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The digital revolution is irrelevant to schools

By Roger Broadie

Having spent 35 years of my life trying to help schools embrace the digital revolution, that has so dramatically changed almost every other aspect of life, my conclusions on why schools seem so resistant have come as a shock. But there have to be reasons why  the opportunities of technology enhanced learning have not embedded in the vast majority of schools - despite schools such as those that gained the Naace Third Millennium Learning Award showing how it can and should be (http://www.naace.co.uk/thirdmillenniumlearningaward/schoolawardvideos/ ).

It is tempting to look at how companies in all sectors of the economy have changed how they do business, developing employee's digital mindset to provide what they offer more effectively. And then to imagine that education should do the same. Certainly that is what has been expected by my many educational technology colleagues who have expressed their frustration that the use of digital in schools fails to embed, even in schools that for some years have successfully used digital connectivity to increase the quantity and quality of learning.

But it is a false comparison and expectation.

Prisons don’t see a need to develop a digital mindset amongst their inmates.

Those working in hospitals only have a digital mindset to the extent that they need to use various digital devices to diagnose and treat. And don’t do anything to try to inculcate a digital mindset in their patients.

Digital mindset is important to business because digital systems raise productivity and reduce the cost of employees, and because increasingly their customers come to them through digital.

Digital is not important to those running schools because:

  • their customers have to buy the product, with many schools having an effective monopoly due to location. Attracting customers where there is competition does lead to digital window-dressing but the product does not need digital - see below.
  • the productivity cannot easily be raised by digital, for pretty much the same reasons as prisons and hospitals.

Boy looking through fenceWhich brings us on to what the product schools sell is:

  • custodial care of children so that parents can go to work.
  • socialisation and treatment of behaviour difficulties.
  • conferring of qualifications that give access to the labour market.
  • a few skills that are essential for entry to the labour market, particularly literacy and numeracy.
  • and a little ‘education’, in the sense of opening kids’ eyes to fulfilling areas of endeavour and aesthetics - but certainly here in the UK these are being rapidly squeezed out of the curriculum.

I doubt very much whether education policymakers and leaders will start to take notice of the need to develop a digital mindset in their pupils and teachers unless this can be shown to be necessary:

  • it certainly isn’t necessary for the custodial care, except at the margins if you can occupy larger groups with less or cheaper adult supervision.
  • it probably hinders socialisation and treatment of behaviour, except for those few kids who can be helped to gain a sense of personal fulfilment and challenge by use of digital.
  • it is too difficult to make qualifications dependent on good use of digital. Even where the taking of qualifications has gone digital, the content of the tests is usually just knowledge recall.
  • though digital can aid development of literacy and numeracy, the accountability depends on assessments that cannot assess audio-visual literacy or numeracy that depends on digital, such as mathematical modelling.
  • and digital has made few inroads into fulfilling areas of endeavour and aesthetics in schools, except in those areas that are being squeezed out of the curriculum because they don’t count as ‘academic’ qualifications, such as music, art and making stuff (which is also hard to assess).

I have just started reading Bryan Caplan’s ‘The case against education’. His thesis is that a ‘substantial fraction’ of what education achieves is ‘signalling’ as to suitability for employment, the other part of what education achieves being the ‘raising of human capital’. The book is going on to make the case that the split between these is actually 80% signalling and only 20% real ‘raising of human capital’ - i.e. ‘education’ as a lot of those committed to helping young people grow think of it, and think this is the main product of schools.

If Bryan Caplan is correct the way that the majority of educators perceive their job and their mission is wrong. And there is massive need for change if the full potential of our young people in our now connected and digitally supported world is to be realised.

The above analysis of the real 'product' that schools offer makes me think the achilles heel of current schooling is curriculum. Only if parents come to see the school/college curriculum as insufficient preparation for entry into the labour market and the socialisation and fulfilment their children need, will pressure develop for change.

The question to be addressed is how to make the case that the skills essential for the labour market are not being developed, and that the reliance on current qualifications for labour market signalling is not the best way for young people to present themselves to employers.

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