A bold reboot of classrooms around the world

Martin Whittaker meets the education technology guru who has travelled the globe to uncover the finest examples of ICT in learning

Tuesday 04 November 2014 10:19 GMT

Digital technology gives learners potential access to a wealth of knowledge and resources undreamed of in previous generations. Yet in the UK in 2014 we still talk about banning smartphones in classrooms, while students sit pen and paper exams.

This is anathema to author and education technology guru Graham Brown-Martin. He says if digital technology is to bring real transformation in the classroom, it’s the education system that needs rebooting.

“We throw technology at educational establishments, but the institutions themselves and the way we teach have hardly changed since the 19th century,” he says. “Imagine if you were designing an education system from scratch, where it’s quite possible to give every child a connected digital device, and where it’s mandatory for them to take that into an examination room. How would the teaching and learning change?”

Brown-Martin has gone to great lengths to seek answers to this important question. Commissioned by WISE, he spent four months scouring the globe to gather the best examples of use of ICT in learning, and interviewing leading thinkers such as Noam Chomsky. His mammoth odyssey took in 16 projects in 11 countries, from Singapore to Ghana, Lebanon and China, taking him from slum streets in India to California’s classrooms of the future.

The result is a new book – Learning (Re)imagined: How the connected society is transforming learning. The WISE Book is lavishly illustrated by award-winning photographer Newsha Tavakolian and comes with a free app giving readers exclusive access to more than four hours of cloudbased video, discussion groups and other resources.

It explores questions such as what is education for? What role does technology play in education and how does it change the way we learn? How can we make teaching and learning as engaging and relevant as possible? Do we really need teachers and human interaction? Does assessment and standardisation threaten creativity? And, crucially, what could education – indeed the world – look like by 2030?

His aim was to get a global perspective on the use of technology in education. And his main conclusion is that making the best use of technology in learning isn’t simply about schools letting children loose with iPads, nor indeed just about the technology itself – it’s about the context in which it is used.

“For a long time in the digital world, content has been king, but it’s not in this case,” he says. “It’s context.” Examples of this in the book hold some surprises, where simple, affordable technology is being put to innovative use.

In Ghana, he visited a school in Adeiso, a small village three hours from Accra, where every child has a Kindle. Teaching in post-colonial Ghana is still very firmly based on printed books, but for schools such as this the cost is prohibitive.

The Kindles and access to eBooks are provided by not-for-profit organisation Worldreader, which has distributed over 800,000 books to more than 12,000 children in nine African countries. “It gives each child in that village school access to thousands of books, and because they’re allowed to take the Kindle home, suddenly their families have access to a library,” says Brown-Martin. “This has transformed their experience.”

In Bihar, India, outdated mobile phones have been key to improving maternal and child health services. In the state, there are just 200,000 community health workers to look after 27 million women of childbearing age and 18.5m children under six. With little access to media, the challenge is getting vital health information across. BBC Media Action has developed a training course called Mobile Academy to help expand community health workers’ knowledge and skills in life-saving health behaviours, using a technology that can be accessed from even the most basic mobile phone.

Meanwhile, a world away from Bihar, High Tech High is an organisation of 11 schools in San Diego, California, which supports personalised, project-based learning. Visiting one of these schools, Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, the author says he was “blown away” by the school and its innovative approaches.

Serving some 570 students, its building resembles a warehouse space for a digital design company rather than traditional classrooms, and children learn by making things, creating projects that they exhibit.

“Despite the school’s name and its stated mission, technology isn’t a focal point when walking around the school.” he says. “There are no grand displays of Jetsons-style classrooms with holographic displays or kids permanently glued to iPads. The technology is there, but it’s just blended in.”

The UK also has schools at the cutting edge. The Essa Academy in Bolton has given all its students and teachers iPads. Interactive whiteboards were abandoned for integrated Apple TV devices connected to large HD screens. The school is one of the first in the country to make its courses available through Apple iTunes U, and students use this as their virtual learning environment. While it has been dubbed ‘the iPad school’, the technology alone does not equal transformation says Brown-Martin. The real innovation lies in the efficiencies technology has brought, allowing more time for learning. Now, instead of traditional lesson times of six or seven one-hour periods for different subjects, students have two three-hour periods either side of lunch.

“This doesn’t mean that teachers must prepare lesson plans that cover a three-hour period, but it does mean that students have the opportunity to explore and reflect on what they’re learning,” he says. It’s certainly having an impact on results – last year every pupil achieved five A*-C grade passes at GCSE, compared with 40 per cent previously.

So, are any governments getting it right in terms of their policies on fostering the use of digital technology in learning, which will allow innovative ideas and practices to be scaled up? Graham Brown-Martin says a firm “no”. “Nearly all the pieces of the puzzle are out there and everyone’s working on a piece of it. What’s not happening is we’re not putting it together into a cohesive picture.”

Earlier this year the UK Government’s new Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG) of educators and industry people met for the first time, its brief to be “bold and ambitious” in identifying barriers to the use of technology for learning. And the new national curriculum just introduced into schools brings in computing as a subject, in which all pupils will learn coding.

But such measures are simply paying lip service while we continue to use technology to reinforce ancient teaching practices to meet 19th-century assessment standards, argues Brown-Martin.

“I don’t think there’s been a single education secretary, certainly in this country and I’m not seeing it in any other at the moment, who has the courage to genuinely look at how to reboot or change the entire operating system of our education system. But we have to. I believe this transformation will come from a developing or emerging nation. It’s more likely to come from somewhere like Ghana than it is the UK.”

Learning (Re)imagined: How the connected society is transforming learning is published on 1 October, ISBN 9781474222730, and is available from learning-reimagined. com and most good book stores and online retailers.

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