I am at the QCon conference in London where I attended a session by Fraser Spiers mysteriously titled The Invisible Computer Lab.
Spiers is the guy who won a certain amount of fame or notoriety by issuing all staff and pupils with Apple iPad devices at the Scottish private school where he teaches computing.
The session blurb did not mention the iPad but said, “this talk will argue for a new direction in school ICT.” I went along because I am conscious that the way computing is taught in UK schools is often ineffective. Problems include kids knowing more than teachers; out of date hardware; too much Microsoft Office; and often an exclusive focus on general purpose applications rather forming any understanding of what computers are and how they work.
There is probably a connection between this and the low interest in computer science in higher level education.
Spiers did mention this; but most of the talk was an iPad love-in. He is an Apple fan and showed us pictures of the original iMac and various Mac notebooks which preceded the arrival of the iPad at his school.
Nevertheless, he made a persuasive case for how the iPad had transformed teaching (not only computing) at the school. According to Spiers, the children write longer essays because they have discovered word processing for the first time; they have new artistic creativity; they use the web far more and the school had to upgrade its internet connectivity; they are escaping from a word-based approach to learning and presenting their work to one which makes use of multiple media types.
He added that some of the expected snags did not materialise. They were concerned about the virtual touch keyboard on the iPad and offered keyboard accessories to everyone; but in practice few wanted it. The kids, he said, now dislike plastic keyboards with their tiresome buttons.
It is not a new model of computing, it is a new model of education. Handwriting may longer be an important skill, said Spiers.
Now, I do make due allowance for the over-exuberance of an Apple evangelist; and that the reality may not be as rose-tinted as he describes it.
At the same time, you can see how well Apple’s controlled computing environment works in a school environment, where kids may try to break computers or do bad things with them, as well as how the design and usability revolution plays out in a school environment.
Note, however, that Apple is not yet really geared up for iPad in education and Spiers encountered silly issues like the inability to buy site licences for apps delivered over iTunes; each one has to be purchased individually, and they have to fudge the accounts since nobody under 13 can use the app store. I am sure issues like this will be fixed soon.
Objections? Well, there is the cost of Apple’s premium hardware and its tax on the software. There is the ethics of using Apple at all – today, as it happens, there are posts by Bill Thompson and by Tom Arah which do a good job of spelling out concerns about Apple’s authoritarian and increasingly greedy business practices, especially with iOS and the App Store. I would rather be writing up the impact of Linux or Android or open source in education.
However, I will close with my question to Spiers and his answer. What will happen, I asked, when these kids with their experience of iPad computing get jobs and are confronted by offices full of PCs?
“A child that starts this year is going to graduate in 2024,” he replied. “I don’t know what the business environment is going to be like in 2024. I think there will be convergence between iOS and the Mac. I think businesses that stick with the PC infrastructure will not be around in 2024.”