The Answer is in the Question

I'm no advocate of replacing teachers with computers though the flippant maxim of "every teacher who can be replaced by a computer should be" does resonate. This article in the New York Times about push-back on technology in schools in Idaho stood out as a fight to watch.

This line, though:

Ms. Rosenbaum said she could not fathom how students would have the discipline to sit in front of their computers and follow along when she had to work each minute to keep them engaged in person.

I don't know: could working to learn and express your learning on a computer be more engaging than working to a standardised test with a pen and paper? That's been my experience over the last two years but it didn't magically happen the minute you hand out an iPad. Like I keep saying: technology, pedagogy and curriculum.

If you're fighting every minute to keep kids engaged, it might be time to try something different.

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.

Stop Lying

James Bridle has been killing it recently with a series of seven posts about the future. My favourite, by miles, is part three entitled "Stop Lying About What You Do".

I could quote the series endlessly, and you should read it all, but let me pull four paragraphs:

"We prejudge endlessly. Because we have not experienced the emotions that new technologies trigger we assume that they will be less powerful than the emotions we already know. Just because we haven’t had these feelings yet. I love books. But I know that ereading will inspire a whole new range of responses to the written word and I want these too."

We have not experienced the emotions that come from technology helping children overcome barriers and better themselves. We have not yet experienced, widely, in schools the feelings of satisfaction, validation, challenge and connection that we get from sharing our ideas broadly across the world.

"I read with continuous partial attention and I don’t care that I am frequently interrupting my own reading. I despise the discourse that says we are all shallow, that we are all flighty, distracted, not paying attention. I am paying attention, but I am paying attention to everything, and even if my knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise it is wider, and it plays in a vaster sphere, than any knowledge that has gone before."

"My knowledge is fragmented and hard to synthesise". I immediately thought of the challenges of assessing pupils' learning under a system like Curriculum for Excellence. Learning and knowledge can't be reduced to a letter between A and C that fits into a spreadsheet.

"I go through cycles of belief about the future of writing, of publishing, of the written word. But too much is broken to continue to pretend that the models we have become used to, the models of sales and distribution, of composition and recompense, of form and style, of reading and attention, can stagger on much longer."

Too much is broken to continue to pretend that the models we have become used to, the models of classroom management, of teaching, of assessment, of accreditation of learning, can stagger on much longer.

"This is the world we are living in and we can either lie to ourselves about it or we can dive headlong into the new forms and effects that it produces."

This. A thousand times this.