A is for Apple, B is for binary

By Telegraph

Educational researchers say preschoolers are obsessed with iPads, or a "rattle on steroids". Photo / AP
Educational researchers say preschoolers are obsessed with iPads, or a "rattle on steroids". Photo / AP

In a classroom at Goffs School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, neatly uniformed children are sitting in rows, gazing at the teacher. The scene is reassuringly like school as I remember it in the 80s, until Shaun Furzer, leader of digital learning - what? - clears his throat.

"Take out your phones, everyone. Use this code," he gestures at the interactive whiteboard. "Text a way in which you have used technology this year in the classroom. Go!"

The teenagers' fingers dance on touch screens; within seconds an answer flashes up on the board. "In chemistry we researched nanotechnology on the internet." Another follows: "We used an iPad in after-school film club, to make a trailer and write reviews on the blog." Furzer is already moving on. "Right, now use your phones to scan this QR code, which will download an educational app. I want you to do a short digital presentation on how this app could help with your learning."

Since my school days, the world has undergone astonishing changes. I spent my holidays yakking to my friends on our Bakelite telephone; today 6- and 8-year-olds email their buddies.

They don't send postcards, they upload blogs.

Every question - "How old is the universe, Mummy?"; "Who was the baddest man in history?" - which once involved rootling through encyclopedias, they now solve with the cure-all: "Google it."

But school, I thought, had remained unchanged: a teacher stands in front of a class of 20 to 30 children and talks to them, while they doodle on dog-eared textbooks.

Not for much longer. More schools are replacing textbooks with technology. Teachers are regarded not as imparters of knowledge but "learning enablers", there to guide pupils through educational apps.

Is this a brave new world, or the gateway to indolence, addiction and diminishing social and cognitive skills? Don't children already spend too much time on computers? Shouldn't the classroom be a place where they can concentrate on time-honoured disciplines that involve prolonged concentration and retention of facts?

Moreover, although introducing technology into schools is expensive in the short term, in the long term educationalists warn it may be used as a cost-cutting device. Already, in Thailand, every child is given an iPad-like device in an attempt to slash the number of teachers employed.

But my fears, it seems, are those of a Luddite minority. Urged on by manufacturers, schools are wholeheartedly embracing the technological revolution. Aggressive marketing by Apple means that eight million iPads have already been sold for education worldwide.

Technology has taken over every aspect of our lives, so our children must learn how to master it, if they're to be employable.

In South Korea, printed textbooks have gone the way of the dinosaurs. In Los Angeles, every schoolchild is to be given an iPad.

In Holland, 11 informally nicknamed "Steve Jobs" schools, after the founder of Apple, are about to open. In these private institutions, founded by pollster Maurice de Hond, learning is done via iPads with no classrooms, form teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, timetables, parent-teacher meetings, break times, fixed school days or school holidays. Using educational apps, children will study each subject at a pace that suits them, with daily computer tests to assess their level. The theory is that no child will be bored because the class pace is too fast or too slow for them.

So are we on the verge of an educational utopia? No one yet knows, says Dr Andrew Manches of London's Institute of Education. "Some people are crying it's the end of childhood, in much the same way they said about television and even paper. Others are saying every child needs to know how to use an iPad fluently or they will be left behind. All we do know is that it's happening so fast, it's hard for research into its effects to keep pace."

While educationalists and psychologists scrabble for grants to investigate these changes, software developers are besieging parents with apps that they promise will transform infants into Einsteins. The invention of the iPad four years ago has opened up a new, younger target market of preschoolers infatuated by what educational researchers have described as a "rattle on steroids".

"Introduction of new media in a school curriculum may stimulate students just because of the novelty of the experience," says a group of American academics recently in a paper: "Children, Wired: For Better and For Worse". "However, once the media become the norm, such an effect would vanish. Studies need to establish that the content of the media triggers the increase in knowledge."

Yet this enthusiasm is not universal. In Silicon Valley, executives are shunning wired schools in favour of alternative Waldorf schools - institutions that believe computers inhibit creativity, movement, human interaction and attention spans. "I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school," is one comment from parent Alan Eagle. Eagle works in executive communications at Google.

When asked about his views on education, he reveals his 10-year-old daughter "doesn't know how to use Google", and his 13-year-old son is just learning. Eagle's response to the argument children need to master computer skills early on is crushing. "At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There's no reason why kids can't figure it out when they get older."

Dr Tom Butler, a senior lecturer in business information systems at University College Cork, is convinced that, far from producing smarter students, technology is having the opposite effect. "For a while, my colleagues in Europe, Australia, the United States and I have all been puzzled by the diminished ability of students to reason, learn and understand," he says.

Butler was alarmed by research that found light emitted from computer screens encouraged the brain to remain awake, causing sleep deprivation that affected the brain's ability to lay down short-term memories. "The end result is typically an inability to remember and learn," he says.

Researchers warn that the bite-size chunks of information the internet offers, with constant inducements to click to another page, are reshaping our neural pathways, damaging our abilities to concentrate or to lay down "deep" memories.

So what of children's brains, which are still developing?

Back in the classroom, the pupils brush off such concerns. "Computers are part of our everyday lives," says Harry Smith, 13. "If you don't use a computer you should be encouraged. Everyone would far rather learn with one of these than watch a teacher."

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