Changing the world of education

My blog has been planned for some time but as you might imagine, I’ve had a few other things at the top of my ‘to do’ list in recent months. I write this first entry at a time when the world around us changes on a daily basis and we all adapt to a new era for education but I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts about the impact of technology.

They say a blog shouldn’t really be more than 500 words so I’ve already broken the rules. I promise the future ones will be shorter!

Like many schools, Plymouth College has been developing its approach to digital education for many years and we were in the midst of planning the implementation of a major new digital initiative this September, when the Covid-19 crisis struck. Again, like many schools we were unexpectedly thrust into a brave new world of technologically supported and enhanced distance education in the form of our Home Learning Programme. The HLP has gone spectacularly well and one of the few silver linings to this terrible and devastating cloud is that the crisis has provided an amazing and irresistible springboard that will enable our forthcoming digital initiative to move faster and further than we might have ever imagined. It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention; it has also been said that our struggles today enable us to develop the strength we need for tomorrow. Both of these are certainly true at the moment.

Of course, the use of technology in education is certainly not a recent invention. That said, recent enhancements introduced by Google through their G suite products and Microsoft through their Office 365 platform have accelerated almost exponentially the returns that are possible in digital education strategies. For some time now many experts have talked about the next big things in education being the use of Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Assisted Reality. So how might these new technologies enhance education?

Artificial intelligence has been around for many years, at least conceptually. As a Star Wars fan, it was certainly an integral part of my childhood development and has recently been part of my children’s development also.

Firstly, there is the potential for more effective teaching, with less time spent on administration, releasing more time for actual teaching; more accurate and effective formative assessment techniques and data; and, as a result, more time for informed, tailored and creative teaching. The result is much more effective pupil learning as education becomes a genuinely personalised, tailored, differentiated experience where learning and teaching genuinely and consistently adapts to reflect the needs of individual pupils. At the moment, we are using AI at a very basic level, through techniques such as multiple choice testing. Within the next few years we will move to automated essay marking.

Within the next 10 years we will be using biological feedback, monitoring and learning from physiological and psychological responses to educational experiences. We may even be using DNA profiling to inform education programmes. AI also promises a transformation of the dread of all teenagers: examinations and qualifications. Examinations could become a continuous process of summative assessment, making the award of qualifications much more accurate and objective.

Now all this sounds wonderful and I believe it will be: for pupils, for teachers, for parents and for society. Within 10 to 15, AI and VR will dramatically change education techniques and employment patterns. Such technology will progressively equalise educational attainment, rapidly enhance social mobility, replace many existing jobs but also create many new jobs. However, the Covid-19 crisis, the lockdown of societies and the closure of schools around the world has also demonstrated an undeniable aspect of human nature: human beings need, want, crave and would choose to have the company of other human beings (and pets). Such contact is essential for their emotional and psychological wellbeing. It is also essential for the development of their characters. Technology is great for many things but it can’t teach personal qualities, such as emotional intelligence, initiative, curiosity, resilience, compassion, respect, or skills, such as leadership, teamwork, social skills, people skills. Such values and character traits can only be developed in human beings by and with other human beings.

Of course, this is what we have been doing at Plymouth College with great success for many years through our fantastic programmes of pupil wellbeing and pastoral care and co-curricular activities. It could be the spirit of an U15 rugby team playing through both success and adversity or the cast and crew of a school theatrical production turning the car crash of a dress rehearsal into a glorious first night performance or a Ten Tors team demonstrating the courage and resilience needed to complete a course against all odds. These are collaborative learning experiences, undertaken by pupils with guidance from their teachers and support of parents, that a computer of pair of VR goggles simply can’t reproduce.

So, whilst we bravely stride into our new world of technology and wholeheartedly embrace all that it has to offer us, we do so with the understanding that, whilst it may transform the way in which the institution of the school works, it will never replace schools. There are some fundamental apsects of our humanity that technology simply can’t replicate or replace. If the Covid-19 crisis has taught us anything, it has taught us that human beings are far stronger and infinitely more effective when we work and live together than we are when exist in isolation, be it socially, psychologically and physically.

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