The rise and fall of software for schools

In reply to my last post on the arrival of tablets in schools Crispin Weston of Saltis and EdTechNow picked up on my ‘sanguine’ attitude to how I thought new technology would be used in schools. Basically he noted that I was content...

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In reply to my last post on the arrival of tablets in schools Crispin Weston of Saltis and EdTechNow picked up on my ‘sanguine’ attitude to how I thought new technology would be used in schools. Basically he noted that I was content to use the new devices but as would anyone else outside schools ... the criticism being that I seemed to have no interest (maybe even no knowledge) in using or developing education-specific applications.

On reflection he was completely correct. I have simply pushed it far to the back of my mind. It was not always thus, it was only a few years ago I that I was excitedly writing about the potential of Web2 (or was it Web3?) in education and for a tiny time saw great educational potential in Second Life’s microworlds ... until I met someone who actually used it.

Second Life by the way has about 60,000 users compared with World of Warcraft’s 10.2 million users ... I guess there is really sad and just sad.

What went wrong? Why did I turn off so dramatically?

Computer software was going to transform the quality of education. In the BBC Micro and early PC days teachers and under-employed innovators wrote loads of sometimes quite good education specific software. It was usually written by amateurs in that amateur of languages Basic and later Microsoft’s Visual Basic for the PC.

Excitement grew to a fever-pitch when professional Dorling Kindersley embraced the multimedia CD and produced a fabulous set of resources for schools. At college I found their biology CD the other day gathering dust in a box ... it was great. But sad was the day when DK worked out they could not make money from this market and withdrew very publically.

Professional software aids to education then entered a really dark phase epitomised by RM PLC’s network suites and the interactive whiteboards. Subsist on a diet of ‘EZ-teach’, ‘whiteboard training’ courses whilst at the same time having to apply 1984-esque DoubleThink to believe that it all enhanced pupil achievement and it will (did) destroy your mind more effectively than a few rats did poor spineless Winston Smith.

I flickered briefly back into optimistic life with the advent of the e-reader. The potential for student text-books was and is massive, but the publishing houses that milk the life out of schools with their exam-specific and very expensive text-books are having none of this.

So here I am loving technology, believing in its potential but, to continue with the analogy above, crushed by the dead hand of Big-Brother. In this case Big-Brother is the vast corporate publishing houses and computer firms who with their absolute command, some would say abuse, of copyright and patent have killed innovation and replaced it with vacuous high-tec pap or no tech at all.

To finish, what can be done? Well there are as the likes of Crispin Weston, Ian Lynch and Daniel Rongo (to name but three) that have criss-crossed my path These are folk who are working from the grass-roots to revive the potential of ICT in education whether it be computer assisted learning, computing, assessment of e-books...but can they succeed?

I don’t know the answer to my question but I do know a few basics.

The priority must be to safeguard the work from predation.

This means that the licences under which they are produced and released must protect the intellectual rights of their authors but allow safe distribution, development and reproduction.

This of course means open source software, open-standard formats and sensible Creative Commons copyrights. At least this way grass-root work becomes part of the educational community which in the UK is characterised by the generous free sharing of knowledge.

Bit by bit (sorry) we may build up our computer specific software again.