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 115.

    we now live in the digital age and with the internet etc information gathering is easier than 25 years ago but at what cost does learning by this method realy improove the humans mental remembering of details or just the monkey see monkey do method.
    it would be worth running a study one school old method, one digital, and one a fair mix of both then judge by results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    'All Will Succeed' is the biggest problem in our education system. The class goes as slow as the dimmest student. Rather than helping the slow, you are just hindering the brightest.
    I hope schools like yours are overhauled. Why should a future brain surgeon be educated at the speed of a future road sweeper?
    You just ruin the brain surgeon's chances. The other guy still sweeps roads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    My son is nearly 3 has SELF taught himself the alphabet, numbers to 50 and is now learning to write his name and perform basic addition all through using the IPad. We have never pushed him but his joy of learning by using this tech is evident. My 1 year old is equally as interested and both play outside and draw etc using paper too. I for one believe this will aid students focus and understanding

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    I could go on and on about the iPads.
    I think we are one of the few schools that live up to their motto of 'All Will Succeed' mainly due to the high quality teaching staff we have and the excellent relationships we have with our students and parents.
    If your sceptical I can only suggest booking a visit and experiencing first hand what we do. I guarantee you'll leave with a better understanding

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Kudos to Essa Academy! When schools ditched chalk boards for pencils some claimed it was a bad move! Abdul Chohan and the Essa team are streets ahead of most other schools but Apple isn't the only way, as other companies offer 'device agnostic' learning podcast content for school owned or students' own mobile devices - Blackberry, Android, Windows, Apple, thus minimising cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    As an English teacher at ESSA we still use pen, paper as GCSE require this. The use of iPads in class has a fantastic impact on students. They're more enthusiastic and quality of work is higher. Students want to work It's a family programme parents can see what their child's learning, can contact teachers and apply for courses. It strengthen community bond with students, parents and teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    iPads are great and proven to accelerate students learning progression - fact. The elephant in the room though is that the lesson becomes focused about the tech, a revolution is required around content vs the preferred pattern of iterative improvement and the pedagogy is turned on its head without any true CPD. This market is crying out for a vendor to bridge the 20C & 21C classroom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Interesting thought...

    The online open university has not meant that standard universities that students actually attend, have not closed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Dump this approach Mr.A.Chohan, and go back to Basics.Teach them to think for themselves, rather than rely on an, ( i.pad). At one point I was worried that in the1980s children would not be able to tell the time on an analogue semaphore watch, as watches all started using digital read outs 20:30, instead of the big hand is on the 6 & the small hand is just passed the 8

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Guts and courage can't be learnt playing on Facebook.

    And those are the things that matter in the business world.

    And those are the things that matter in your personal life.

    You can always find a slave to understand the technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Raspberry Pi. A real computer that actually teaches kids how they work. Not just pushing pretty icons.

    Less than £20 each! and they have a teachers program already constructed. Its also a British charity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    There is no computer tech more idiot proof than an iPad. An iPad regurgitates. It doesn't allow input very easily. In other words you just give answers on demand and never pose any questions.

    This is dumbing down and of course its expensive. Not to mention Apple are one of those companies not paying any tax.

    A stick of chalk and a blackboard is all you need. Stop looking for excuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    iSchool - can tech really deliver education?

    Is this topic really so important on a Global basis?
    Or are the Salford "Stasi" trying to justify its move up Country?
    Even Bill Turnbull is rumoured to be heading
    "Up Nowerth"

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I think the future for education is a competent 'super teacher' broadcast live through technology to any schools and classroom assistants
    For far too long the teachers and their dinosaur unions have been more self interested than their pupils, the future of our country.
    Radical reform is about to it the education sector and, in my opinion, about time.
    Time for fingers to be pulled out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Fee Fy Fo Fum I smell the blood of a trade union man. I think the idea being put froward here is not in terms as a replacement, but as an extra, or useful part of the overall school package. But if you get say a poor kid, who genuinely loves computer games and would like to write them (like I was!) then you enable them to do that and in the process learn loads.&Even iForums hugely improve English.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Students have different learning styles and cannot simply use technology as the only tool to learn. It is idiotic to think that learning by computer is the only and best way to learn. There are far too many e-learning courses/modules out there. Interaction with people needs to be included to evolve critical thinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    93. paulmerhaba
    Are the kids allowed to have an iwii?

    Only if they put their hand up and ask teacher first :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    In a "cost of everything, value of nothing context" the real virtue is that you spend about £300, and get back in terms of what extra teaching would acheive over a school lifetime the equivalent of £10-20k. Of course the kids and the idiot right wingers will probably just think you're a soft touch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    3 Hours ago
    "Should have given them Nexus 7's instead."

    Not very exciting, not particularly outstanding re performance
    or as motivating as iPad. Apple wins hands down over Nexus.
    This should be platform agnostic.
    It is the content that is key and most relevant, not the platform/device.

    Good to see,
    But not exactly original, Blackboard Inc & Moodle since late 90's

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Learners down load content they can access anywhere - home, academy, classroom, restaurant. It's the learners who are important, the technology is simply a tool - a vessel to hold the content. teachers facilitate and create quality content. Learners include student, teacher, other staff, parents/carers and extended family. This is a community project acting as a lever for improvement


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