Exploring the power of technology to unleash learning and achievement for all

15 January 2020

After travelling to America as a guest of Apple, our CEO Kate Chhatwal returned with a greater understanding of how technology could enhance learning, if we can bridge the gap between our education system and the world we are preparing our children for

I started 2020 in Silicon Valley, one of a small group of UK educators privileged to be invited by ASCL and Apple to spend a few days looking at education through the lens of our increasingly digital world. An avowed sceptic of tech (and tech corporations), I spent much of the Christmas break trying to wrest my children away from their iPads. Yet the visit left me unexpectedly optimistic about the power of what’s in our pockets to transform learning and achievement for some of our most marginalised children and young people. However, there are some important barriers to overcome first.

At Apple Park, we were unexpectedly transported back to the fifteenth century and the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press to Europe. The invention of mechanical movable type printing enabled the spread of information, learning and literacy to the masses, and is credited with revolutions in politics, science and the arts. Apple are not alone in asking whether the democratising impact of modern mobile technology represents our own ‘Gutenberg moment’.

The near-ubiquitous smartphone means that we can now hold the wealth of information (and misinformation) on the web in the palm of our hands. Young people taking their GCSEs this year have at their fingertips more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed man on the moon. None has experienced life before the internet, and the first iPhone was launched when they were 6. Yet many of the exams they take will rely on them regurgitating and transcribing memorised information. On paper. With a pen.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that if you can Google everything, you don’t need to know anything. In a world of infinite, easily accessible knowledge, the carefully-curated knowledge of a broad curriculum is needed more than ever. So are skills. Knowledge webs and analytical abilities together help us connect the information we gather, to sift, test and make sense of it, and to innovate.

In schools, we could do more to combine knowledge acquisition with development of the skills the World Economic Forum and others suggests our businesses need (see table), and could make better use of digital means to demonstrate and record evidence of both aspects of learning. Why not a film, podcast or digital portfolio - created collaboratively, with access to the internet, and an expectation of demonstrating understanding to a much deeper level - instead of an essay written in exam conditions?

Getting hands-on ourselves, we explored apps using augmented reality to open up art for those who can’t get to galleries, and dissection for those not wanting to harm frogs. We saw films, like Sady’s, suggesting that technology can unlock expression and creativity for people with disabilities, and enable different ways of learning and demonstrating achievement for all.

If this is our Gutenberg moment, we owe it particularly to children and young people of limited means and learners with SEND to ensure that the technology many take for granted is harnessed to narrow gaps, not widen them. At my most optimistic, I wonder whether technology gives us the capability to accelerate progress rapidly towards closing the education disadvantage gap, which for too long has seemed far beyond any reasonable horizon. It provides, for example, a means of going beyond the ‘book learning’ that doesn’t work for everyone, to engagement with knowledge through a range of media. It provides opportunities for presenting that learning back in creative ways, through multimedia presentations and portfolios. It provides virtual doors into world-class galleries that we know not everyone can or will visit in person, with the opportunity to examine paintings closely and hear explanations from expert curators (Boulevard AR in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery is the app we saw). That is certainly not to say I wouldn’t wish everyone the opportunity to get up close to a real Frida Kahlo, but in a reality where that doesn’t happen, seeing it in augmented reality could be a good alternative.

There are barriers we need to overcome to realise the potential of the digital age. Some barriers are cultural. Today’s education leaders haven’t grown up with technology the way our pupils have, and I’m sure I’m not alone in having been unwilling to embrace it. Certain features of our education system still seem better suited to the industrial age than the modern era, as brilliantly argued in the 2015 film Most Likely to Succeed. We will do our children a huge disservice if we don’t ‘get with’ the world they are growing up in. This means shifting mindsets and ensuring teachers have the skills and training to make best use of digital tools.

Other barriers are practical. For all their focus on accessibility (one of Apple’s six core values), high price-tags, short hardware life-spans, limited software compatibility across different platforms, and poor broadband make the top-end tech innovations we saw in Cupertino inaccessible for many. If their benefits are reaped only by those who can afford and access them, the gap will widen, not narrow. This is something we - and tech companies, like Apple - must work urgently to avoid, if we are to equitably transform education to meet the needs of the coming decades, not the last century.