Schools – The Next Domain for Technological Disruption?

school blackboard

Skoll Scholar 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, is passionate about education. He spend several years teaching Maths and Politics in London schools before he led the major growth of UK education charity, Future First. In this blog, Alex explores the future of our education system and the classroom experience.

It is sometimes said that school classrooms look the same today as a hundred years ago.

Students often still sit in rows of desks, writing about Shakespeare on reams of paper. They practise algebra in books and teachers mark them. Blackboards are now white, but teaching is still mostly led from the front of the room.

Yet this description masks huge cultural and pedagogical changes over the last century. Corporal punishment has gone. Girls and boys are now (usually) educated together and both take subjects historically restricted to the other gender. Children with special needs are included and catered for. And whilst teachers do often stand at the front, they employ a whole range of different techniques such as student- and peer-led learning. Our classrooms are also more diverse than ever before.

Almost all would agree these are huge, positive changes. They are. But whilst this represents seismic progress over the 20th century, the change in the last 10-15 years has, perhaps surprisingly, been slower.

Schools in the UK have improved overall. Results are getting better, albeit too slowly (especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds). Much more is known about how to turn schools around. There’s been a revolution in the use of data to help students make progress. The Academies programme was born and grew.  But in the classroom itself, progress has been evolutionary not revolutionary.

This steady classroom development has taken place in the context of one of the biggest technological revolutions the world has ever seen. Smartphones. Tablets. Broadband. Netflix. Crowdfunding. Kindles. Those George Clooney coffee machines. None existed when I was a school boy.

But we’ve yet to see these types of technology truly transform the classroom. Teachers now do more on computers than ever before. Students do too. Computer Science is being rolled out as a subject in schools across the country. In Higher Education, we’ve started to see the adoption of MOOCs.

Yet we’re only now at the advent of the technology that truly can transform our schools. Perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in ‘personalising’ learning.

One of the biggest challenges for teachers is supporting those students finding a topic difficult, whilst stretching the others who pick it up quickly. With so-called ‘adaptive learning’ technologies, students are able to benefit from additional (computer-led) tutoring that is personalised to them according to how they’re progressing. The most revolutionary aspect of the new technologies is that not only will the technology be able to adjust according to whether a student answers a question right or wrong, but it will be able to spot where they’re going wrong and try to fix their misconceptions.

Imagine every student being given individual support, personalised to the exact stage they are at, all the time. That’s the opportunity.

As with most technological disruption, alongside opportunity comes risk. Firstly, this technology must not be seen as a chance to replace teachers, downgrade their importance, or hire fewer of them. These technologies are an opportunity to help teachers maximise their impact on students. One day computers may become so advanced that a conversation is required about whether a robot really can replace everything a teacher does. Even with this new technology, we are absolutely nowhere near that point.

Attention must also be drawn to who is providing this technology and who therefore owns the data. As leading EdTech thinker Nick Kind has observed, Google, Facebook, Amazon et al are already positioning themselves as leaders in this field too. Each relies heavily on data. So does adaptive learning. As Kind argues, schools and their pupils will miss out on great innovation unless we make sure this data is open to start-ups as well as titans.

The technology is close and getting better year by year. The need is clear. Yet teachers are tired of new initiatives.

Early adopters in the profession will bring others on board when they see what is possible, but it is imperative that the companies leading this charge engage properly with the profession. The best innovations will be co-led by teachers, technologists and experts in learning science. The companies that act on that early will win this race.