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 95.

    I spent some years on a a technology conference circuit and enabling youngsters to grasp technology.

    The bottom line, one to one direct contact with each member of a learning group is vital to understand each person and where the holes in the individuals understanding of the building blocks are.

    You can't make fast and enjoyable progress any other way.

    Every one is different.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    We have been told since the computer was a new innovation of all the ways they would revolutionise education. We are still waiting. In the meantime gullible local authorities have spent millions on equipment that didn't work, software that was totally unsuitable for it's purpose, and networks that were outdated before the installation was finished. Teachers not computers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Are the kids allowed to have an iwii?

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    A contributor (I believe in item 5 which I cannot now see) has used "begs the question" as though it means raises the question. It does not. It means repeating a statement (perhaps not in original form) in a purported attempt to prove its truth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    As a student I must say that the iPads have slight disadvantages how ever the vast amount of advantages makes up for it all .porn / inappropriate websites ,social media and much more are blocked. They have things called profiles which monitor every thing you do ,from what games you download to what you search on safari also they have pre installed a range apps which we can use in lessons .

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I think the negative statements about how it may just be trendy is in gross ignorance of the situation (as it was for me when I was a poor kid). If you're poor you often don't have stuff or connections. I only got my computer very late, had it come earlier it would have had a bigger effect. I certainly used them to play games, but I also did enough serious work to get me through my GCE's.Dirtcheap

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Since my grandad came from Bolton I'm glad something like this ishappening there. One of the big pluses with Apple is the excellence of it's software - not just the implementation but the paradym they build to, which oftenseems to move the whole world forward. As a poor kid brought up on a sink council estate I can say that a computer helps education enormously, I credit my oric 1 withmy education

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    As a recent Student who undertook a free online Electronics Course run by MiT I found the experience brilliant, the lectures are available all the time, you can go back over the same item until it sinks in if you need to, there are online tutorials, help at the end of an email, and work/study groups as well as Laboratory Exercises again available 24/7.

    If this is anything close it is Brilliant!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    IF (big if, I know) we look at education as preparation for the 'real' world of work, why would we insist that pupils continue to handwrite in exercise books? I haven't had to do anything meaningful (apart from private letters) with a pen since I started working full time in the late 80s. This is a tool, it's potentially useful. And it is the future for these children. We need to embrace it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    There is a danger with this approach, one learned by the late and slow reform to the IT curriculum, that getting children locked in to a single ecosystem abstracted away from the actual guts of technology make students' IT skills less and less relevant when it comes to the workplace. "Can use an iPad" doesn't get you a job "Can deploy Android environments" might.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    This article is not about replacing blackboards or rote learning - whatever their merits (and there are some). It is about using technology to do something better that was not possible before.

    For instance: using new technology (a web-comment system), every commenter has learnt how others in the wider world view personal devices in education.

    Wow! Learning in action. Whether you meant to or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    41. Chris

    This is one instance where Apple's 'walled garden' is precisely appropriate. I wouldn't want my kid's data being stolen, hacked, or them being able to access porn, or other inappropriate material. Open Source is great in theory, and very useful in some circumstances, but we all know the internet is the Wild West, and children need protecting from it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    79 FatPeace

    Would you rather just give children an internet-enabled tablet and leave them completely to their own devices (literally)? Maybe that would have worked for you but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have worked for me. My school was a place where we learned things!

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    The performance of the Nexus 7 is perfect for school work. The last thing we should be doing is teaching kids that you need to email yourself a document in order to open it in another application. Or that there "is no file system". Or that they have to deal with inaccurate maps because "it's still in early development".
    iPads are worthless compared to Android variants, No question.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    41.Chris "Surely an open source os would be more appropriate?"
    Again I agree with this. An iPad costs £350+ whereas a Linux tablet (ie Pengpod) can be under $100. And the beauty of open source is that if software / apps don't exist, someone can write a bespoke solution (if our IT teachers could code that is!) If my school had used Linux & OO in IT lessons maybe we'd be less reliant on M$ now!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Technology can be a brilliant tool to assist teaching along with many other 'tools' and used by a skilled and imaginative teacher appropriately are great.
    Each child is different so anything which adds to a list of resources is good and all should be used in balance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    4.JamesStGeorge "schools are the problem"
    Agree 100% and I don't understand why you've been down-arrowed: schools are and always have been about forcing pegs of all shapes and sizes into the same round hole, stifling inquisitive thought to make them easier for Govt and the media to control. Learning at home etc would let kids concentrate on learning instead of conforming to avoid bullies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Children taught by computers.

    This is the first step towards Armageddon at the hands of terminator style robots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Whatever the technology it's the quality of learning makes the difference. You might get the enthusiasm but unless the app is superbly interactive you won't get the level of 'Active Learning' needed to change mental models and you need the interaction between learner and teacher to challenge/extend the learner. I've often seen deep level learning with minimal equipment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    "Should have given them Nexus 7's instead."

    Have you used one - not very exciting, not particularly outstanding re performance or as motivating as iPad. Apple wins hands down over Nexus.


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