Textbooks replaced by iTunes U downloads

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

  • Published
Stephen Perse FoundationImage source, Stephen Perse Foundation
Image caption,
Every pupil at the school has an iPad

The exam revision season is approaching. It's when students want as much information as possible at their fingertips.

So how about if you could touch a screen and download all the lesson materials you need?

Not just broadly relevant, generic materials, but the actual classes you've studied, video and text, put together specifically by your own teachers.

These are the equivalent of digital textbooks supporting lessons for each subject, including the days missed or forgotten.

And for good measure, how about if every student in the school could look at the materials on their own individual iPad?

This isn't a "classroom of the future" experiment or a Silicon Valley sales pitch, it's a school in Cambridge.

The Stephen Perse Foundation school is building a pathway that others could soon follow. It's clever and digital, but also practical and easily shared.

Downloading the homework

Teachers at the independent school are making their own online library of lessons and course materials for GCSE, A-levels and International Baccalaureates.

These are interactive resources, with video links and lesson notes, customised for the specific needs and speeds of their classes. There are extension exercises and links to further reading and ideas.

They are made to share on iTunes U, the academic version of Apple's iTunes download service, so pupils can access them at school or at home or anywhere else.

There has been a huge amount of hype about online university courses - the so-called Moocs (massive online open courses).

But here in this ancient university city, it's a school that is really putting the idea of online courses into practice.

It still requires excellent teachers - to make them and to make sense of them - but you can see the far-reaching possibilities of creating the exam course equivalent of a box set of a TV series.

The pioneering and innovative principal of this high-achieving school is Tricia Kelleher.

She emphasises that such online courses depend on the quality and the skill of the teacher, it's not a plug-and-play education.

"The credibility of online learning depends on the teachers who have made the materials," she says.

"An iPad on its own isn't inspiring, it's the way it's used that's inspiring."

"Education should be a mixed economy, there should be technology, but it is only there to support what a living, breathing teacher is doing."

But she sees how online technology is about to change the traditional textbook.

"You're getting beyond the one-size-fits-all textbook. As a resource, I can't see it being bettered. You might buy a textbook, but half of it might not be relevant to your school."

Digital world

These digital versions can be updated by teachers, customised to specific classes and connected to the latest events. These instant updates will be immediately live on the pupils' iPads.

Image source, Martin Bond
Image caption,
Tricia Kelleher says the credibility of online materials depends on the quality of the teachers

"In two years' time we may have to make decisions about whether we have printed textbooks," says Ms Kelleher.

Simon Armitage, a senior teacher at the school, says this switch to digital allows staff to "cherry pick from a world of resources".

"This used to be just about books, now it is way more than this. iTunes U is the wrapper. It is not changing what many great teachers have been doing, but it is changing how they are doing it and how easily they are able to do it."

Ms Kelleher is also keenly aware that her pupils are now living in a digital world - whether it's social networking or getting information from Google - and that technology cannot be kept outside the school gate.

"A school has to accept this is the world we live in," she says.

The challenge is to give young people the skills to navigate it.

So she says that a key skill in the future will be teaching pupils how to evaluate all the instantly available information.

"A school has to be about critical thinking, it's never been more important. There's a level of passivity with a screen."

But there is another big difference with online courses.

They might be created for one school or university, but if they're any good, they can be shared. It's the basic principle behind the Moocs. It uses technology to extend the reach of education beyond an individual classroom to anywhere else in the world.

The Stephen Perse Foundation gets exceptionally good exam results - among the highest in the world for the International Baccalaureate.

And the school is planning to make its online materials free online.

This school happens to use iPads and iTunes U, but there are many other Mooc-type platforms, and it raises the prospect of many more great schools publishing their own digital materials.

Sharing expertise

Such online resources are also set to be shared within groups of schools.

The United Learning education charity, which runs more than 40 schools across England, is looking at how the expertise of individual teachers can be shared within a network of schools.

The group's director of technology, Dominic Norrish, says that even though everyone can remember a brilliant teacher in their own school, such inspirational teachers can only reach a limited number of pupils.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Pupils at the Stephen Perse Foundation use technology across their lessons

If you're not in their classroom, you don't benefit from their teaching. He suggests that online learning, with a mix of video and live teaching, could be a way of getting more from the best staff, particularly in subjects where there can be a shortage of specialists.

It shouldn't depend on "accidents of geography", he says.

In the future, it should be possible for "students in Bournemouth to play an active part in lessons taking place in Carlisle".

Global library

This is also going to be an international market.

Alison, a free online course provider which already has three million registered students around the world, is planning to launch video tutorial materials specifically made for GCSE and A-level maths.

This Irish-based online education service, the biggest Mooc outside the United States, provides materials across national boundaries - and such globalisation seems ever more likely.

There is clearly a huge demand for such online learning.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
There have been more than a billion downloads from iTunes U

The iTunes U service reached a billion downloads last year, with free course material on offer from more than 2,400 universities, colleges and schools. It's pumping out courses and information at an unprecedented rate.

And projects such as the Stephen Perse Foundation will see more and more schools putting their self-authored materials on to these digital libraries, available to a global audience.

They might even make it into the academic downloads chart.

After all, where else would you have a top 10 where the most popular performers are courses from Oxford, UCLA, Yale and Stanford?

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