Education: out of date and ripe for disruption

Why are we persisting with an industrial-era education system in the information age? We have to reinvent this.

The pace of change of technology is creating tidal waves of disruption everywhere you look. Businesses are closing. Law-makers are struggling to catch up – and Universities are trying to figure out how to exist in a world where the finest lectures ever given can be downloaded in seconds. There’s plenty of discussion – and some innovation – in that sector. But what about the beginnings of our educational journey? What about schools.

I’m old enough that computing was an adjunct of maths when I was at school – and we were actually taught to program – in a limited way. But there was only so much you could do with BASIC on a BBC Micro anyway. There was some controversy in the UK a few years ago when it became clear that UK education was focusing on teaching children to use, essentially, Microsoft Office – to prepare them for life as office workers, not as coders. That option wasn’t even there for most children a generation after me.

The initiative seems to have stumbled, because parents have been taking things into their own hands with Code Club – where parents or others with the relevant skills go into schools and help children start learning about coding in after schools classes.

But the challenge now is even greater. Children as young as a year old can work iPads – I can vouch for this as my 16-month old daughter is adept at switching between her favourite games on it – and are likely to grow up with touch-screen devices as their default mode of computing interaction. And then they enter schools where the keyboard and mouse are the standard.

It’s clear that everyone needs to adapt, from primary school teachers upwards.

There have been efforts to do so. And some of them have gone badly wrong. This was the experience of one Irish school:

In a letter sent to parents, Mr Gleeson wrote, “The roll-out of e-learning which involved the use of HP Elite Pads and e-books should have been an exciting and new way of moving forward.

“The HP Elite Pad has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. We have met with HP representatives on a number of occasions to address the issues.

“To ensure stability and continuity of education I have ordered a full set of books for all the students.”

One can’t help but wonder what kind of decision-making process led them to choose that particular model – no-one would accuse it of being a well-know tablet product.

Other experiences have been more successful. Scottish technologist and teacher Fraser Spiers has been documenting his experience of a 1:1 student to iPad system on his blog.

In particular, his response to some problems experienced by a similar program in LA is interesting. Here’s what went “wrong” in the US:

Following news that students at a Los Angeles high school had hacked district-issued iPads and were using them for personal use, district officials have halted home use of the Apple tablets until further notice.

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Theodore Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

So, it looks like they were trying to make the iPads education-only devices. As Spiers puts it:

Imagine you’re 14 and, one summer, you hear on the news that you’re getting iPads when you go back to school. You go back, are handed an iPad, and then they tell you that you can’t browse the web, can’t use it for personal projects and all you can do with it is look at Pearson apps.

Total heartbreak.

The experience in Greenock of the children putting games and other things on their iPads?

You know what the impact was, though? A dramatic drop in petty indiscipline cases. Those boring slack times in school could be filled with something useful or just plain fun. We found that, early on, pupils would just use free time to play games. As the deployment progressed, and the culture changed, pupils started to use the iPad more creatively in those times – either catching up on work, doing personal research or exploring new apps. It’s not uncommon to see kids sitting before school or at lunchtime practicing with an app that they don’t otherwise get much chance to use.

If we’re going to adapt our education system to new technology that’s exactly what we’re going to have to do: adapt our system not adapt our technology. Some voices are beginning to argue that we’re persisting with an education system that was designed for the industrial revolution, not the information revolution.

They’re right. We need to reinvent this.

• Spiers and Bradley Chambers run an interesting podcast on this issue: Out Of School

Photo by Brad Flickinger and used under a Creative Commons licence.