A long-overdue technological revolution is at last under way
“IT IS possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” observed Thomas Edison in 1913, predicting that books would soon be obsolete in the classroom. In fact the motion picture has had little effect on education. The same, until recently, was true of computers. Ever since the 1970s Silicon Valley’s visionaries have been claiming that their industry would change the schoolroom as radically as the office—and they have sold a lot of technology to schools on the back of that. Children use computers to do research, type essays and cheat. But the core of the system has changed little since the Middle Ages: a “sage on a stage” teacher spouting “lessons” to rows of students. Tom Brown and Huckleberry Finn would recognise it in an instant—and shudder.
Now at last a revolution is under way (see article). At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help. In theory the classroom will be “flipped”, so that more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge (in the same way that homework does now, but more effectively). The promise is of better teaching for millions of children at lower cost—but only if politicians and teachers embrace it.
Why is this time different? Largely because a number of big changes are coming at the same time: high-speed mobile networks, cheap tablet devices, the ability to process huge amounts of data cheaply, sophisticated online gaming and adaptive-learning software. For instance, new interactive digital textbooks with built-in continuous performance assessment can change in real time, depending on what and how much the pupil using it is learning (sometimes with the pupil being unaware that he or she is being tested). New data-mining software is able to predict when a pupil is likely to fail at reading or mathematics without special attention, allowing the teacher to intervene before it is too late.