Meet your child’s new teacher: the iPad
Every pupil in Thailand already has one. In Britain, it could one day replace lessons and teachers themselves. But is the iPad doing students more harm than good? Julia Llewellyn Smith reports.
By Julia Llewellyn Smith
7:00AM BST 12 Aug 2013
In a classroom at Goffs School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, neatly uniformed children are sitting in rows, gazing at the teacher. The scene is reassuringly like school as I remember it in the Eighties, until Shaun Furzer, leader of digital learning – what? – clears his throat.
“Take out your phones, everyone. Use this code,” he gestures at the interactive whiteboard. “Text a way in which you have used technology this year in the classroom. Go!”
The teenagers’ fingers dance on touch screens; within seconds an answer flashes up on the board. “In chemistry we researched nanotechnology on the internet.” Another follows: “We used an iPad in after-school film club, to make a trailer and write reviews on the blog.” Mr Furzer is already moving on. “Right, now use your phones to scan this QR code, which will download an educational app. I want you to do a short digital presentation on how this app could help with your learning.” What is happening? Since my school days, the world has undergone astonishing changes. I spent my holidays yakking to my friends on our Bakelite telephone; today my eight and six-year-olds email their buddies. They don’t send postcards, they upload blogs.
Every question – “How old is the universe, Mummy?”; “Who was the baddest man in history?” – which once involved rootling through encyclopedias, they now solve with the cure-all: “Google it.” But school, I thought, had remained unchanged: a teacher stands in front of a class of 20 to 30 children and talks to them, while they doodle on dog-eared textbooks. Indeed, any changes of recent years were being reversed byMichael Gove, the Education Secretary, with his insistence on back-to-basics rote learning.
Not for much longer. More and more schools are replacing textbooks with technology. Teachers are regarded not as imparters of knowledge but “learning enablers”, there simply to guide pupils through educational apps.
Not long ago, I was horrified to learn children were allowed to use mobile phones in the playground. Now they’re actually being encouraged to bring smartphones out in the classroom, not to mention Kindles, iPads, Wiis and hand-held games consoles such as Nintendo DSs.
Even exams are changing out of all recognition. Children will take internet-connected devices into exam halls, meaning no more need for memorisation. “The entire system will change,” writes Sugata Mitra, professor of education technology at Newcastle University. “Teachers are intelligent people; they will teach differently. They will insist that you don’t memorise, you can look it up on Google.”
Is this really a brave new world, or the gateway to indolence, addiction and diminishing social and cognitive skills? Don’t children already spend too much time on computers at home? Shouldn’t the classroom be a place where they can concentrate on time-honoured disciplines that involve prolonged concentration and rentention of facts?
Moreover, while introducing technology into schools is expensive in the short term, in the long term educationalists warn it may be used as a cost-cutting device. Already, in countries such as Thailand, every child is given an iPad in an attempt to slash the number of teachers employed.
But my fears, it seems, are those of a Luddite minority. Urged on by manufacturers, schools are wholeheartedly embracing the technological revolution. Aggressive marketing by Apple means that eight million iPads have already been sold for education worldwide; in Britain about 500 schools have provided their pupils with the relevant equipment, while many more are asking parents to provide it.
Recently, the National Union of Teachers said asking parents to buy devices for about £300 was creating a division between better-off and poorer pupils. But slashes in school budgets are making the case for universal provision hard to argue. “It’s a daunting prospect for parents, and we’re definitely seeing more mums and dads come into store to ask for advice on what to buy for their children to make sure they don’t get left behind,” says Matt Leeser, head of buying for electricals and home technology at John Lewis. “Today’s children are digital natives [born in the internet age] who often know more about the latest tech and gadgets than their parents, so we believe it’s important that parents can keep up with them.” Technology has taken over every aspect of our lives, so our children have to learn how to master it, if they’re to be employable.
Other countries have taken this message to heart. In South Korea, printed textbooks have gone the way of the dinosaurs. In Los Angeles, every schoolchild has been given an iPad. In Holland, 11 informally nicknamed “Steve Jobs” schools, after the founder of Apple, are about to open. In these private institutions, founded by pollster Maurice de Hond, learning is done via iPads with no classrooms, form teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, timetables, parent-teacher meetings, break times, fixed school days or school holidays. Using educational apps, children will study each subject at a pace that suits them, with daily computer tests to assess their level. The theory is that no child will be bored because the class pace is too fast or too slow for them.
So are we on the verge of an educational utopia? No one yet knows, says Dr Andrew Manches of London’s Institute of Education. “Some people are crying it’s the end of childhood, in much the same way they said about television and even paper. Others are saying every child needs to know how to use an iPad fluently or they will be left behind. All we do know is that it’s happening so fast, it’s hard for research into its effects to keep pace.”
