Shift Happens: Technology in Education

Shift Happens: Technology in Education

Alistair Wilson – Lead Business Strategist – The IT Guys
I wish to thank the staff of the Florimont Institute and GEMS World Academy – Etoy for information regarding their educational technology strategy.

Technology in Education: The Back Drop

We’ve witnessed the power of technology radically altering every sector it touches, transforming medicine, manufacturing and others. Retail has gone from a 9-to-5 bricks and mortar experience to a ‘from anywhere, at anytime’ experience.  Increasingly, telecommuting workers are building successful careers from the comfort of their kitchen table. Technology catalyses changes in the way we do things. If you have a couple of minutes, search for Shift Happens 2012 on YouTube. Prepare for enlightenment.
But how is technology disrupting our classrooms?  The global education sector, an industry worth some $4.4 trillion annually, according to the Washington Post, is widely tipped for innovation in 2014.  Also, the rate of adoption of new educational technologies in European classrooms quickened throughout 2013, with the number of eLearning companies (those producing products and services exclusively for educational institutes) rising to over three thousand.

It is clear that schools are open about the technology they use, but not always proactive in communicating their underlying strategy to parents.  Such a rapid expansion of offerings has led the emerging educational technology movement to be much misunderstood and often feared.  As schools move to introduce more technology into the classroom, you may find yourself asking these two common and often unanswered questions: what are the benefits and moreover, what are the risks of this transition? It is helpful to know what is happening in the classroom and more importantly how teaching is either steering the change and/or adapting with it.

So What Is Happening?

We know what technology is penetrating the classroom because schools are beginning to compete in the area of technology to attract more students.  The likelihood is that your child’s school is deploying iPads, Mac and PC computer labs and interactive whiteboards. These devices are simply the foundation on which an entire digital ecosystem is being built.  Here is an overview of the six main areas of innovation within this ecosystem:

#1 Classroom Assessment Tools

Enable teachers to know instantly what each of their pupils understands, allowing them to give further explanation to some and additional challenges to others. These tools help teachers distribute the right content to individuals at the right pace for more effective learning.

#2 Data Analytics

More data collection points and greater overall volumes of data are helping school leaders to make better informed decisions to match content and teaching methodologies to student needs. Students can benefit from real-time insights into their own performance, empowering them to adjust and improve their work.

#3 Media Content Repositories

Platforms such as iTunesU offer an extensive library of engaging content produced by the worldwide community of teachers and allow teachers to share best practices.

#4 Educational Games

Interactive software engages students in acquiring skills in the form of ‘fun games’ that we often struggle to pull them away from.  They challenge the student on their own learning to progress through the game.

#5 Virtual Learning Environments

These virtual extensions of the classroom facilitate coordination of activities like homework and project work. VLEs are becoming the primary communication channels for schools and students.  Some of these apps look like the web-based collaboration tools we use in the workplace.

#6 Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

The hyperconnected and free equivalent of what we used to call correspondence courses. The first MOOC (a course on Artificial Intelligence) boasted a student to staff ratio of 150,000:1 and an age participation bracket of 11 – 74 years. MOOCs mean you can ‘send your child to MIT’. For free.

Technology in Education: The Missing Explanation

So we understand the what and the how of educational technology, but the biggest unanswered question for many parents is the ‘why?’. Our company works with organisations to help them apply technology in a smarter way. The number one cause of organisations failing in their use of technology is that they never understood the ‘why?’ questions. “Why this? Why now?” The application of technology dictates its overall value. To borrow a medical principle: treatment without diagnosis is malpractice.  So why are so many schools opening up to technology in such a big way, and why now?

Replace Teachers with Technology?

There is a misconception among unbelievers that the goal is to replace teachers with technology.  Writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke said “a teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be” (Arthur C Clarke, 1980).  I instinctively remember the school teachers that I could have replaced with access to with no detriment to my education. However, proponents of technology emphasise that they do not wish to replace teachers, they want to do something much bolder. They want to transform education and with it, the role of the teacher.

The Love of Technology

If every reader of ISIS can agree on one thing, it is that young people love technology.  However, a worry for many is that the driving force for the adoption of technology in schools is the students.  Has the iPad’s unprecedented popularity in younger age brackets forced our schools to concede to their use in the classroom?

Maybe, but given the penetration of these same tools and trends in the workplace, does it matter how they got into schools? We need a deeper integration of technology in the classroom if the education system is to prepare students for success in a rapidly changing digital society.  Where else will our young people learn how to steward technology effectively?  Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson argues that little has changed in the way the West educates its students since the Victorians developed the formal education system to feed the bureaucratic machine that served the empire and the industrial revolution. The world has certainly changed considerably since those days, even if education has not.

One of Robinson’s main gripes is on the ‘standardisation’ of formal education, where the goal of the system has become about teaching students how to pass an exam, rather than how to think for themselves. A much espoused philosophy of the educational technology movement is to customise the learning experience for each individual, so they can learn to teach themselves for life, and thrive in a changing environment.


Educational researcher Sugata Mitra argues that, in fact, if the right environment exists, students will willingly teach themselves if they are challenged (source: The environment for this phenomena, named Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE), requires three ingredients: (1) Broadband, (2) Collaboration, and (3) Encouragement and Affirmation. The role of the teacher in a SOLE is therefore to become the source of challenging questions and the chief encourager of students – a fascinating proposition.  On winning an award for his recent work, Mitra shared his vision for educational technology:

“My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together […] where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online” 

In schools’ use of technology, creativity and student-led learning are part of the strategy. Schools are not merely shoehorning the old curriculum into a digitised classroom, but genuinely adapting content and teaching methods to enable effective learning.

