Let’s get physical – classroom hardware under the microscope

Simon Fry looks back at – and forward to – classroom technology developments

Today’s high-tech classrooms reflect the inexorable rise of technology in everyday life; it is astounding to think our smartphones have more computing power than NASA’s Apollo-era computers. Digital natives completely comfortable with the hardware in their learning environment can look forward to ever-greater computing capability as they go through education and into the world of work. From flipped learning to smartphone apps, the world of education has never been more connected, and the phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down. 

Indeed, imagining education without technology is no longer a possibility, says Georgina Bowell, Canon UK Education Value Proposition Consultant, since it is now such an intrinsic part of the classroom experience. She comments: “In printing we are seeing more centralised and efficient services, with printing evolving to keep pace with the rise in digital art. An increasing uptake of 3D printing devices is very exciting.” 

Today’s efficient print technology facilitates maximum student expression (and reduces time teachers spend on admin – freeing up more time for teaching) while increasing schools’ cost-effectiveness, with the benefits seen in the bottom line. Francis Combe Academy’s Chris Turton said, “We can make the reprographics department a viable commercial outfit serving the academy and bringing in additional revenue.” Hands-on time with cutting-edge technology they will find in the workplace provides pupils with experience they can take into university and beyond. 

The last decade has seen unprecedented change in the classroom’s technology, with the iPhone introduced 10 years ago and the subsequent adoption by schools of mobile and cloud-based apps like the iPad and Chromebook. The move toward the reversal of lecture and homework elements – flipped learning – has followed on from an earlier initiative, according to Lee Dutton, Sales Director at educational IT supplier Misco. “From 2003, central government investment drove an interactive whiteboard boom but we are now seeing collaborative learning experiences, with cloud-based apps and interactive flat panels and touchscreens connected to students’ devices.”  

Increasingly, teaching has changed so the way children work at school – via the collaborative classroom – prepares them for the team-working they will need in the office. Their development of digital and creative skills will enhance their employability in the face of rising technology, according to Lee. “Despite talk of artificial intelligence (AI) taking jobs in future, human creativity, experimentation and inspiration cannot be automated. Children are already using AI tools such as Siri and Cortana to help find information, and Minecraft was praised for helping them lose their fear of computing.”   

As AI evolves, greater use of AI assistants is expected, particularly for helping children with additional needs who need to take in information at their own pace. A UCL study conducted with Third Space Learning found AI can also be used to assist maths teachers to identify content and teaching methods working best for individual students, based on performance in previous assignments.

Continued pressure on school budgets, and the capability of hardware to be made almost ‘as new’ is likely to lead to huge growth in a money-saving trend: schools are expected to increasingly embrace high-quality refurbished devices. These are put through a comprehensive erasure of all existing software programmes and data before being safely and functionally tested and fully cleaned. “This makes them, to all intents and purposes, a new device, but in some cases with a 50% lower cost base,” said Stone Group CEO Simon Harbridge. 

Indeed, as schools look to cut costs, and technology is enhanced, the traditional school outing, complete with cagoules and packed lunches, may be under threat. Virtual reality (VR) continues to gain popularity and is a great way to embrace immersive learning within the classroom. Curriculum-aligned content and structured lesson plans for VR are now readily available and teachers can use VR headsets to take pupils on virtual fieldtrips to places such as Mars, the Great Barrier Reef and Buckingham Palace.

Increased interactivity is expected to be the main driver behind emerging teaching and learning styles, with augmented reality (AR) also rising in popularity. AR simulates superimposed, computer-generated artificial objects in the real-world environment (think Pokémon Go) and printed material, enhancing the perception of reality. Simon added, “Soon, all phones will be smartphones, providing continuous AR content access, such as augmented models from historic buildings to human anatomy.” 

Students working on their own tablet, emailing their homework to their teacher, has become the educational norm, alongside new apps, educational games and interactive whiteboards becoming integral parts of the classroom. Seebox UK’s Chris Dreyer sees the AI revolution looming closer every day. “Massive technological advances and the need for different workplace skills is shaping and influencing the way our children are taught in school.”

One such example of this technology is the Seebox – or Scientific Engineering Education Box. This award-winning, innovative and educational game console teaches children the principles of electronics, engineering and science. Increasing the science capital of young learners and stimulating creativity, it includes a whole curriculum suitable from Year 7 to university level while developing problem-solving skills and improving abstract thinking.      

While predicting the future is not without uncertainty, it is safe to say the technology used in today’s classrooms will appear dated by 2027. By that time, some of the class of 2017 will be the engineers creating hardware and software while others will be the teachers, offering increasingly collaborative learning in spaces bristling with innovation. The rest will be employed in workplaces, offices and at home, using technology with which they will be intuitively at ease.