State-of-the-art technology is changing our school days
As technology perforates all aspects of education, is it a case of goodbye Mr Chips and hello Mr Micro-chips? It’s a good debate, says Max Davidson.
Too much information. It has become one of the catchphrases of the age. And there are probably more than one or two parents of children at boarding school who give a wry smile when they hear it.
When they were at school, the information their parents received about their wellbeing and academic progress was comically constricted. Perhaps a quick telephone call if their daughter had got mumps. End-of-term reports that were so laconic they were completely inscrutable. What on earth did the maths master mean by ‘quite satisfactory’? Was there a veiled hint that little Emma was wobbly on her two-times table?
Now, thanks to a seismic change in educational attitudes and technological advances, parents can keep tabs on their children like never before. They can live thousands of miles away, in New York or Hong Kong, and still feel a sense of connection.
This can take on myriad forms, depending on how schools choose to take advantage of new technologies. Some have taken a cautious, evolutionary approach. Others – and not necessarily the ones you would expect – have fallen over themselves to use the most up-to-date forms of communication.
Bedales, once a by-word for its relaxed approach to education and almost ostentatious in its disdain for life in the fast lane, now frolics about in cyberspace like a teenager. The school’s Twitter feed is an exuberant, freewheeling succession of feel-good images: kids at a pig farm, kids at dance classes, kids planting ox-eye daisies, kids debating whether towns should put up Christmas lights. What parent would not appreciate these glimpses into their children’s world?
The headmaster of Bedales – in common with many of his peers – writes a weekly blog, sharing with parents his ruminations on such offbeat topics as reading The Guardian by candlelight during a power cut. His blog appears in an extensive news bulletin, alongside such hot-off-the-press items as the fact that Isabella Barty-King has scored a hat-trick in the U14 hockey team’s 8-0 thrashing of Portsmouth High.
To parents raised in the pre-internet age, when one waited for the once-termly – or even once-yearly – school magazine for this sort of nugget, it must feel genuinely exhilarating to be kept in the loop. After all, if they do not want to wade through the news bulletins, they do not have to.
For headteachers, it is an opportunity, as well as a potential banana skin. If their blogs charm, entertain and are full of insights, they will make a good impression on their target market. If they are prolix and pompous, they may trip themselves up.
Whatever their blogging skills, headteachers are better equipped than ever before to run parent-friendly schools. Information is power and, thanks to the internet, the prompt sharing of useful information has never been easier. The U14 hockey match, which is postponed or cancelled because of bad weather? Not a problem. Parents receive the news in seconds via the school website and are thus saved a long drive to watch a non-event.
‘Today’s parents take it for granted that schools are going to be technologically up-to-date,’ says Susan Hamlyn, editor of the Good Schools Guide. ‘There is almost as much competition to produce the best web portals as there is to have the best facilities for sports and the performing arts. But more is not always better. The most successful schools tend to be the ones who embrace new technology, but in a sensible way.’
New technology has produced new challenges. Every headteacher in the land is alert to the dangers of cyber-bullying. They are also alert to the danger of children becoming overly-dependent on their smart phones. Some schools have even employed ‘virtual barriers’ to restrict access to social media on the school premises. There is an ongoing battle to combat some of the excesses of the internet age.
Children’s safety remains paramount, for parents and teachers alike – although how best to protect children while they are at school is a moot point. St Mary’s Ascot has borrowed a Hitachi invention, also used by banks for internet banking, to keep tabs on its pupils through finger-vein scanning, whether it is class registration or the refractory first thing in the morning. But, last year, the Independent Schools Inspectorate raised concerns about the extensive use of CCTV cameras intruding on pupil’s privacy.
Password-protected parent portals are now a common feature on school websites. And the best of them do not just offer access to information, but take into account the fact that the people who use it, i.e. parents, are often busy professionals to whom time is precious.
At St Helen’s, Northwood, in the heart of the North London commuter belt, Microsoft SharePoint has been used to ensure that parents receive only the information of immediate relevance to their child.
Technologically-challenged parents may blanch when they read that, ‘PDFs are now permissioned dynamically using workflows,’ but many will get the point in seconds. After all, the youngest parents at the school will have been born after the invention of the internet.
‘We liked the idea of targeting announcements and specific documents at different groups of parents, across our many year groups, accurately and rapidly,’ says David Nanton, head of IT systems at St Helen’s. The danger of information overload is widely acknowledged by professionals in the field.
How far new technology has been an aid to learning in the classroom is debated. It has certainly spawned a plethora of new teaching tools. Daydream Education, the UK’s leading provider of interactive software, has just launched its latest multi-platform app, Maths Tutor, which incorporates a huge variety of tutorials, interactivities and real-life scenarios. The three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, drummed into generations of pupils, are becoming much more fun.
Every month seems to bring exciting new innovations. Last November, St Clement Danes School in Hertfordshire announced that it had recruited three new members of staff – funky little robots called Meccanoids, which could revolutionise computing and science lessons.
But computerising the classroom can be a mixed blessing. Last September, a global report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that, contrary to perceptions, investing heavily in computers and classroom technology did not improve pupils’ performance. Technology ‘had raised too many false hopes,’ warned the OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher.
One interesting offshoot of the technological revolution, of interest to parents, is the enhanced capacity to measure academic progress. How is your child doing in maths, English and other subjects vital to their chances of getting into a good university? Parents used to have to wait for parents’ evenings or end-of-term reports. Now, with schools at the cutting-edge of technology, updates come far more frequently.
At Sutton High School, teachers use SMS to feed on to parents vital data, such as exam grade targets set for pupils or, just as importantly, the progress they are making in meeting those targets.
‘Parents now have a much better understanding than they had in the past of their daughter’s progress over the course of the academic year,’ says the school’s director of studies, Jackie Ward. ‘They can also see the difference our teachers make when they step in to provide extra help or challenge a child whom we know is capable of more.’
At Bryanston, another school at the vanguard of the technological revolution, parents simply have to log in to the school’s website to access their child’s eChart, an academic progress-tracker. If David is struggling with chemistry or stifling a yawn during lessons about Paradise Lost, mum can know within hours – which may or may not help the situation.
Teachers who might have dreamed of clocking off work at six o’clock, now find themselves having to field emails from anxious parents at every hour of the day and night. More information does not always equal peace of mind.
Sensible parents will probably temper their enthusiasm for the latest interactive app with a degree of scepticism. At school, as in the world at large, technology can be a good servant but a bad master. Are weekly progress reports an altogether good thing? How long before they are invited to view live video streams from the classroom?
Helicopter parents are naturally thrilled with their new toys but are their children equally thrilled? And how can schools best strike a reasonable balance between monitoring progress and neurotic micromanagement?
It is a debate that can only intensify as the technological revolution gathers pace. You can bet there will be a headteacher somewhere composing a blog on the subject even as you read this. You can also bet that the blog will attract a flurry of emails from concerned parents, putting in their own tuppence ha’penny.
Love or hate the internet, it is unrivalled at stimulating healthy debate.