Technology in Education: Benefits

One of the strongest mainstream arguments for a digital education is content. Supporters argue that the moment a textbook goes into print, its content is ageing, whereas the same content delivered digitally can be improved in a continuous cycle of updates. This means students always have the latest content at their fingertips.

Technology also adds value through adding rich media to subjects. Educational platforms such as iTunesU and TeacherTube provide reams of online teaching content. Students are taught how to produce media-rich content. For example, students learning German work in pairs to plan and produce podcasts – involving pictures, music, video.

As well as creating stop motion animations with iPads, students of GEMS World Academy-Etoy took part in Code Week EU. Children engaged in activities that teach skills for jobs that did not exist in the near past. Watching their excellent YouTube video (link: was reminiscent of a “hackathon”, an event that brings aspiring entrepreneurs together for a short period of time to form new products. These events are the breeding ground of the technology companies that are shaping our world.

These scenarios are excellent examples of adapting the curriculum to develop invaluable skills for the contemporary workplace.

Technology in Education: Opposition

Change always hurts someone. Despite the range of benefits heralded by schools and eLearning companies alike, scepticism exists. As with innovation in any sector, there is a degree of hype and then a steady progression of adjustment as reality sets in. Right now, the education technology movement is in a state of hype as schools compete to differentiate themselves to attract the best students. However, there is a danger that some schools may introduce technology without a thorough assessment of its real value.

One iPad rollout in the US received bad press when it materialised that up to 200 students in one high-school had circumnavigated the school’s distraction blocking software, allowing unfettered access to YouTube, Facebook et al.
According to Renee Hobbs of the University of Rhode Island, we need a paradigm shift on how technology is perceived, saying “children are growing up today with the iPad used as a device for entertainment. So when the iPad comes into the classroom, then there’s a shift in everybody’s thinking”. I agree. If school can’t be the place where our young people learn how to handle technology – where can be?


Whilst we did not have iPads in my school, I certainly found other ways to distract myself (and others) from their work, much to the frustration of school staff. Let’s be honest, how often did you find yourself doodling or writing notes to your classmates? The iPad is just as much a tool as the pen. Therefore, the chief value of a tool is in its application – if the worker is distracted, blame him, not his tool.

A more subtle, but deeper area of doubt is summarised well by writer Valerie Yue, expressing her concern that “too much reliance on technology such as the iPad could lead to children devaluing the presence of paper and pencil.” This is the most unifying concern among cynics.  Thankfully, Swiss schools have not attempted a total shift to paperless learning. Florimont have thought carefully about the time and place for devices in-lieu of paper; sometimes paper is mandatory and other times it is down to student choice.  This is a smart move that teaches students that sometimes they are better off without a screen.

Technology in Education: Conclusion

An effective educational technology strategy isn’t merely about squeezing technology into the current curriculum so students know how to use iPads. In five years’ time, tablet computers may not exist as we know them now, so it is about teaching skills for a hyper-connected world that we can’t even imagine yet, teaching students to learn for themselves and adapt to changing workplace requirements.

Without objective data, we cannot fully understand the impact of technology in the classroom.  Thankfully, studies being conducted around the globe by the likes of Mitra will yield results.  Meanwhile, the potential risks of technology in the classroom are closely tied to the quality of the underlying strategy. If all Swiss schools are thinking like GEMS-Academy and Florimont, they are doing a good job.

Those at the heart of the sector should be given the last word. Not government, not eLearning companies, but the end-users of educational technology.  In their latest survey, staff and students alike at Florimont expressed a high degree of satisfaction regarding the school’s application of technology in the classroom.

Technology in Education: Key Skills for the digital economy

#1 Connect

The ability to connect with others in an authentic way when it is possible to ‘add’ friends online. Emotional intelligence is an area of huge ongoing research, with some, such as Daniel Goleman, arguing that a person’s Emotional Quotient (EQ) is more important than their IQ.

#2 Communicate

Central to the ability to connect with others is the ability to understand and be understood across multiple media. We have so many communication tools that the quality of the conversation in many platforms is diminished by the noise of crowds.

#3 Adapt

The ability to use an iOS or a Windows device may affect the ability to produce valuable work in the short-term, but the real skill required is the ability to be able to learn how to use any device. Five years ago, who would have thought Blackberry would be on the edge of collapse? Literacy in the contemporary education system must also include learning how to use software tools.

#4 Collaborate

The contemporary worker has small or no value if they cannot work effectively with others, in person and from distance. Therefore, this will mean planning and producing work with individuals from different cultures, in different languages and across many platforms.

#5 Search

Effective search is a must to find the information we need, when we need it. With an excess of 1.57 billion pages on the web, Google clocks 12 billion search queries in a 24 period. In researching this article, I found a provocative question asked by the well known educational researcher Sugata Mitra: Is knowing obsolete? When Google can tell us something in under 30 seconds, what is the value of knowing that thing?

#6 Analyse

Analysis determines the core message of a piece of information. We all from time to time feel the effects of ‘information overload’. Effective analysis helps us to quickly determine if a piece of information is worth our consideration.

#7 Unplug

The scale of addiction to technology is startling. A survey by TIME people found that 84 percent of participants could not go 24 hours without their mobile device. A quarter of participants admitted to checking their phones every 30 minutes.  Numerous studies are warning us of the potential damage excessive use of technology can cause physically, mentally and socially. Therefore, the ability to set healthy boundaries around technology is important as more of the world shifts online.

#8 Security

With greater connectivity comes greater concern for security. Schools and parents should make it a priority to teach young people to be aware of their ‘digital footprint’. Especially on social networks. Just like a thief going through your paper recycling to build a picture of your life and movements, criminals can harvest information from online activity. We must help students to build mental filters to help them spot dangerous websites and scams.

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