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What happened to the computer revolution in schools?

Computer labs simply don’t work as well as we’d like to pretend. And they don’t move around

Gulf News

Dubai: The American author Louis Terkel once said, “I always love to quote Albert Einstein because nobody dares contradict him.” And it’s true. Who wants to question one of the greatest minds ever? Having said that, here is a very interesting quote attributed to Einstein in 1932: “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”

Within ten years, nuclear fission was possible and Einstein found himself signing a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to develop nuclear weapons. The rest, as we know, is history.

There is a huge problem with predicting the future. It’s simple to say: no one can predict the future, not even Einstein. Beyond guessing what you will have for lunch, most of us get predictions wrong. And sometimes even that can go wrong.

In the spirit, then, of respecting the folly of prediction, I now wish to look to the future of education and tell you what it will look like.

Schools of the future will not be dissimilar to those we have today. Children will go to school early in the morning, (but not in flying cars because everyone has been predicting flying cars for decades and I still haven’t seen one for sale on Dubizzle). In the future, school children will be told what to think, when to speak, what to study, sit exams for hours on end, struggle with obesity, rarely see friends in person, talk to complete strangers on the internet, stay inside more, not talk to anyone who doesn’t have more than 100 Facebook friends, be unable to make a healthy meal, and finally, worst of all, children will have developed thick, muscular thumbs from endless hours of texting. Oh, and they will all work on computers.

I’m being facetious, of course, because most of the items listed above are happening now. One common prediction of education was that all children would work on computers. This was predicted many years ago and should have transpired by now, but it hasn’t. Most schools have computer labs and trolleys of laptops, but where are all the children working on computers? It simply hasn’t transpired.

One reason why your child is not learning more often on a computer is because of computer labs. Annoying, oxygen-starved, incessantly humming, badly lit computer labs. For teachers, there is the problem of booking a time slot and then the problem of getting students to the lab. And then you’ve got to leave and return to class! The amount of time wasted going to the lab is well known. Computer labs simply don’t work as well as we’d like to pretend. And they don’t move around.

There is an obesity epidemic, remember, so let’s encourage our children to sit in the computer lab. That’s the message from the mullet schoolers (if you haven’t read my previous articles, mullet schoolers want us to teach old style: think of a teacher with last night’s dinner on her collar who just wants you to write out your spellings 20 times over). Mullet schoolers thought they were being progressive, and they were. Computer labs were built, software bought, programs written and everyone was ecstatic, including myself, when the internet beeped and buzzed and crackled into our Windows 95 computers. (Yes, children, you could actually hear the computer connecting to the internet).

Since then, in primary schools, nothing much changed. Ever. Again. The mullet schoolers still keep the labs running, replacing old computers, old monitors and old printers. The one thing they should replace is the computer lab!

It is now time for me, as usual, to ignore sage advice and predict the future.

In my future school:

1) There will not be any computer labs. Students will learn on tablets. They will take their tablets outside, in the fresh air or to well-lit rooms far away from noisy network servers. Children will work in teams, sharing information by picking up their tablet and walking over to their friends to show them the amazing learning they have just completed. Children will talk to experts over the internet and record the information on their tablets.

2) Children who find it difficult to write, will use their tablets to record their learning using video and audio. In a wonderfully progressive move, schools of the future will allow video and audio transcripts in exams, not just for learners with particular needs, but for any learner who wishes to choose those media. Video and audio exam transcripts will have equal merit to written exam transcripts.

3) Teachers of the future will become more facilitators of learning rather than transmitters of knowledge. Rather than telling the facts, mullet-school style, teachers of the future will provide learning roadmaps for their students and guide them to discovering new information, ideas, places, people, stories and all the wonders of the world. All on these portable tablet devices.

Of course, all this is possible now with the ubiquitous iPad and Android tablets. Many schools have introduced initiatives with these devices. In a serious effort to predict, I would wager a box of chalk that most children in UAE schools will be using a tablet device in lessons every day within five years. It’s a bold prediction, but I do believe it is now inevitable.

What a wonderful future! Poor spelling will be eradicated, messy handwriting becoming an endangered species and geography will have its status as a subject revoked and be renamed ‘Google Maps’.

The mullet schoolers will try to save their computer labs and spelling tests and handwriting assessments and written exams, but to no avail. They will tell you that your child is getting too much ‘screen time’. They won’t, and don’t see the irony in expecting students to study for hours, read tomes, write theses, learn lists, do by-the-numbers homework. They will attack ‘screen time’ and try to defend ‘book time’. In the future, they will be the same thing, and so much more.

The geeks and nerds that the mullet teachers overlooked have, finally, won. There is no need to predict the future anymore, because, in education, it has already arrived. When will we welcome it?

(The Angry Teacher is with a primary school in Dubai).


Fact Box

5 things the Mullet Schoolers will say to stop tablets taking off in schools:

1) Kids have too much screen time these days. It is true, but screen time is only bad, if what is on the screen is bad. Think National Geographic versus MTV. If what is on the screen is good, then learning will follow. Rather than manage your child’s screen time, look at managing her sedentry time. This is the job of parents and educators. Teaching with tablets necessitates planning for movement in lessons too.

2) Losing handwriting will negatively affect fine motor development: This fallacy is based on the assumption that fine motor skills (using fingers for more dextrous tasks) is handwriting. Handwriting is, in fact, part of fine motor skills development: it is not its goal. Touch typing is an equally valid way to develop fine motor skills.

3) Children will spend all day staring at screens and not interact: In initiatives I have been lucky enough to observe, the opposite is the reality. Students share more work together, speak more and carry out activities that involve teamwork such as making a short film, a podcast or a presentation. With video recording so accessible, all spoken activities can be recorded and reviewed later.

4) Using tablets will dehumanise education: This is simply scare tactics. We are all, at our core, social beings. We crave human interaction. Tablets will no more dehumanise us than the printing press did. Teachers will not be replaced simply because every child needs support and encouragement. There isn’t an app for that.

5) Why invest now, something new will come along and replace the old technology. We should wait. New tech supplanting old tech is inevitable. However, I ask the mullet schoolers to apply their rhetoric next time they are buying a car... I hope they like walking.