It’s interesting to see that seven Steve Jobs Schools have opened in the Netherlands, equipped obviously with iPads for all the pupils. It will be interesting to watch how they develop. Just putting the technology in does not make a school digitally normalised. That depends on how the school leaders and teachers have themselves progressed through the evolutionary stages.
When you get this kind of corporate initiative there can also be pressures to use the technology in ways that don’t help the educational transformation and huge step-up in pupils’ achievements that you find in properly digitally normalised schools. The companies have their own priorities for what systems and apps they want the schools to try out. This set me thinking about the ways that commercial pressures from the companies are balanced against the educational imperatives to advance education in the right way for our connected world.
Apple has a pretty good track record going all the way back to the ACOT project (Apple Classrooms Of Tomorrow) but even with the best intentions large companies that do this sort of thing inevitably focus on what the technology can do, because their prime corporate interest is in making the systems and apps better at enabling the kids and teachers to achieve more. I think the difference we are seeing now compared to even 5 years ago, is that two of the key technology USPs (Unique Selling Points that companies use to promote their products) are communication and collaboration. This has a lot more synergy with good educational approaches than the ‘content delivery’ USP did, in the days of CD ROMs and Integrated Learning Systems.
The possibly scary technology USP that is also in the frame and developing rapidly is the combination of online testing and data manipulation and mining. Effective use of data on learning and achievement is one of the characteristics of a digitally normalised school. But if the educators and parents come to focus on knowledge data, because this is the data that is easiest to generate and compare, this could push the educational experience the wrong way. If on the other hand the focus moves to data and information that demonstrates what the pupils are doing and what (real world) achievements this results in, the data USP might prove useful and get both companies and schools moving in the right direction together.
I’m not saying that data on kids’ knowledge is unimportant. Young people like to gain mastery over areas of knowledge and ability to do so is a key part of learning and life, it’s the balance of what comes to be most visible and most praised that is most important.
The problem is that generating information about what the kids are doing and achieving beyond knowledge acquisition in a technology system is a lot harder than testing knowledge. A lot of the data is there once schools normalise digital and pupils do lots more online, in school and at home. The question is how to analyse and present it. How would you present a view of how well a pupil had engaged in a project? There will be simple things like time on task using technology, number of searches conducted in doing research and so on. But how would you assess and present anything about quality of searching and research, or quality of engagement in forums while discussing the project with their classmates?
I think this is a big issue because the content learning/testing bandwagon is developing rapidly and both politicians and exam systems focus on this, often to the exclusion of assessment of competencies, because it’s so much easier and cheaper. Whereas I think industry and business, and probably higher education, would love to be able to compare potential employees/students on the basis of their competence if this could be easily and clearly presented.
A lot of companies are working to develop systems that gather data on learning and aim to provide information to teachers, parents and the pupils themselves. They are doing this because they sense there could be a big market. Accountability of education systems is a big issue for every government. Educators will have to watch out that ‘What you measure is what you get’ does not triumph over ‘What you (should) measure is what you want’.
If data and information on learning progress comes to be seen as critical, because governments and politicians need to show educational progress for electoral reasons, and schools need to demonstrate that they are achieving the accountability levels that are set, that could push schools towards technology systems that can gather loads of data and generate very good information on learning activity and progress. For schools in the UK that are only just at or are below the ‘floor target’ achievement levels, data on pupils’ progression is already absolutely critical in enabling the school to stay out of ‘special measures’ and all the difficulties this brings.
In the Steve Jobs Schools the whole technology infrastructure is Apple as well as the devices. You can imagine the need for data acting as a lock-in to these Apple systems, if Apple succeed in producing the data gathering and reporting systems that governments and hence schools want. The question is whether these will be sophisticated enough to measure the kinds of education being provided in digitally normalised schools or whether they will focus mainly on just knowledge acquisition. This will depend on the quality of the conversation between the educators in these schools and Apple, and on whether Apple listen properly to them. Software can do very sophisticated things with data if the right questions are asked and the right data sets brought together. And how information is presented is critical. Look for example at how Hans Rosling presents data on world health.
I’m also watching very closely what is happening with Frog, particularly in Malaysia. This is more open and amenable to BYOT rather than one standard device for all pupils, because the Frog platform and the way it is being provided in Malaysia lock the pupils and parents into getting at everything through the Frog platform, rather than into a specific device. Internet access is free through the Frog platform from their homes but if they go direct to the Internet they incur phone charges on the YTL 4G networks set up at each school. This approach also of course tends to lock the parents into using the 4G wireless provided by YTL, so there is a corporate benefit to Frog’s parent company.
If all pupil access to learning systems is through the Frog platform, Frog can gather all the data about anything they do or search for on the platform. In addition Frog are working hard with the apps providers to get them to feed data into the Frog platform, so potentially all data on what the kids are doing with apps could be become available for analysis.
There is massive potential here. Imagine being able to get real insight into how young people are using their social networks and friendship groups to aid their learning. Imagine helping both pupils and teachers to see how their informal learning is developing as well as their formal learning, and how they support each other. Imagine being able to create profiles of how pupils learn that could clearly show to others how competent they are at learning and at doing real life tasks that matter.
Then we it might be possible for digitally normalised schools to clearly demonstrate how and why their educational offering to their students is so significantly better than schools that are failing to take educational advantage of digital. And how just achieving the exam results is not enough. Education is about much more that test and exam results.