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? Joseph Lee reports

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 experimenting with the use of computers to teach reading and writing 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 schoolchildren 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.

Single minded

In 1980, a few years after the launch of the Apple II, Jobs identified the importance of the "personal" in personal computer. "There's something very different and very historically special which takes place when you have one computer and one person," he says in a recording recently released by the Computer History Museum. "It's very different (from) if you have 10 people and one computer." Later, in an interview with Wired magazine in the mid-1990s, he would say something similar about internet access: "it's ubiquitous. There will be web dial tone everywhere. And anything that's ubiquitous gets interesting."

Yet the opportunities for pupils in schools and colleges to all work on their own computer are rare. When the BBC Micro was created in the early 1980s, costing #163;1,200 per computer at today's prices, the ambition was to buy just one for every school. By 1998, there were more than 17 children to a computer in primary schools and more than eight for each machine in secondaries. According to a survey by the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), there were 3.7 primary pupils to a computer in 2011 and 2.4 secondary pupils.

"One of the reasons technology was able to change industry was that, in industry, everyone's got their own technology," says Fraser Speirs, head of computing and ICT at the Cedars School of Excellence in Greenock, Scotland, a small private school for 5- to 17-year-olds that became the first in the world to provide an iPad to every student. "Most office workers and professionals have their own computers. One reason education hasn't been transformed the way business has is because it's never deployed technology the way business has."

The decision to go all-iPad was not driven by the availability of the hardware, although Speirs says that the success of the project has depended on the product's all-day battery life, easy mobility and ease of maintaining social interaction - because the screen does not form a barrier between teacher and student. Instead, it was prompted by changes to the curriculum and demand from teachers, and it was only by coincidence that the iPad was launched at the same time.

"We have a new curriculum in Scotland, called Curriculum for Excellence. It doesn't do away with planning, but one of the things we are encouraged to do is to allow the class to explore more themselves. If we need to organise resources in advance, then it's very hard to let people explore," Speirs says.

What teachers were clamouring for was an easy way for everyone to access the internet, to download the resources and information they needed at will. "The demand came from the teachers. That's how we always do it. People have to demand it before we buy it. There are educational technologists whose job is to evangelise technology - I've never evangelised anything."

Teachers' enthusiasm for the devices means that few subject areas have been left untouched, from percussion instruments in the early primary stages being replaced by the GarageBand app to the inexorable death of the paper book for older students. In science, probes feed experimental data direct to the iPads while high-powered microscopes can broadcast to every screen.

But it is in the art department that Speirs has seen the biggest changes. "It's transformed what kids think they can achieve and what they can achieve," he says. Bernadette Brooks, general manager of Naace, the ICT association, says that the ability to undo mistakes easily can provide a huge confidence boost for children. "It means being able to make mistakes without having to start all over again. Now it's easier to scratch something out and carry on."

Cedars School is 18 months into its iPad programme, so the effect on results is hard to gauge. But Dan Buckley, a former vice-principal of Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth who is now director of research and development at the Cambridge Education consultancy, was among the first to experiment with 1:1 ratios of pupils and computers in 2000, even before the iPod was a household name.

His aim was to change relations between teachers and pupils. To underline the importance of a more collaborative model, pupils were themselves given teacher training so they would be better at helping to support each other.

But to establish confidence in new methods, you need to show improved exam results. The 90 pupils in this 1:1 programme eventually got higher grades than the others as well as the benefits of greater personalisation and engagement. But there are risks, Buckley says. "If you want to get test results, it's a leap of faith to move to ICT. We saw results drop at first as children have to unlearn the old ways and learn the new one."

That programme cost no more than the school spent on other pupils, Buckley says. But it is hard to imagine that we will be able to treble the amount of computer equipment and increase wi-fi coverage to the 70 per cent of computers in secondary schools that rarely connect to it without a huge injection of cash. Providing an iPad for every pupil in England would cost #163;3.2 billion, with #163;745 million needed every year just to replace machines when they are five years old. It would be an unprecedented investment.

Instead, spending on ICT is falling. Typical budgets fell by 7 per cent this year and the rate of spending is no longer high enough to maintain the stock of computers: they are now becoming obsolete more quickly than they can be replaced, so for the first time in more than a decade, pupils' access to computers will reduce from year to year. The most extensive use of technology next year, according to the BESA survey, will be of free online resources. But with about #163;500 million a year spent over the past decade, it is hard to make the argument that the problem with technology in schools is that we have not spent enough.

One problem is that schools cannot really benefit from the productivity gains the way business does, by reducing costs in other areas: no one, in short, wants to see Sir replaced by Siri. Buckley says that of the "hundreds" of schools around the world working on innovative technology projects, none are losing teachers. "They're employing the same numbers of teachers, but they're redefining what teachers are," he says.

"Every other industry is doing much more with much less, so why not education?" says Speirs. "The battle is to have an education that looks like the real world. If you think of an office now, I've got six computers within arm's reach. It's not just one computer per person, it's two, three, four. The question is what world do people think we are preparing pupils for if we have computers for only 20 per cent or 30 per cent of them?"

Thompson from the e-Learning Foundation is sceptical of one solution: using children's own smartphones. While they are the most commonly owned technology, she says: "If I were a teacher and I had 30 children all with different devices and expecting to get on to the network, I wouldn't trust that. But I don't think the government is going to buy every child a computer either."

