Giving tablets to school kids is not enough

I traveled to Cambridge UK, to take a look at the future of education

by Deniz Ergürel

As the new technologies transform our lives, the sound of chalk on a school blackboard becomes something we barely hear in today’s classrooms. It is already a part of nostalgia…

In the age of internet, social media and smart mobile gadgets, many schools are in search of improving their educational system. The aim is simple; to better prepare the students in order to help them succeed in a hyper-connected society. However this is not as easy as it sounds. There are many unsolved challenges for both teachers, students and parents.

For a better understanding of the emerging trends in education, I travelled to Cambridge, England to visit one of the prestigious independent British schools; The Stephen Perse Foundation. I’ve also made some e-interviews with Hove Park and Lynn University from USA.

It’s been a valuable experience to get a glimpse of the coming revolution in education…

Stephene Perse Foundation is an independent school in Cambridge UK, founded in 1881. Photo Credit: Stephen Perse

The Stephen Perse Foundation is an independent day school located near the centre of Cambridge, England. Originally it was founded in 1881, under the name of Perse Girls School, and then adopted its current name in 2007. It is made up of junior and senior schools, for 3 to 18 year old kids.

The school looks very simple from the outside. Comparing it to many other school buildings, it even feels a bit more like a kindergarten. However, the “Inspire Me” motto that welcomes you right at the entrance of the building, and the creative student works that are showcased at every hall and corner of the building gives you this feeling of “Aha! This is different”

“The world is changing fast by the internet and smart devices. Today’s education world is full of many unknowns. We need to offer a higher level of guidance. Our main role as educators, is to inspire our students” says Tricia Kelleher, the Principle of the Stephen Perse Foundation.

In order to offer such inspiration the school initiated a pilot program in 2011, aiming to add iPads to students’ learning toolkit, along with a wide range of IT solutions, mainly from the Apple ecosystem. Because of the successful results, the pilot program was made available to all 1500 students, and teachers in 2012.

Ms. Kelleher underlines the fact that this was not a rapid decision.

“It took us almost six years to develop the background of our current education strategy with iPads and other related technologies in the classroom. We started from the very basics, by trying to find answers to questions like: What is our purpose as a school? Why do students come to us? and What do they expect from us?”

Having these long discussions, the board then decided to adapt a brand new curriculum which is mainly based on “developing a character”. This main approach is supported by strong values like “Digital citizenship, diversity, collaboration, responsibility, individuality, global outlook and independent thought”

After building this philosophy, then came the technology.

At Stephen Perse Foundation, every student and teacher is given an iPad. The school’s courses are digitized with iBooks Author, which are then distributed to all students via iTunes U. The text books are replaced by iTunes U downloads.

With iTunes U, the old type of classes are turning into interactive resources, with videos, images, links and notes, customised for the specific needs of kids to further reading.

Coding becomes a part of the curriculum. The App Club, builds their own apps using Objective-C at the iMac laboratory, and pupils create videos and animations on their iPads.

In the classrooms there are Apple Tv’s connected to LCD monitors, which enable wireless display of any content on the iPads.

The school not only changed the curriculum and adapted new technologies but have also transformed the physical space of its classrooms.

“In order to improve our educational system, reforming the school curriculum and adapting new educational technologies are not enough, we must also change our relationship with our physical environment. That is why, we built new learning spaces, to foster creativity among our students” said Daniel Edwards, the Director of Innovation & Learning at Stephen Perse Foundation schools.

The classrooms of Stephen Perse Foundation School are completely re-designed in a very flexible and inspiring way. Students are not obliged to stick with a chair and table during their learning process. Kids are sometimes moved from one space to another during the class . This modular educational idea resembled me the whole new work approach at tech companies where people can move out of their offices.

We all used to hear from our parents and teachers many times:

“Don’t write on the walls!”

But the educators at Stephen Perse Foundation School are taking a whole new approach.