While educationalists and psychologists try to scrabble together the funds for grants to investigate these changes, software developers are besieging parents with apps that they promise will transform infants intoEinsteins. The invention the iPad four years ago has opened up a new, younger target market of preschoolers infatuated by what educational researchers have described as a “rattle on steroids”. “Before, you needed to use a mouse, which you couldn’t really interact with until you were five or six, but now tiny children can and do use touch screens, and the market was very quick to get in there,” says Manches. “But these apps are not necessarily designed by people who understand learning.”
Indeed, many apps seem to me no better than gimmicks. Take the one the class at Goffs show me about history, in which you tap on the name of a king or queen to receive a potted biography. Fun, yes, but adding nothing a book couldn’t tell you. A division of the Department for Education that rates classroom curriculums has found that much educational software is not an improvement over textbooks. “Introduction of new media in a school curriculum may stimulate students just because of the novelty of the experience,” says a group of American academics recently in a paper: “Children, Wired: For Better and For Worse”. “However, once the media becomes the norm, such an effect would vanish. Studies need to establish that it is the content of the media that triggers the increase in knowledge.” With no official government advice to guide them (one of the coalition Government’s first acts was to abolish Becta, the body for establishing technology in schools), schools have to make up the rules as they go along. Most teachers receive no training in how to implement this technology.
At Goffs, a comprehensive with nearly 1,300 pupils, rated “good” by Ofsted, staff have made various pupils aged between 12 and 15 “digital leaders”, their mission being to test various gadgets and apps to separate the genuinely useful from the flashes in the pan.
“We saw what happened with interactive whiteboards; schools adopted them too quickly and teachers didn’t know how to use them, they would just stand in front of them in the traditional way, which is pointless,” says Furzer.
None the less, teachers everywhere are certain that their duty is to embrace technology. “Children are growing up with this stuff. They use it intuitively, but we have a responsibility to show them how to unlock its potential,” says Hilary French, headmistress of Central Newcastle High School and chairman of the Girls’ School Association. “Technological devices today are as essential a piece of equipment as a slide rule and a pencil case.” Tablets, says French, are used throughout the school, from three-year-olds in the nursery to the sixth form.
“Most of my colleagues have found the use of tablets has just transformed their teaching, especially with students who are struggling. The girls use them to look things up, there’s no time wasting finding out stuff. Instead of copying notes from a board, they can just take a photo of it. In PE, they can film movements to analyse them; in music we used sensors attached to an iPad under water to convert the water’s movement into musical notes that the girls then played in a concert. It’s just incredible.” Dorothea Beale, founder of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, would be turning in her grave.
Even if this is all little more than fancy packaging, technology still enthuses children like nothing else. “Our most reluctant readers are finishing books for the first time just because they’re on Kindles,” says Paola Calderaro, Goffs’s head of ICT.
Yet this enthusiasm is not universal. In Silicon Valley, executives are shunning wired schools in favour of alternative Waldorf schools – institutions that believe computers inhibit creativity, movement, human interaction and attention spans. “I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” is one comment from parent Alan Eagle. Eagle works in executive communications at Google.
When asked about his views on education, he reveals his 10-year-old daughter “doesn’t know how to use Google”, and his 13-year-old son is just learning. Eagle’s response to the argument children need to master computer skills early on is crushing. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.” Dr Tom Butler, a senior lecturer in business information systems at University College Cork, is convinced that, far from producing smarter students, technology is having the opposite effect. “For a while, my colleagues in Europe, Australia, the United States and I have all been puzzled by the diminished ability of students to reason, learn and understand,” he says.
Dr Butler was alarmed by research that found light emitted from computer screens, including iPads and smartphones, encouraged the brain to remain awake, causing sleep deprivation that affected the brain’s ability to lay down short-term memories after a day’s study. “The end result is typically an inability to remember and learn,” he says. Countless studies support Dr Butler’s fears. Researchers warn that the bite-size chunks of information offered by the internet, with constant inducements to click to another page, are reshaping our neural pathways, permanently damaging our abilities to concentrate or to lay down “deep” memories.
Adults’ brains are being rewired, so what of children’s, which are still developing? Children, after all, already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.
Back in the classroom, the pupils brush off such concerns. “Computers are part of our everyday lives,” says Harry Smith, 13. “At home, I wouldn’t know what I would do without my laptop. It would drive me insane. As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t use a computer you should be encouraged. Everyone would far rather learn with one of these than watch a teacher.”