A Supercomputer in Every Backpack

Last weekend I spoke at the Turing Festival in Edinburgh. It was a new talk. Short - just 20 minutes - and presenting some new material. Since the talk was short, I necessarily omitted a certain amount of additional material I wanted to mention. I also presented some data that might be perceived as somewhat contentious so I want to explain myself before the bare video goes up on the web.

Incidentally, this was the first time that I have ever been actively heckled during a talk. Despite conducting a rather loud personal conversation at the back of the hall during most of my talk, then giving me a massive thumbs-down gesture as I wrapped up, Richard Stallman decided he had heard enough and proceeded to take over the Q&A session for a bit of a dyspeptic rant about the 'iBad' and how Apple was subjugating children everywhere for their own evil ends.

It didn't bother me much - after all, I teach autistic children every day - but my inkling about what was coming led me to fluff the answers to a couple of excellent earlier questions. To those participants, I apologise for my distracted answers to your thoughtful questions.

When I was asked to speak at the Turing Festival, I was given two tasks: to tell the story of what we had done and to look forward a bit to the future and speak a little about "where it's going". Regular readers of this blog will know the back-story that made up the first half of my talk but I wanted to expand a little on the second half.

My youngest daughter, Beth, started school last week. She's four and a half and has never known a world in which the iPhone did not exist. She has never known a world in which 24x7 connectivity to the Internet was an impossible sci-fi dream. I suppose her starting school led me to reflect on what her school life will be like.

Consider the basic timeline: Beth won't leave school until the summer of 2025. Assuming we still have universities by then, she'll be be launched into the world waving her degree from the University of Hyderabad in the summer of 2029.

The question is simple: is there any plausible non-apocalyptic scenario in which technology is less prevalent, less widely distributed and less embedded in our culture in 2029 than it is in 2011? I simply can't imagine one.

The GSMA predict that there will be 50,000,000,000 connected devices on the planet by the year 2025. Think about that: by the time Beth leaves school, there will be something like seven Internet-connected devices on the planet for every person.

To paraphrase William Gibson, ubiquitous computing is here - it's just not built into the furniture. We don't have smart floors or LCD walls, sensor grids in the ceilings or the Internet on our fridge. We are almost all, however, carrying a pocket device that connects at some level to the network. The flood of smartphones only increases their capabilities.

We are already at a point where the ratio of professionals to computers is 1:2. A laptop and a smartphone are standard equipment in our society. With the advent of the tablet, we may be moving towards or beyond three computers per person.

The fact of the matter, though, is that this ubiquity of computing devices is not reflected in most schools.

Please understand: the point of this post is absolutely not to traduce state schools - I am ambitious for every school in this country and beyond. I gathered and share this information simply to find out how near or far we are from what is becoming the normal level of access to technology in our society.

Between January and March of 2011, I made a number of Freedom of Information requests to discover the pupil-to-computer ratio in each of Scotland's 32 local authorities. The data is below, but the headline fact is this:

On average, every school computer in Scotland is shared between 3.2 pupils.

This is the average across all primary and secondary schools and all 32 LAs.

This data has some caveats but none that make any LA look worse than they really are. Some LAs (Argyll and Bute, Fife, Aberdeen and Stirling) were unable to separate administrative computers in schools from pupil-accessible computers and consequently over-state the number of computers deployed. Midlothian counted admin computers and also referred to "other devices" without specifying what they were. Finally, of the 5,000 computers deployed in Scottish Borders Council schools, the council was providing 4,000 of those and the schools topped up another 1,000 - I presume through PTA fundraising and suchlike.

It's important, too, to realise that not every LA is of equal size. I also presented the proportion of all pupils who receive these ratios of provision. Again, data is below, but the striking figure is this:

25% of Scotland's pupils attend a school where the average pupil:computer ratio is near or above 5 pupils per computer.

Thinking back through my own history of computing, I asked myself a question: what was the last year in which I did not have exclusive use of at least one computer? The answer: 1995.

Think about that: it has already been sixteen years since computers stopped being so scarce that we had to share them.

People visit my school all the time. They shake my hand as they leave and tell me how inspiring it all is and often they sign off with "truly, the iPad is the future of education". I bite my tongue every time because unlike Richard Stallman I'm not an anti-social jackass, but I want to correct them.

I want to tell them that the iPad is not the future of education, it's the present of education. If we consign the iPad to the realms of the future, then we are implicitly saying that it's not for right here, right now, today. We're saying that we can postpone the task of seriously engaging with the educational and social impact of ubiquity of Internet-connected computing.

I ask you to consider other industries that put off dealing with such challenges. How is that approach working out for record companies? For newspapers? For booksellers?

The hour is already late. We have allowed a 16-year gap to develop between society and schools in terms of our children's access to computers. Can we properly prepare Beth and her cohort for the year 2029 with the same level of access to computers that I had 35 years before?

How long can we let this gap continue to grow? Another five years? Another ten? In another 14 years, if GSMA are right, society as a whole will have 7 connected devices each - will we be delivering relevant education in that world if each pupil only has a third of a computer to themselves?

Cedars is not a school of the future. I think we're a decade late.