Revolutionise the classroom?


The oft cited Steve Jobs autobiography described his desire to revolutionise learning and on the 19 Jan 2012 apple made their first move.

There Apple released the iTunesU and iBooks 2.0 apps, which  have been re-imagined for assisting classroom learning. That, alongside some worldwide strategic partnerships with several education publishing giants.

The event was the start of a strategy but what is it?

My view, based upon what was shown, is that the strategy is to give people a more convenient excuse to buy an iPad.

You can imagine the conversation:

  • Kid: Hey dad I *really* need an iPad.
  • Dad: What on earth for?
  • Kid: Apple have launched a new digital text book service which means I can study better and get a real boost in class.

The conversation will go on and on. In the end parental guilt will be invoked, and before you know it, dad will go to the Apple Store and buy the kid a new iPad; an iPad that will be used for everything else besides learning.

I’m reminded of the effort my friends and I expended to try to convince our parents that we needed a PC, or laptop for the exact same reason.

Sure, they were used for learning at first but inevitably they were used for other things. So is the destiny of the iPads bought to aid learning, eventually they will be used primarily to check email/Facebook/twitter, play games, watch films and listen to music.

I’m a passionate believer that technology can and does enhance our lives, and I honestly believe that there is a technology mix that will revolutionise the classroom but I can also say with certainty that what apple have announced so far will fall far short of that.

There problems to overcome are structural and behavioural.

Firstly, financially schools can not afford to provide an iPad for every student or even “one book for one student”  if they are to continue to provide the same level of student resources they do now. Currently, they buy books in bulk and recycle them between classes and school years. This keep costs down, allowing the school to provide equitable study resources to their students. The current commercial business model used by both Apple and Amazon are not inline with the financial realities of schools. Both need to look at a lending/leasing model, and to ownership transfer between devices. As this will give school the greatest flexibility on purchasing.

If schools are not going to provide the same level of resources they do now, then we have to accept that the classroom will become inequitable by design. Those with money will have access to higher quality resources than those without. Those without will continue to fall behind as the responsibility for provisioning learning materials moves from the school to the home.

Secondly there is currently an adequate solution. Classroom/textbook based learning is supplement by the internet. In the most part these resources are free, and just as immersive as anything that can be currently provided by an eBook. Essentially there is no incentive (in terms of lack of alternatives or not good enough solutions) to motivate the adoption of the technology as is.

Thirdly, provision of learning materials to be used out of class is problematic. In class students are forced to focus on the activity at hand. Out of the classroom, there are many more demands on their time, so students tend to cram and crib. It’s hard to imagine that any student (except for the highly motivated) will revisit a full or partial class lecture in their own time. However, iBooks does have an good enough solution, it allows a student to aggregate their notes as a single document (anchored to the page/text the note was attached to) which can be used speed up homework tasks. The problem is that apple is competing with a pervasive low cost existing technology, a notepad and pen!.

Over the past year I have delivered several business, web development, and programming focused lectures at several different schools. Each time I offer follow up, out of class, help and additional reading materials and as yet I’ve not had one student contact me outside of class. Perhaps I’m a poor teacher, or I explained everything so well that there was no need to follow up but having discussed this with friends and more broadly with teachers I see the same pattern emerge. Out of class a students priorities is elsewhere.

Lastly, i have no reason to suppose that the content producers will make the best of use of the technology provided. You only have to look at the eBook/enhanced eBooks currently available through iBooks and Kindle to see on the whole a striking lack of quality.

I read a lot of non-fiction eBooks via iPhone, iPad and Kindle (over 100 books in the past year) and i’m constantly frustrated with the poor quality. Tables aren’t displayed correctly,  images are two small and don’t scale when zoomed in, words are broken in the wrong places.

In my experience (and only in my experience) the production process isn’t mature enough to provide the fully immersive experience envisaged.

If this technology is to be used in the classroom to stream learning, so that the teacher can focus on the people with the greatest need (be it the worst or highest performing students) then what will the middle tier students loose through the poor production quality? More broadly, How will the transfer in responsibility for teaching (from teacher to interactive text book) effect the teachers, who’s role will become more akin to support then leading the learning experience?

There are massive opportunities to revolutionise the classroom: You can: restructure the learning environment to take into account the latest understanding about how students learn, use assistive technology to help students focus on work and remember things. Also there is definitely a place for more immersive technologies that can be bring alive learning materials, videos, audio, slideshows etc. but the adoption of these approaches shouldn’t be based upon the use of exclusive, expensive proprietary platforms.

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