iSchool - can tech really deliver education?

Pupils from Essa Academy

I have a great job. It has allowed me to visit some of the cleverest technology companies around the world and meet many of those shaping our future, from Amazon's Jeff Bezos to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. But I can't remember many more inspiring visits than my day at a school in Bolton or a more engaging technology enthusiast than a teacher called Abdul Chohan.

I had come to the Essa Academy to prepare a radio report on the impact of technology in schools, which will be broadcast on the Today Programme after Christmas. I was here because this school has been a pioneer in giving every child a mobile device and then building its delivery of lessons around that.

But as I arrived and signed in on an iPad I was in somewhat sceptical mood. Over the years there have been plenty of examples where large sums of money have been invested in technology which has soon proved to be of little practical use, with poorly trained teachers rapidly becoming disillusioned. Remember language laboratories - or more recently the drive to put electronic whiteboards in every classroom?

Abdul Chohan

But to meet Abdul Chohan is to have one's cynicism swept away. This chemistry teacher, who returned to his home town after working in the pharmaceutical industry, is one of nature's enthusiasts and the driving force behind the technology programme at Essa Academy.

Three years ago the 900 students were each given an iPod Touch, and this term they have been replaced with iPads. They use the devices in class, and at home, with lessons and homework delivered to them mainly through the iTunes U platform.

As we wandered from the science department to the art room to a geography lesson, he pointed out what was different about this school's approach. Instead of interactive whiteboards - "they're hardly ever interactive" said Abdul - there were TV monitors on which the content from the teacher's or the students' iPads could be projected.

In a maths lesson one teacher had set a test on the tablets and was using an app which could monitor live each pupil's progress through the answers. Two thirds were doing fine, the other third needed more help.

Elsewhere, a science teacher was discussing the effect of alcohol on the human body. "The students have already downloaded the lesson earlier in the week," Abdul explained, "so they're coming in with information. What the teacher does now is question their understanding of that information."

Pupils from Essa Academy with their iPads

What was a failing school in a deprived area has, he insists, been transformed by a new building and a new approach to learning, with a dramatic improvement in the GCSE results achieved by students.

I had plenty of questions about this approach. What was the rate of loss of these expensive items carried to and from school? About 6% per annum, Abdul told me, which was manageable. What about the overall cost of all this kit? Both Abdul and the Principal Showk Badat insisted it had been quite cost-effective. Photocopying expenses had plunged, with far fewer worksheets printed, and the cost of managing student behaviour was dramatically lower. With pupils more engaged, there had been a big improvement in their conduct at school.

Pupil using iPad for art lesson

But one question may have struck many readers - is it wise for any school to put all of its technology into the hands of one company, Apple? For years this and other schools put similar faith in Microsoft products, and the results were not always to their benefit.

When I asked Abdul Chohan about this he shrugged his shoulders and said it was merely a matter of practicality. It was the ecosystem behind the iPads that mattered rather than the devices - and the iTunes U platform which allowed the school to put so many teaching resources online was much cheaper than the Virtual Learning Environments that many schools use.

Now it is too early to say that the Essa Academy is a template for how all schools should use technology. After all, the iPads have only recently been handed to all students, and we may find that when the novelty wears off they prove rather less successful in making education more engaging.

As part of my report for the Today programme I'm also speaking to a teacher at another school who is worried that technology is a distraction rather than an aid for pupils in her English literature lessons.

But I came away from my day in Bolton with a spring in my step. Meeting teachers and pupils who were all so enthusiastic about the work they were doing together was a reminder of the impact technology can have on our lives - when it works.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    This approach is certainly worth investing in as a medium term pilot.

    Its another tool in the box for teachers to assess the ways in which children learn and how lessons could be structured to further motivate and engage the pupils.

    Will the novelty wear off? How much will it cost in the long run? I certainly wouldnt want to be tied in to Apple, or tied to a single approach to teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I am wary of technology being able to deliver education, and not sure it should. I definitely support technology being able to facilitate education in terms of effective learning and teaching.

    NESTA last month produced a report into whether use of technology can help/hinder called Decoding Learning: The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Have a look at the comments page on the Essa Academy website - international observers with nothing but praise for the school - "inspirational" is the word they are most often using. Well done. Now let's see if we can't get more of the UK's schools doing this kind of thing. All our children deserve it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    More has changed in the last twenty years than laughingdevil seems to realise. Fundamentally, the notion of what it means to be educated in the 21st century has moved on since the Web and especially since Web 2.0. Essa Academy was among the first schools to realise that the locus of control in the classroom has shifted toward the student, and instead of seeing that as a threat has embraced it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    There's certainly enough promise to justify some definitive research into the idea - it sounds too weird, but so did the internet when it first came into being & that has become mainstream since.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    #8, well said! Of course the problem is that schools can't afford the licenses for the programs for the electrical circuts (for example), so instead of doing a botch job on a pc, paper should be the way forward.
    Obviously typing an essay is an appropriate use of IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    penguin337 wrote: "The Internet takes a closed shop industry and makes knowledge available to anyone who really wants it"

    But it doesn't TEACH it .... it takes a good teacher, standing there, reacting with you to do that. Even video link up, a good compromise, do not have the pure efficiency of someone in the same room as you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    My 12 and 13 year old children seem to do most of their homework using IT.

    A large proportion of their effort is spent on trying to use inappropriate software. eg MS Word to do electrical circuit diagrams, Word to layout news letters and looking for missing assignments that the teacher has not uploaded.

    I wish their work could be handed in handwritten on paper.

    I have 25 years IT experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    why oh why is the "tech" ifads? There are far better examples than this

    My 1990's school had a (what would now be called netbook) for every child, and electronic whiteboards in most classrooms (and great they were too) So all that seems to have changed in 20 years is a touch screen fad device replacing one you can actually type an essay on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Mr Chohan and his team's efforts are commendable. However people running these projects need to be aware that technology is a double-edged sword and can be immensely useful but not without pitfalls that may not be obvious. For instance "The Shallows" argues that the internet is changing our minds. Perhaps there is an optimal middle ground in using technology alongside traditional methods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I dont beleive tech is the answer, all you end up doing is dumbing down, and spoon feeding information to kids.

    People and children learn better when they can get feed back to any question they ask in class, and a machine cannot do that it cant explain or look at and discuss the finer points of a subject, as you can with a human being.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    This sort of thing is the future. It has been obvious for ages schools are the problem in education. This sort of principle can deliver education to individuals as and when they want or are ready for it. Schools should be closed, they are the problem. this example is but touching the surface in hoch to the Victorians and still using herd based schools. They will go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Any means has its place, and I'm sure this will have too.

    The challenge is to make sure all kids are receptive to education per se.

    There's the rub.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    can tech really deliver education?

    The internet can

    The Internet takes a closed shop industry and makes knowledge available to anyone who really wants it

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    My worry about all this is cost and sustainability. Paper had a huge advantage - it did not go out of date.

    IT system cost a lot, need specialist maintenance (and huge contracts) and have a very limited shelf life.

    In the end, it is not the Tech but a great teacher that makes the difference. THAT is where money should be going, not IT for ITs sake, which has happened so, so often.


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