Why school is still relevant in the age of technology

I find myself becoming increasingly irritated by people who say that we no longer need schools. The “argument”, if I can so dignify their pronouncements, seems to consist of the “logic” (ditto) that kids have lots of access to technology, and they can teach themselves how to use it, and therefore schools, and by extension teachers, are redundant.

I’ll say why I think these people are wrong in a minute, but I should like to make the observation that the only other time in my career that I’ve heard people say school is irrelevant is very, very occasionally at parents’ evenings. I’ve worked in three of the most deprived areas in England, and most of the parents were immensely supportive of school, because they saw it as a way out of poverty for their children. But now and again a parent would say to me something along the lines of:

“Well, I left school at 14 and it didn’t do me any harm.”

I didn’t blame those people, because after all they had only their own experience to go by. It’s a shame they hadn’t noticed that the world has changed a bit in the last 50 years, as have education in general and schools in particular, but they didn’t know what they didn’t know. The great and the good who pontificate about how school is no longer needed are, however, the worst kind of hypocrite. They have benefited from a good (traditional) education themselves, have gained all the “badges” (BA, MA etc), have good jobs far removed from the lives of families in the sort of areas I’ve taught in, and then tell the world that school is no longer needed or relevant. It feels a lot like pulling up the drawbridge to me, a great way of keeping the great unwashed out of the castle.

Even if they are sincere in their beliefs, which they probably are, the golden test for me is this: do they educate their own kids at home, or are they too busy on the lecture circuit telling the rest of us that school is rubbish?

But whether they are sincere or not, and even if they educate their own children at home (a luxury that few families can afford) they are certainly not right. Technology is the great leveller, it is true (remember the old saying, “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”?), but only if people have access to it, and can use it effectively and sensibly. That’s where teachers and schools come in.

Let’s have a look at what life is like for many kids. Never mind the stories you hear that they all have iPhones and x-boxes.

  • Many families live in social housing and can’t afford an internet connection.
  • Some families are living in bed and breakfast accommodation, where internet and broadband tend not to be available.
  • Many families have one computer for use by everyone.
  • Libraries, which could be relied upon to provide broadband and computer access, have been closing. Some people estimate that a quarter of the UK’s libraries have been closed (Library campaigners predict 1,000 closures by 2016).
  • Not every family can afford to provide each child with their own device, which is why Bring Your Own Device is not a solution in itself, in my opinion: it requires the school to do something, if only help parents access funding.
  • Even where youngsters do have access to equipment and a good internet connection, there is plenty of research, backed up by many teachers’ experience, that although children may pick up technical skills very quickly and easily, they don’t tend to delve very deeply into what you might do with the technology.
  • Furthermore, even (especially?) older students need a lot of training in keeping themselves safe online.

To be fair, the poverty arguments do not affect many people as a proportion of all households. According to the Office for National Statistics, 2014, 4 million households had no internet access, and “only” 11% of these couldn’t afford to have an internet connection. That’s 440,000 households. So the fact the fact they are in a minority will probably not be much of a consolation to them.

Schools obviously can and do provide access to computing and the web. I’ve known of schools that go even further, and issue students with devices, work with organisations like the E-Learning Foundation to provide parents with a means of paying for laptops (say) on a weekly basis, and even negotiating a wireless broadband deal for those parents whose circumstances preclude their having a fixed internet connection but who have a mobile phone.

Going back to the suggestion that, left to themselves, kids will do alright with the technology is simply not supported by the evidence – or at least, not all of the evidence. I’ve often wondered, for example, why we never hear about the kids who derived no benefit whatsoever from Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiments, in which he arranged for computers to be left in holes in walls and then stood back to see how the kids got on with them. (See Donald Clark’s Sugata Mitra: Slum chic? 7 reasons for doubt. See also Angela MacFarlane’s article, The idea that young people are digital natives is a myth, and my article, The Myth of the Digital Native.)

So, the next time you’re at a conference and some speaker who has never been closer to social and economic deprivation than his or her television set tells you that school is obsolete and teachers aren’t needed, pause before you applaud.

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cross-posted at www.ictineducation.org

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant with over 35 years of experience in education. He publishes the ICT in Education website and the newsletter “Digital Education."