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The future of technology in the classroom

One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about is education; or, more specifically the use of technology in education. I’m not a teacher, but I do work for a tech company whose goal it is to make education better.

Recently the OECD released a report that suggested that the use of technology in the classroom was having a detrimental effect on how well pupils were performing in standardised tests. As an organisation who really takes the time to try and understand education, Firefly certainly had a few thoughts on the report. One of our founders, Joe Mathewson, shared his thoughts on the report on The BBC News Channel.

As one of the people who designs software used by hundreds-of-thousands of students, teachers and parents every day I have a responsibility to help build something genuinely useful. What we’re hearing loud-and-clear from teachers is that technology is just another tool, and is only useful when used alongside other tools and teaching methods.

As Cat Scutt, Head of Learning Technology and Innovation at the Girls’ Day School Trust, recently commented in her TES article.

[E]ven if we focus on [academic achievement] alone, there is a fundamental flaw here in treating ICT as if it is a pedagogical approach in itself.

It’s with this in mind that I’d like to consider what’s next for the classroom. Currently, mobile is the disrupter of the technological status quo. With tablets and phones now ubiquitous, computers have entered every part of the school day. But what happens next is anyones guess; the future is up for grabs. Of course there are indicators of what’s to come, decisions those in the know are making today that may affect the technology of tomorrow.

Recently, Facebook brought Oculus Rift for $2billion. So why did they invest in a technology that seemed to have died on its arse in the mid 1980s? Well, Mark Zuckerberg certainly seems to be convinced VR is the next big thing in tech:

We have a lot more to do on mobile, but at this point we feel we’re in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled about Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, some even suggesting that billionaire Zuckerberg simply loved the device, so he bought the company. However, it’s hard to ignore his vision, and it’s pretty clear what a difference VR could make to could make to the world beyond just games.

A world stuffed full of Facebook ads aside, if VR is due to replace the screen, and change the way we interact with our environment, what does this mean for the classroom?

Early adopters

An enterprising teacher could, if they wished, start using VR now. Oculus sell Developer kits so those with coding skills can build pretty much any experience they wish.

Imagine a physics teacher explaining the structure of an atom to their students by immersing them in a world where she’s able to zoom deep into the environment and show the students how the atoms of their desks are arranged. If that sounds far-fetched then have a look at the tomorrow project, helping school children build their own 3D printable robots.

I imagine some teachers and parents might see this as the ultimate nightmare scenario for the classroom; rows of students, all wearing goggles, hooked into the schools mainframe. No one speaks as information is simply downloaded into the student’s brain.

What I’m suggesting here is something quite different. Unlike mobile devices, which by their nature prevent real-world social interactions, Virtual Reality simply adds another layer on top. This augmented reality would support real-world interactions in a way that mobile never can. However, I do think that the success of VR used in this way will very much depend on how unobtrusive the VR headsets / glasses / contact lenses can be made.

Wider integration

I think the mobile revolution has shown us that much of the technology innovation happening in schools is driven by students. Many schools have now adopted one to one or BYOD programmes as a direct kick-back against the tidal wave of devices being brought into school anyway, choosing to utilise technology, rather than have it serve only as a distraction.

As with anything new, there have been varying levels of success, and the OECD report is evidence of that. Personally, I think we’re over the initial hump. Teachers and SLTs are much more switched on to the potential of mobile computing devices, and their pitfalls. The same will be true of future technology. As VR becomes more prevalent in everyday life, schools will learn how best to integrate it into their classrooms.

Alternative technologies

Another technology in its infancy, and one which has huge potential for schools, is smart surfaces. I recently listened to an extremely interesting podcast from the Royal Society called "seeing clearly", in which Dr Dan Credgington gave a brief outline of how we generate light, more specifically how we use LED technology to generate light.

One of the areas he touched on was future materials, and how LEDs could be used to transform whole surfaces into light producing smart surfaces, and therefore, smart screens. Not only might this improve concentration levels in classrooms (by making the whole ceiling the light we could generate an ambient light level much closer to that of natural sunlight) but we could transform all surfaces in the classroom into screens.

Fanciful imaginings

Its fun to imagine what’s next, but for now all of us at Firefly are concentrating on our next set of apps for teachers, students and parents. And, as far as I know, we’ve no plans to release these for Facebook VR 1.0. At least, not yet anyway.