Instead, she suggests that parents could be encouraged to work with teachers to decide what technology to invest in, since many would want to buy a computer for schoolwork anyway. For those parents who cannot afford it, the #163;600 pupil premium could be the answer. It is a strategy that has already allowed schools in the state sector such as Longfield Academy in Kent to match Cedars School's 1:1 iPad deployment.

If technology is to reach its potential for home study and for children not in school - through illness, because they are carers, or because of exclusion - it will also have to address the 850,000 children who cannot get online at home.

"These are still big numbers, but compare it to where we were 10 years ago and it's a huge reduction," Thompson says.

There were high hopes for the Labour government's Home Access scheme, which would have provided a laptop for 270,000 of the poorest pupils as a way of further reducing this inbalance between the haves and have-nots. But unsurprisingly, the #163;300 million initiative became a casualty of the cuts at the end of 2010.

For Buckley, technology in education is like a guerrilla movement, with teachers improvising to get pupils access to the information and tools they want and increasingly expect, including by using their own devices. "It's kind of like the Arab Spring in education, that children are getting access to this anyway." He asks, if Argentina can provide 3 million laptops, ensuring one for every child, why not the UK? "There's no financial restriction. That's not the blockage at all. It's that exams don't reward ICT," he says.

This is the ideological problem. In his first speech on technology in education last month, education secretary Michael Gove addressed a perception that he was not interested in ICT and called for a greater pace of change. "Many of our classrooms would be very recognisable to someone from a century ago. While there has been significant investment in technology in education, it has certainly not transformed the way that education is delivered," he said. (It is a transformation he wants to see without expenditure on hardware that will rapidly become obsolete, a tall order.)

Just a week before, he had been extolling the virtues of Victorian education. For many, the two views are not compatible. "The traditional view of education is that the teacher is the fount of all knowledge and they deliver that knowledge to the children. When they've demonstrated they can regurgitate it, then they never have to use that knowledge again. It's just getting over the hurdles," Buckley says. "The ultimate test is can they sit on their own without collaborating with anybody and write the answers to stuff."

Emphasis on tradition over change

One reason why technology may not have transformed education is because we do not want it to: as a politician who has to seek re-election, Gove may be right to emphasise tradition over change. Thompson points out that many parents agree and are suspicious about technology in the classroom. "You need only read the comments on a story in newspapers like the Daily Mail about children having computers in class. That doesn't help. Some 50 per cent of parents in our survey said they were concerned that children weren't spending enough time on traditional activities such as handwriting and reading paper books," she says.

One sample comment from the Daily Mail website: "Computers do not have a place where students must learn their basic toolkit of reading, writing and arithmatic (sic). I always inform the Tesco checkout staff that they should stop giving computer tokens away to primary schools and think instead about books and blackboards and chalk. How we betray these children. It's criminal."

If exam results are what matters most to parents, the argument for computer use is mixed at best, with little consistent evidence that technology helps children get better grades. As a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it: "The costs are clear-cut and the benefits are murky."

Innovative uses of technology such as 1:1 deployments are also hard to maintain. Ofsted now says Buckley's former school, Eggbuckland Community College, is "uneven" in its use of technology (it has undergone a significant change in its intake, which has changed priorities). And Larry Cuban, a Stanford University professor and author of Oversold and Underused, a critique of the use of technology in education, has been following the progress at Las Montanas Charter High School in New Mexico.

He recounts how four years after providing a laptop for every student, the machines were used infrequently, and when they were used it was in conventional rather than innovative ways. Despite teachers' support for laptops for every student, they began using carts of computers when funding restrictions made updating all the machines impossible. "Part of my habit of treating technology as an add-on to the hard work of teaching is that policymakers and administrators often have made decisions about purchasing and deploying new technologies with teachers being bystanders and then expected to implement the deployed technologies into their lessons," he wrote. Not every teacher wants to be a revolutionary.

Since 1995, the market research company Gartner has tracked technology through its hype cycle. Much like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' model of the stages of grief, only at the other end of the emotional spectrum, it follows a pilgrim's progress from the "technology trigger", to the "peak of inflated expectations", through the "trough of disillusionment" on to the "slope of enlightenment" and the "plateau of productivity".

Jobs, who famously tended to judge everything on a binary scale of "amazing" or "shit", went through his own version of this. By the mid-1990s he was disillusioned with technology's power to change education, telling an interviewer from Wired that he had become an advocate of the voucher system as the best source of reform. "It's not as simple as you think when you're in your twenties - that technology's going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won't."

Investment in technology was a leap of faith for business, too, and it continues to destroy industries as well as create them. Companies went through more than a decade of spending on personal computers before they saw a productivity gain: this failure throughout the 1980s and early 1990s became known as the "productivity paradox". Now the research has established the productivity gains more clearly.

Speirs points out that by 2025, when a child starting school this year will be ready to leave for the world of work or university, the GSM Association of mobile operators estimates that there will be 50 billion computing devices in the world, more than six for every human being projected to be alive by that time. It is hard to imagine that the classroom can stay immune.

And if, so far, the education world has struggled to understand how to make the best use of technology, it is in good company. As Jobs put it in that 1980 talk: "We had absolutely no idea what people were going to do with these things when we built them."

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