The iPhone in education


You’ve probably seen the brouhaha about Apple’s newly-lauched iPhone. When you first look at it may be tempted to dismiss it as an over-priced, over-hyped MP3+phone combo, and wonder how long it will be before you get to confiscate one. But you will be wrong.

It is the iPhone, not Windows Vista, not even the $100 laptop, that points the way to the future of educational computing. I don’t claim any originality in making this prediction, btw; I got it from Berthold Weidmann, director of NetLinc, back in 2001. It was already clear to him (perceptive chap) that something like the iPhone would evolve.

Before I go on to the benefits of the iPhone, I need to resolve the obvious objection: it’s too small to do anything useful. No. It’s too small for you to do anything useful with. Your students overcame that when they put their existing mobile phones at the heart of their social lives. They dealt with the small keyboard by learning predictive text. And the small screen? Well, even a speed reader can only ‘fix’ a few words at once. They simply developed the habits of dexterity to deal with it.

Back to the benefits. I predict that the iPhone, and its descendants and imitators, will replace desktops and laptops as the workhorse educational computing device, because:

  • Adoption. Every kid will carry one of these voluntarily long before they all have laptops, or you have enough desktops in the school.
  • Portability. Ever tried playing football on your way home carrying a laptop? But you’d do it with a phone in your pocket, wouldn’t you.
  • Connectivity. It’s got both GPRS and wifi. So you don’t have to think about how you are connected, you just are.
  • Flexibility. It’s borrowed one thing from the desktop computer; OSX. So it runs real programs. Lots of them.

Having said all that, I already hate the thing. First, because I don’t trust Apple not to hobble it with proprietary deals. And second, because of that grim mini-QWERTY keyboard. There are so many better alternatives. Even a conservative faux-QWERTY solution like Tengo would have been twice as good as what they’ve got. But there it is. I doubt the iPhone will make it to the UK for a year or so anyway; perhaps they will have a more civilised input method for version 2.

Why does technology have so little impact in education?

Alarmingly, there may be no sector of society [other than education] where technology has had less impact.
Dan Kinnaman (via Doug).

It’s absolutely true. In the business world I see paper, telephones, even offices becoming redundant as we find we can do things more efficiently online. In schools, I see classrooms largely unchanged since my own childhood. Even where there are computers, the traditional classroom dynamic has not substantially changed.

What’s gone wrong? The core of it, I believe, is that we have no agreement on what education is actually for. In the debate, I see two camps:

  • ’empowerment’ – learning to learn, learning to think, etc
  • ‘exams’ – knowledge, presentation skills, etc

Most teachers, in their hearts, fall into the first group. They would like to see their young charges go out into the world bright, inquisitive and empowered.

The electorate, as a whole, falls into the second. The public wants measurable outputs, and exams give these. It is far easier to measure a young person’s knowledge of history than his or her ability to make it. Politicians who set the agenda for education must follow the electorate.

We see this same dichotomy in the way technology is used (or not) in schools. If you look at what has been most successful, it’s the whiteboard. Why? Because it is very good at delivering knowledge. More empowering, but far cheaper, projects like Wikitextbook certainly have their followers, but have not gained mainstream acceptance because their outputs are harder to measure.

Technology is not going to really improve education unless we use it to really empower learners. Ultimately, that means letting go the obsession with knowledge and letting it help us embrace higher-order learning. To do this, we have to accept that the process is driven by an electorate that wants to see measurable results they can believe in.

Here is one place technology can help. Now that we routinely gather marks electronically, they are easier to share with parents. Through web, email, SMS, we can show parents the measurable outputs they want to see. But that’s just a first step. Having got their attention, we can now engage them in a debate about what sort of results would help their child get to a better university or find a better job.

At this point, I predict that parents themselves will start to demand evidence of empowerment rather than rote knowledge. How I think you might deliver that evidence is the subject of a future post.