young people have to make at every stage – whether to go into work, into an apprenticeship, to college or to university. The effect is highly visual, with the network of dotted lines resembling a dew-strung spider’s web. It’s also illustrative of the scale and complexity of the choices facing Scotland’s learners; policy-makers talk about the need for flexible learner journeys, but Snook’s maps show that the paths being taken show plenty of variety.
Mapping the learner journeys for the Snook report uncovered a number of issues that learners would otherwise have struggled to communicate to the decision makers in government. “One reason why the route map is important is because people talked about not really being able to widen their horizons and see what was possible, so we want to be able to show people that most routes into doing something are open,” says Drummond. “People also wanted to see other people’s journeys – almost like a networked mentoring scheme, so people could see the journeys that other people took into their profession.” The effectiveness of the so-called ‘co-creation’ process as a consultation tool is demonstrated by the fact that the Scottish Funding Council and civil servants only last month, as a result of the college waiting lists debate, recommended that there should be a single college application system for Scotland. Yet the idea was first expressed a year ago in the Snook report, by Katie, an award-winning hairdressing student at City of Glasgow College, who struggled through school. “We do tend to have quite a people-centred agenda, but in practice what we tend to do is do a lot of research but we don’t think about how to take forward some of the insights,” says Drummond.
The need for a more engaging, interactive and accessible depiction of the learner journey is clear both from the feedback of those involved in the co-creation sessions that Snook held, and the comments of those currently navigating their children through the changing senior phase of Scottish secondary education. “I think stuff to do with government is often extremely wordy, and it’ll just be to do with that area that they’re looking at, so it means that people from outside that area can’t really engage with it,” says Brotherston. That view is echoed by Jeanna Brady of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who says that particularly with the implementation of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence, some parents can feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available relating to course selection and post-school study. Others complain about the dissemination of resources being reliant on a narrow group of gatekeepers, so that where informal school community links aren’t well-maintained, the information doesn’t flow. “There’s a huge amount of information and websites out there maintained by a whole lot of organisations, but there’s not quite yet one place where you can see all that,” Brotherston adds.
The closest thing to a learner journey roadmap currently available for both learners and parents is the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), which has the ambition of becoming the “national language of learning” in Scotland, according to SCQF chief executive, Aileen Ponton. The challenge is communicating it to its users in a way they can understand. “We are a very tiny organisation with a very tiny budget, so we are in many ways dependent on partners also carrying quite a lot of that message.” If Snook’s work were to produce a digital or visual tool that could help do that, it would be “hugely positive,” she says. “When we speak to other countries who perhaps want to emulate what’s going on here, one of the things we tend to finish on is that the biggest issue is: communicate, communicate, communicate. The work that Snook is doing about engaging with young learners and young adults, about when and how they make the choices about their learning, all of that is hugely useful.” Ponton is encouraged by ongoing research into how the SCQF is being received and used, with an increasing understanding of the framework at university level and amongst senior pupils. “It will take some time to bed into the psyche, and we know that.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the Learner Journey Data Jam represents a new dawn or just a random flash of light; even those close to the project recognise that open-data, agile development and co-creation are bold approaches to policy making that will be difficult for a typically risk-averse civil service to stomach. Some sources from the wider education environment, while welcoming the opportunity that Snook’s work represents, question whether it will deliver on its promise; it has been almost a year since the agency was brought on board, and the learner journey report didn’t enjoy the same exposure as equivalent pieces of government research. Brotherston and Drummond accept that the product of the Data Jam weekend may not be taken forward within government, which might not be able to back a new digital product with the same level of resource that a private sector learning provider could do. However, speaking at the launch, Scottish Government creativity lead, Harriet Hunter, told the assembled designers and developers that “this story will be shared across government”. There are certainly some lessons to be gleaned from it. “It would save the Government lots of money if everything was developed this way,” says Drummond.