Welcome to the age of the iPod learners

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Teaching must embrace the rapid advance of technology in every area of the school, says Ewan Aitken

speaker at an event that I attended recently was reflecting on how times had changed in the world of communication. "These days," he said, "there are more mobile phones than people. In my day, we hung around phone boxes in the hope someone we knew would ring us there."

The power of the mobile to be much more than a phone is captured in the recent news that at least two companies are marketing new products for the technologically challenged, making the startling claim that "all you can do on it is make phone calls".

It still fascinates me that, somewhere, somebody got up one morning and said: "I think it's possible to create the technology so that someone in Scotland can drive along a motorway (hands free, of course) and talk with someone driving in Australia." What kind of wonderful and twisted mind starts on that kind of inventive journey?

The challenge that is before us all is that communications technology - iPods, hand-held devices, computers - is changing much more than simply who we can talk to and when. It is changing not just what we can know, but what we can do with what we know.

The internet is now accessible any time, any place if you have the technology to hand. Other technologies give you instant access to what is happening around the world or, for that matter, in your own backyard. This means massive changes for the whole education experience.

The use of technology in teaching is no longer an option. It has to happen.

It has to happen because young people see the world through their technology. It is how they access many of their experiences of being alive.

I make no comment on whether that is good or bad: it simply is the case.

Consider that "texting thumb" is now a recognised medical condition, that the Young Scot portal has on average 2 million hits a month, with some months reaching as high as 4 million, and that around 90 per cent of teenagers download music at least weekly, and you begin to get an idea of the role technology plays in young people's lives.

Communications technology is now so significant that it needs to be utterly embedded in pedagogy, or we will lose the huge gains that have been made in recent years in Scottish education. The challenge is to find how best for that embedding to take place. How do we change the pedagogy in such a way that it will improve the role technology already plays in young people's lives?

One simple approach is to ask them to test-drive technology in the classroom, which is what an Edinburgh school has set out to do. Gracemount High has issued 50 children with iPods and asked them, through the keeping of an online blog, to reflect on how the iPod could best be used to enhance teaching and learning. It's a simple idea but it makes young people the focus of change from the outset. It also uses their wisdom and insights from within their comfort zone where adults might not yet be quite so comfortable.

It is a model we might well use in other areas. Place the technology in the hands of young people and you empower them. Risk listening to what they have to say and let it directly affect how teachers teach and you change everyone's lives.

With the advent of the Scottish Schools Digital Network and development of online content through the digital curriculum, or BBC Jam as it will be known, we have a huge opportunity to bring about a new revolution in education. If the reformers' dream was a school in every parish, then ours should be technology in every child's hands. This is not a debate about technological hardware, but about the grasping of an opportunity.

This will mean huge changes for teacher training, for professional development, for technical support and for budgets. It will mean, in the longer term, changes to how and when exams are sat, even how individual pupils make their course choices. The idea of personal learning planning will be seen, not as some new right, but as the obvious consequence of communications technology being embedded into the whole education experience.

It does mean that local authorities need to ensure that they all push the technology boundaries, or the digital divide could become another postcode lottery.

Technology will not replace teachers, but it will change the role of teachers dramatically. And everyone, politicians, policy-makers, pupils, parents and practitioners, needs to grab this opportunity with both hands and play their part if teachers are to be given what it will take for this revolution to take root in Scottish education.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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