The revolution that wasn't

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Technology has transformed almost every aspect of life from how people work in offices to how entertainment is consumed at home. So why has this explosion of innovation bypassed education?

In May last year, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs met for what would be the last time before Jobs' death at the age of 56. During the three-hour visit, the two men, who more than anyone defined the personal computing age, had much to talk about. "We were like the old guys in the industry looking back," Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson.

Among their discussion topics was education. The two men, both dropouts from university, had at various times dreamed of transforming schools through the power of computing. Both now admitted that they had failed to do so. "They agreed that computers had, so far, made surprisingly little impact on schools - far less than in other realms of society such as media and medicine and law," Isaacson writes.

It was a tough admission to make, because the ambitions for education technology had always been so high. In 1966, when the first personal computers were beginning to reach the market at prices on a par with a comfortable family car, the Stanford University philosopher Patrick Suppes was experi-menting with the use of computers to teach reading and writ-ing to California schoolchildren. Despite using a computer the size of a large desk with data storage in the form of punched cards, he saw almost limitless potential in the technology.

"One can predict that, in a few years, millions of school-children will have access to what Philip of Macedon's son Alexander enjoyed as a royal prerogative: the services of a tutor as well-informed and as responsive as Aristotle," he wrote.

With less fanciful language, Gates continues to talk about students watching lectures and video lessons on their machines and using classroom time for discussions and problem solving. He argues that computers and mobile devices will have to focus more on personalised lessons and providing motivational feedback. This view is echoed by Valerie Thompson, chief executive of the e-Learning Foundation. "This has the potential to deliver the personalised learning agenda that we've been talking about for the past 10 years," she says.

But as Suppes' remark makes clear, a personal and responsive education facilitated by computers has been dreamed about for much longer than that. And for most it is still nothing more than that; a dream.

While there are many examples of exciting innovation such as "flipped learning" - in which pupils view a lecture as homework ahead of a teacher-led lesson that is used for problem solving and queries - these are still sporadic, and the mainstream education world largely gapes at them agog.

Technology as a cause has always had to contend with a backlash from those who see it not as a route to a more personal style of learning but as a barrier to the social interaction at the heart of teaching. Now that backlash is getting support from an unexpected source: Silicon Valley executives. According to a New York Times report, many of them are sending their children to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, California, which frowns on the use of technology until the age of about 13. "The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic - that's ridiculous," says one executive.

So why has there been no revolution in education to match what desktop publishing and then the internet did to the media; or what new diagnostic tools or the computing power to sequence the human genome are doing to medicine? What could bring such a change about? Like most revolutions, there are issues partly of economics and partly of ideology.

You can read the full article in the January 13 issue of TES.

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