When Simon Armitage, the Director of Communications at the Stephen Perse Foundation invited me to take a look at an afternoon class, the last thing I would expect was, to find a group of students writing on the walls as a part of their school project.

I think this is a very interesting approach, that aims to foster young minds to think out of the memorized standards. No doubt… I liked this idea a lot!

With all these playful gadgets and all the fun along the classrooms, I wondered how successful were the kids at exams.

According to the latest scores, Stephen Perse Foundation has achieved exceptional results in 2013. Ninety nine of the whole students got A* to B grades. Some of the distinguished university destinations of the past graduates include Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge University and Oxford University.

It’s clear that Stephen Perse Foundation’s learning model is very interesting and worth exploring.

The Quality of Education Is As Important As The Technology Itself

Hove Park is another UK school which is trying to integrate technology into education as an important component.

In this public school, which is among the leading educational institutions in the country, 150 teachers and 1750 students own iPads. School Principal Niel McLeod states that the quality of education is as important as technology.

“My advice to schools looking to adopt 1–1 devices is to have a clear educational set of aims about how you wish the project to transform learning. It is not a technical development. It is all about the learning. Also, visit or talk to schools who have already embedded their use. There are lots of lessons to be learned by testing your ideas out in the light of the experience of others. Finally, share your journey with the students. Having these devices can allow them to take more responsibility for their own learning.”

When I asked Niel, about his aim for integrating iPads in the education, he emphasized some main advantages.

“The personal use of iPads by students has resulted in dramatic improvements in the quality of their learning experience. The students can access information much faster in their learning now, communication with teachers has improved and they are sharing their work more often because they all have access to the latest technology when they need it. This has helped us promote independence and creativity. These things of course were possible before, but with iPads, the latest learning software and tools are now within reach for every student in every class and they are thriving as a result. The acceleration in the progress of our most economically disadvantaged students has been particularly pleasing.” said Niel.

For those who are interested, it’s worth looking at Hove Park’s blog on using iPads.

Our Vision Is To Empower Faculty

Another school that aims to transform its curriculum is Lynn University in Florida, USA. The university conducted a pilot program during January Term in 2012. Faculty members used iPads and Apple’s Challenge Based Learning in their classrooms for freshmen Citizenship Project courses.

After the initial success, the university launched iPad minis to all incoming freshman and transfer students in fall 2013.

According to Chris Boniforti, the head of the IT Department, Lynn’s vision for the iPad program is to put a transformational learning device into the hands of students and empower faculty to more creatively deliver Lynn’s Dialogues of Learning core curriculum.

“Students use the device for virtual tutoring, reading, dictation, and organizing course work. And teachers are no longer tethered to the lecture podium. The mobility of the content enables professors to “flip the classroom” — where students first watch videos or do reading on their iPad minis before class and then come to class ready for meaningful discussion. It has changed the way Lynn faculty teach. Teachers from all academic areas at Lynn have noted the tremendous effects that this platform has had on their students and are eagerly developing more iBooks within their own disciplines.”

My Conclusion On The Future of Education as a Technology Journalist

After having all these visits and interviews, I came to the conclusion that any conversation which aims to transform the educational system should be based on three main pillars:

– Pedagogy & Curriculum

– Technology

– Physical Space

Pedagogy & Curriculum should come before adapting any technology to classrooms. In a fast changing world where schools are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, it is extremely important to focus on why, how and what they teach. It is also extremely important that teachers know how to use the technology too. This will need a great time of research and experiment but I am sure that it is totally worth it.

As for the Technology, I think the whole Apple ecosystem — iPads, iBooks, iTunes U, apps etc. — offer wonderful solutions for many challenges that the educators are facing. The technology alone is not enough, content is crucial and this is where Apple is very strong.

The transformation of the education will always be incomplete without restructuring the Physical Space along with the new curriculum. It is obvious that the work space incites creativity, fosters collaboration and productivity. The classrooms and school buildings must be redesigned for better interaction between teachers, students and even parents. Without transforming the physical space, there will always be something missing.

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