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

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 155.

    The school is a great facility, But 3 years ago the number of pupils was a lot less than 900, even in their Ofsted in 2011 it was only 811. Also as a local resident I take exception to the area being referred to as "deprived", just have a look at the queues of traffic trying to drop pupils of in the morning and the range of vehicles, doesn't look like the intake is from a "deprived area" to me.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 154.

    If there is a desire to learn, technology can be utilized to aid and enhance the learning experience. If these principles are lacking then technology is open to abuse. These principles are not lacking at Essa students want to learn. Computers work on an “input”, “output” basis you get out what you put in. Put in all the right questions and you’ll get out all the right answers.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 153.

    Only 152 comments in 24 Hours.

    Time to knock this one on the head and get down to some real news comments.

    Anyone for fracking??

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 152.

    They are doomed to 40 years of professional screen gazing once they get out of school. C'mon give 'em a break, they need to learn other stuff too, like reality

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 151.

    There is a world renowned institution that delivers over 600 modules and 250 qualifications to over 250k students globaly, utilising distance learning technology described in this article. 3/4 of FTSE100 coy train their staff in this way. Who? THE OPEN UNIVERSITY. It works.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 150.

    It's beneficial for children to be up to date with technology as they will likely work with it in later life. It is a good ad for Apple, Samsung etc, but they are making the tech the kids will be working with as adults, so they are getting experience as well as eductation. I'm not a huge fan of big companies, but if this is improving grades, what's the problem? In balance, it's great!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 149.

    The success of any sort of electronic aided learning come down to two main things. The first is the quality and quantity of the content. Second is to get the mix right between broadcast (1 to many) for big picture stuff, interactivity for knowledge and a real human being as a tutor/motivator. We need to invest in productivity of teaching.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 148.

    Rory and Abdul are obviously tickled pink by this latest educational gimmick and, of course, the makers of these gizmos will be grateful for the endorsement of their products. Personally, I can think of few things more stultifying or, in due course, boring for pupils than study by machine/robot/gadget. Pupils will either find more interesting things than lessons to download or switch off mentally.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 147.

    Last week I went the 'Bronze' exhibition at the RA...my 5th visit, to do some drawings. I saw no students actually DRAWING they were all taking photographs...an act that is now commonplace...and lazy.
    Standing looking and drawing a piece for 45 mins means you study the thing gaining insight, depth...you learn of the artists intentions.
    I hope those 'virtual' students also GO to art exhibitions.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 146.

    Mainstream BBC news headline "Record fall in university take-up". Of those who are or have gone to university, how many are actually doing tech-savvy courses like mathemetics, chemistry, physics, engineering and the like? How many are doing dumbed down media studies so they can get non-demanding overpaid jobs with the likes of the BBC?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 145.

    Re: 144.SeeDubya
    -----------------------------

    Not very long by all accounts - see my comment (#18)

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 144.

    How long will it take the kids to find out how to access what they really want, social networking etc? It might not be worth their effort at the moment but if continuous computer access becomes the norm it sure will.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 143.

    Tech can deliver education but you have to have the will and resources to provide it. Unfortunately this and previous governments aided by corrupt media organisations did not have the will although they did have the resources. Those resources were squandered on white elephant projects and grossly inflated salaries, pensions and allowances. BBC take note.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 142.

    There is little doubt that giving them sought after toys is going to buy their attention which leads to better learning.

    What I cannot see is where the inspirational teacher sits in this scenario. What inspired me to follow my career was a truly inspirational Physics teacher.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 141.

    Yes, Auntie Beeb is clamping down on free speech at present (naturally since it's a state operated media channel like Al Jazeera). BBC bosses u-turned and will now get a grilling from government cross party committee about why they have to shed jobs when budgets are frozen. Surely it's merely freezing jobs and salaries until they behave? You are fast losing face BBC and don't we know it!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 140.

    139.go figure
    ""Fracking: Shale gas decision by government awaited".......
    Sorry to post that here, Auntie beeb isn't allowing comments on the big story at this moment."
    ------
    And no opposing views to UK involvement in Syria, or even Govt "initiatives" ever seem to make it to mainstream BBC TV news...wonder why?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 139.

    "Fracking: Shale gas decision by government awaited".
    The decision has already been made and it's a big green light for the energy firms to increase their profits at our expense... again.
    Sorry to post that here, Auntie beeb isn't allowing comments on the big story at this moment.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 138.

    Can tech deliver education? Define "tech".

    Long time ago, slate and chalk was "tech". Then paper and charcol. Then paper and pencil. Paper and pen. Calculators. Computers. TV and instructional videos. Why would an iThing be any different? The important point though is that while they learn to use the hardware, they also learn how the hardware is made and how it works.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 137.

    All students in my sons school now have shiny new ipads.
    I wish there had been an equivalent British made device available as we could do with the jobs.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 136.

    Let's face facts. Educators could have created a National Recommended Reading List decades ago. The majority of books are crap. What 8 year old that wants to know about the world has a clue about what to read? So we end up with educational institutions designed to control what kids know and psychologically condition them and call it education.

    So they are obsolete.

 

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