Technology has become smaller, it has doubled in power every two years since the 1960s and it has become more interconnected. In short, it is transforming the way that we do business, entertain ourselves, understand and construct the world around us; if the Industrial Revolution was an earthquake that irrevocably and disruptively changed the historical trajectory of humanity, the current digital ‘golden age’ is an equally transformative aftershock of this process.
Recently, leading technologists from industry and educators from the independent sector descended upon Pownall Hall School in Cheshire to discuss how the benefits of all this new inter-connecting processing power can be used to enrich learning experiences in schools. What was striking, even among the more nostalgic educationalists present, was the tacit acceptance that whilst digital technology has transformed the way that every subject is practiced in the real world during the last 20 years, special ‘tech-free’ versions of those very same subjects have largely continued to be taught in schools around the globe. There are many reasons for this and those reasons are complex, but the insights of non-educationalists such as Paul Gouge, CEO of Playdemic, a games company based in Wilmslow (http://www.playdemic.com/), were revealing:
‘Part of the problem is perception. I run a company with a significant turnover and we employ 70 exceptionally bright and creative employees. We are a stable and rapidly growing company. We export abroad. We win awards. But, unfortunately, we don’t make anything that is real in a tangible sense. And so every week my Mother asks me when I’m going to get a proper job. There remains an irrational fear that technology and traditional skills are part of a zero-sum game. If you have one, you somehow can’t have the other. But the benefits of combining the two are enormous. They enrich each other.’
What was clear from the discussions that emerged is that increasingly ubiquitous technology in the classroom is already beginning to deliver benefits in pupil attainment, and this is partly down to the way that new technology allows children to engage with learning materials in a meaningful way. For example, free apps (for schools) such as ‘Aurasma’ (www.aurasma.com) allow streaming video content to smart devices when you point the camera at specific objects. This provides a multi-sensory experience that truly personalises learning. To help you imagine this, think about the pictures in Harry Potter that suddenly begin moving. Now imagine if you will, a homework sheet that bursts into life and explains what is required to complete it, or an explanation of the life-cycle of a frog that magically appears when the camera is pointed at frog spawn, or an art display that shows how it was created by the child, or a paper-based school newsletter that has actual footage from the school play embedded within it. It’s not science fiction, it is here now, it’s free to schools – and teachers and children in schools are already creating the content for it using those very same mobile devices.
The evidence base
Current academic research overwhelmingly demonstrates that smart devices are delivering the improvements in pupil attainment across all subjects that the IT Labs and ‘interactive whiteboards’ of the nineties and noughties singularly failed to achieve. Not only this, but levels of intrinsic motivation and enthusiasm for individual subjects (rather than for the technology) also rise significantly.
Children cannot fail to be inspired when they are collaborating with their peers across the globe on the same document at the same time (Google Apps www.google.co.uk/enterprise/apps/education/ / Quad-blogging www.quadblogging.com) or are talking to veterans of Pearl Harbour at the World War 2 Museum in New Orleans (Skype – www.education.skype.com) or reviewing interactive and personalised topic notes created by their teacher on iBooks Author? (www.apple.com/uk/ibooks-author). Notes that have already been posted on the school learning platform so that that pupils are critically engaging with them before they even get to school, rather than just trying to assimilate the information once the school gates are open. All of these resources are free of charge to schools (including powerful learning platforms such as Edmodo www.edmodo.com).
Technology for impact
As Mike Gibson, Deputy Headmaster of Stonyhurst School pointed out, ‘As most children already have devices, and the majority of the software and apps that you would want to use are free to educational providers, what becomes important is how to manage the change that the technology brings. Technology must facilitate teaching and learning; not be the purpose of it.'
David Goulbourn, Headmaster of Pownall School, agreed, ‘It is less about capital investment and more about evolving the curriculum and training staff and pupils to explore the possibilities that are available. Teachers have always been very good at this, but they just need to be confident with the new technology to get the best from it.’
Schools are also becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they crunch data to assess and track children’s progress, using software such as the hugely impressive ‘INCERTS’. (www.incerts.org) As Dr. Ian Billups, Executive Chairman of the Company noted, evidence-based tools such as these allow schools to intervene much more quickly if a child isn’t making the expected amount of progress – rather than waiting for standardised test results. They give teachers the ability to contextualise actual test data with evidence-based performance from the classroom. This makes for truly personalised learning conversations with children and their parents, as well as making it possible to measure the day-to-day impact of new whole-school initiatives.
Education beyond the classroom
What was clear as the day ended is that education has now moved irrevocably beyond the classroom; both in space and time. Whilst this will challenge schools to re-think how they configure themselves in the future to meet this new and evolving landscape, the real beneficiaries of the change are going to be the children themselves. Never before has learning been so personalised, so rich and so engaging. The opportunity for every child to fulfil their potential has never been greater. The sense of optimism as the meeting drew to a close was palpable.