In the past five years, a significant shift has taken place in our students’ use of digital technology. Schools that have embraced this change have started to reap the rewards in terms of impact on their students’ engagement and learning; others have made less progress, with technology use largely resulting in enhancement, rather than transformation.
Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not talking about the influx of mobile devices into schools (although this has certainly played a part in enabling the change). Rather, I’m talking about the shift in young people from being consumers of digital technology to users who produce and share content and then, most recently, to being creators of digital tools.
Early on, technology usage in classrooms focused on students using the internet to access information. There is certainly power in being able to find out immediately what year Henry VI came to the throne, and whilst some would argue that having this on-tap has a negative impact on students’ ability to memorise facts, others would argue that we should rather value our students’ critical and conceptual skills. In any case, this rather pedestrian use of technology rapidly gave way to something more exciting.
Today’s students are building their own websites, apps and games
Many of the most popular apps and websites in the past decade have been focused on the creation and sharing of content – videos on YouTube, blogs on Tumblr, images on Instagram or 140-character treatises on Twitter. The idea of harnessing these tools to support learning was seized upon by innovative teachers, who encouraged their students to create and share content through online platforms. Engaging students in activities that align closely to higher-order thinking skills like creating, evaluating and synthesising certainly seems more transformative than asking them to search for information on the internet.
Today’s students are not simply producing, editing, repurposing and publishing photos, videos and written content on social networks, they are building their own websites, games and apps – developing personal and digital skills as they go. In some cases, these apps have gone to market – most notably in the case of 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, whose news-summary app Summly sold to Yahoo for millions in 2013.
This trend towards the creation of apps, games and websites is particularly interesting – and important – when we approach the question of girls and technology. The under-representation of women in the technology sector remains a huge issue and to tackle it we need to exploit the blurring lines between the consumption and creation of technology. The BBC’s ‘Girls Can Code’ – in which five girls develop and pitch a concept for an app to a team of technology gurus – is perhaps the highest-profile example of this, but there are myriad code clubs and design competitions specifically for women. On the 20 November, 10 shortlisted teams in an App Design Challenge run by the Girls’ Day School Trust will present their pitches at an event in the BT Tower, showcasing their creativity, collaborative working and coding know-how.
Of course, there have always been some students who enjoy programming and working with electronics, but in the past it has tended to be a niche activity. Now, however, there are endless opportunities for young people to learn to code – both within the school day, with computing now being a core part of the national curriculum, and through a plethora of clubs, websites and books.
Combine this with ubiquitous access to devices, the availability of software and platforms for cloud and mobile apps and the media profile of technology entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg, and today’s young people have both the opportunity and the desire to work in the ever-expanding digital market. As students learn to code, they are not just developing programming skills that will only ever be a part of a subset of jobs in the future; they are developing an appreciation of the principles behind software development, an understanding of what is possible and a sense that a dream can be achieved.
Cat Scutt is Head of Learning Technology and Innovation at the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST)