A new approach to technology policy
I don't aspire to join that illustrious company by stating on record that this technology or that gadget is going to change the world. Nothing has a shorter shelf-life than the cutting edge.
But we in Britain should never forget that one of our great heroes, Alan Turing, laid the foundation stones on which all modern computing rests. His pioneering work on theoretical computation in the 1930s laid the way for Turing himself, von Neumann and others to create the computer industry as we know it.
Another generation's pioneer, Bill Gates, warned that the need for children to understand computer programming is much more acute now than when he was growing up. Yet as the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, recently lamented, we in England have allowed our education system to ignore our great heritage and we are paying the price for it.
Our school system has not prepared children for this new world. Millions have left school over the past decade without even the basics they need for a decent job. And the current curriculum cannot prepare British students to work at the very forefront of technological change.
Last year's superb Livingstone –Hope Review – for which I would like to thank both authors – said that the slump in UK's video games development sector is partly the result of a lack of suitably-qualified graduates. The review, commissioned by Ed Vaizey who has championed the Computer Science cause in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, found that the UK had been let down by an ICT curriculum that neglects the rigorous computer science and programming skills which high-tech industries need.
It's clear that technology is going to bring profound changes to how and what we teach. But it's equally clear that we have not yet managed to make the most of it.
Governments are notoriously flat-footed when it comes to anticipating and facilitating technical change. Too often, in the past, administrations have been seduced into spending huge sums on hardware which is obsolete before the ink is dry on the contract. Or invested vast amounts of time and money in drawing up new curricula, painstakingly detailing specific skills and techniques which are superseded almost immediately.
I believe that we need to take a step back.
Already, technology is helping us to understand the process of learning. Brain scans and scientific studies are now showing us how we understand the structure of language, how we remember and forget, the benefits of properly designed and delivered testing and the importance of working memory.
As science advances, our understanding of the brain will grow – and as it grows, it will teach us more about the process of education.
What can technology do for learning?
Rather than rushing pell-mell after any particular technology, filling school cupboards with today's answer to Betamaxes and floppy discs, we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question.
What can technology do for learning?
Three points immediately:
• First, technology has the potential to disseminate learning much more widely than ever before. Subjects, classes and concepts that were previously limited to a privileged few are now freely available to any child or adult with an internet connection, all over the world.
Look at 02 learn, a free online library of lesson videos developed and uploaded by teachers. It has already delivered around 25,000 hours of teaching via 1000 lessons from every type of school and college, right across the country: science lessons from The Bishop Wand Church of England Comprehensive School, music lessons from Eton. What about iTunes U, where lectures from the world's top universities are available at the touch of a button, and where the Independent Schools Council, Teaching Leaders and some of the best Academy Chains are working to put materials and lesson videos online? Or the hugely successful Khan Academy: more than 3.5 million students watch its educational videos every month and Google has donated $2 million for its materials to be translated into 10 languages.
I've been lucky enough to see first hand in Singapore how brilliant lessons can be delivered through a mixture of online and teacher-led instruction. And in areas of specialist teacher shortage, specialist teaching could be provided for groups of schools online, giving more children the opportunity to learn subjects that were previously closed to them. The Further Maths Support Programme, for example, is using the internet to give poorer families access to specialist help for the STEP papers, which dominate the best universities' selection process for Maths degree courses.
As online materials grow and flourish, we all need to think about how we can guide students through the wealth of information and techniques freely available and accessible online.
And, of course, I'm not just talking about opportunities for pupils to learn. The Royal Shakespeare Company is working with the University of Warwick on an online professional development learning platform to transform the teaching of Shakespeare in schools. Launching next month, the "rehearsal room" teaching resources will give teachers all over the world access to the insights and working practices of internationally-renowned actors, artists and directors, as well as specialist academics and teachers. The programme will even offer the chance to study for a Post Graduate qualification in the Teaching of Shakespeare.
The Knowledge is Power Programme, one of the most successful and widely-studied charter school chains in America, is already using ubiquitous, cheap digital technology to share lessons from its most proficient teachers. Even the best teachers can hone their skills by watching their peers in action.
• Second, just as technology raises profound questions about how we learn, it also prompts us to think about how we teach.
Games and interactive software can help pupils acquire complicated skills and rigorous knowledge in an engaging and enjoyable way. Adaptive software has the ability to recognise and respond to different abilities, personalising teaching for every pupil. With the expert help of a teacher, students can progress at different rates through lessons calibrated to stretch them just the right amount.
Britain has an incredibly strong games industry, with vast potential to engage with education both in this country and all over the world. We're already seeing these technologies being used in imaginative ways. Games developed by Marcus Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, are introducing children to advanced, complicated maths problems – and are producing great results.
Before Christmas I visited Kingsford School in Newham, where the Department for Education is working with the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the highly respected Stanford Research Institute. Their pilot scheme uses computer programmes to teach maths interactively – for example, showing a race between two people on screen and inviting pupils to plot their time and distance on a graph, then adjust it for variables.
Again, this pilot hasn't been dictated by central government, and we haven't developed the programme. But Stanford already says it is one of the most successful educational projects they have seen and I am looking forward to seeing the results.
• Third, technology brings unprecedented opportunities for assessment. Teachers can now support pupils' learning by assessing their progress in a much more sophisticated way, and sharing assessments with pupils and parents.
Each pupil's strengths and weaknesses can be closely monitored without stigmatising those who are struggling or embarrassing those are streaking ahead. Teachers can adjust lesson plans to target areas where pupils are weakest, and identify gaps in knowledge quickly and reliably.
Sophisticated assessment like this is already being used in schools around the country. Brailes Primary School, for example, a small rural school on the border of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, uses online tools enabling teachers to use pre-assembled tests, or design tests of their own. One of the teachers, Deborah Smith, has praised the system, saying, "it has enabled me to differentiate my teaching to meet the needs of different groups. The assessments are quick and simple to prepare…leaving more time for planning and teaching."
In Chichester School for Boys, electronic voting pads provide students with instant feedback during classes. Teachers get real-time feedback on how well their material is being understood – even on a question by question basis.
These are just three ways in which technology is profoundly changing education today – and I am sure that there will be more.