Marking Key

I must congratulate Mr Gove and his writing team for his speech at the SSAT’s first conference under its new name – The Schools Network. It read like an essay written for an ‘A’ level paper where marks were to be awarded for the key words linked together by granularity.

Here is the bit of the speech that I was really interested in and my annotation of the key words.

Digital networks

I want to turn now from networks between schools to an altogether different sort of network: networks of the digital kind.

It’s an understatement to say our world has been transformed by technology. There was a particularly poignant and wonderful illustration of this in a recent New Scientist editorial, written to mark Steve Jobs‘ death. “Nothing dates the 1987 movie Wall Street”, the piece argues, “like the $4000 cellphone clutched by financier Gordon Gekko. It was the size of a brick and he could only talk for 30 minutes before having to recharge it.” In the 1980s, the capabilities of today’s smartphones would have been unfathomable to consumers and engineers alike. They’d have thought it impossible that so much powerful technology could be packed into such a tiny case. If you were trying to build an iPhone using equivalent components from the 1980s, asks the author, just how big would that phone be? Running through all the parts – from the antennas to the batteries to the GPS to the gyroscope to the accelerometer to the cameras to the mobile computing capability and more – New Scientist concludes you would need a truck to haul around an iPhone built of 1985 parts. We’ve gone from an 18-wheeler to a pocket in just 26 years.

It’s not just the hardware. Entire sectors employing millions of people didn’t even exist a quarter century ago. And many of those that were around in the ’80s operate today in ways that are unrecognisable to those of the past. Given the extent of the transformation – and the pace at which it’s happening – it is imperative we have a school system capable of adapting to and preparing for the challenges ahead. If we don’t, we will betray a generation.

And yet there is a perception by some that my department isn’t especially concerned about such things. That we care more about Tennyson than technology. That our interest is in Ibsen, not iTunes. That we’re more Kubla Khan than Khan Academy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that our school system not only prepares pupils for this changing world, but also embraces the technological advances which are transforming education. My department is thinking hard about this and we’ll be saying more in the new year. But I’d like to talk briefly today about some of the critical developments that have been shaping our thinking.

One of the greatest changes can be seen in the lives of children and young people, who are at ease with the world of technology and who communicate, socialise and participate online effortlessly. In a world where we can use the internet at the drop of a hat, thanks to companies like ATT-Bundles who give us incredibly fast internet in our homes, this is no surprise. Two-thirds of five- to seven-year-olds use the internet at home, rising to 82 per cent for 8- to 11-year-olds and 90 per cent for 12- to 15-year-olds. Over a third of 12- to 15-year-olds own a smartphone, and typically use the internet for 15.6 hours every week. Children are increasingly embracing technology at a younger age: for example, 23 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds now use social networking sites.

Yet the classrooms of today don’t reflect these changes. Indeed, 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.

Part of the problem has been that investment has focused on hardware. My fear is that, in the past, too much emphasis has been placed on machines that quickly become obsolete, rather than on training individuals to be technologically as literate and adept as they need to be. What’s more, fixating on expensive, soon-to-be out-of-date kit represents a failure to understand the fundamental changes taking place.

One major change concerns content. Technology is having a huge impact on the way educational material can be delivered. iTunesU now gives everybody access to the world’s best lectures. The Khan Academy provides 2700 high-quality micro tutorials on the web, so that anyone, anywhere can access them for free. Brilliant scientific publications like Science are building their own ecosystems of educational content. And by definition, as we move to a world where we expect every child will have a tablet, the nature and range and type of content that can be delivered will be all the greater.

Educational gaming, for example, is a booming area – and ripe for even further development. Games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, are helping children engage with complex maths problems that would hitherto have been thought too advanced. And the Department for Education is currently working with the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute on a pilot programme to use computer programmes to teach maths. We have not developed the programme – we are just helping them run a pilot. Stanford say it is one of the most successful educational projects they have seen.

These exciting advances are the sort of thing that a central government department could never hope to produce and maintain. And nor should it seek to: Whitehall must enable these innovations but not attempt to micromanage them. Such content is being created daily, and the vast majority is free to anyone with an internet connection. Our role is to help bring schools and these developments together.

To be absolutely clear: this isn’t about replacing teachers with YouTube videos – of course it isn’t. But it would be negligent of us not to look at how we can harness these developments for the benefit of all pupils. In Singapore, for example, I was lucky enough to witness how a superb lesson can be delivered through a mixture of online and teacher-led instruction. We can do it here too – and in the coming months we’ll be setting out how.

Another way in which technology is changing education is through its potential to create sharper assessment systems. Computer lab management software is now so sophisticated that an individual teacher can monitor how each student is doing simultaneously and then – without singling out that child in front of others – provide them with the direct amount of support that they need, accelerating the rate at which some children can learn and providing additional help for others. Problems can be picked up earlier. Students can be stretched when they’re ready. It’s the next step towards truly personalised learning – and it will also enable parents to have a better understanding of the level at which their children are operating.

Thirdly, technological advances can have a huge impact on teacher training. Teachers can more easily observe other teachers and learn more about the craft. Professional development content can be delivered in more accessible, engaging, and cost effective ways. Individual teachers can use the latest developments to refine their lessons to precision. As Michael Nielsen points out in his excellent new book, ‘Reinventing Discovery’, new developments allow teachers to get better feedback about how their lessons are being received. So not only does the spread of innovations like the Khan Academy mean there is more great teaching material on the web, but new tools like Google Analytics allow anyone to analyse video for attention, second-by-second, in a way that used to be very expensive and complex. All these are welcome developments.

Of course, in stressing the importance of digital content, I’m not saying we should neglect hardware altogether – far from it. But hardware means more than just the latest desktop – especially when many pupils are increasingly likely to have access to superior technology at home – or even in their pockets – than in their school’s computer lab. That’s why we need to think about how to give more children the chance to engage with truly cutting edge hardware, like 3D printers, or learn the fundamentals of programming with their own single-board computers, like the Raspberry Pi.

The challenge for us is this: how we can harness the many exciting technological leaps that are constantly being made? We will be saying much more early in the new year. Make no mistake: this is a priority for me. I believe we need to take a serious, intelligent approach to educational technology if our children are not to be left behind. As John Chubb and Terry Moe put it in their excellent book on the subject, a genuine engagement with the wondrous world of technological innovation will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past.’ We owe it to pupils across the country to take this issue seriously.

Did I get them all? How many marks do I get?

It will be most interesting to see how all of the rhetoric pans out.

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