Big Tech is changing education faster than any of us can possibly imagine. Here in Scotland we’re already starting to see what the schools of tomorrow will look like. Writer at Large Neil Mackay investigates

PICTURE the scene: your child is getting ready for school but they don’t need a schoolbag, because there’s no such thing as textbooks anymore. When they get to school – that’s if they go to school, instead of studying from home or the park or cafe – their teacher beams in online from Australia or Alaska. Pupils don’t write in jotters, lessons are taught using iPads. Formal exams no longer exist – instead kids are now continually assessed – but you can monitor everything your child does at school in real-time. Artificial intelligence bots are working away in the background of every class, marking students’ work. Electronic screens are everywhere. Big tech and big business are part and parcel of Scottish education.

Welcome to the future of the Scottish classroom – and it’s just around the corner. Is this a vision of dystopia or utopia? An educational heaven, or a technological hell?

The experiment

The above scenario isn’t a wild flight of fancy – we’re edging ever closer to such a world. In fact, Scotland is leading the way. In the Borders, there’s a mass experiment under way in schools which shows exactly what the world might look like in just a few years, or even less as Covid accelerates changes in teaching.

Andy Jewell runs that experiment. He was a frontline teacher, now he heads a project known as the Inspire Learning Programme. It operates across the entire Scottish Borders council area. As of today, every single child in the Borders from Primary 4 through to S6 – that’s from age nine to 17 – has an iPad for school. The same is true for every teacher. That’s 14,000 iPads. The project – which buys goods from Apple – cost taxpayers around £16 million.

Jewell says what’s happening in the Borders is “transformational” in terms of learning and attainment. He believes it will change the way we educate children not just across Scotland, but also the rest of Britain, and even the world. What’s happening in the Borders is something the entire nation can learn from and replicate, Jewell says. Other local authorities are exploring the same territory, though with less ambition.

The Borders is a perfect test bed to discover what mass technological change will actually mean for education. It’s got a small population, it’s rural so technology really does help students in remote areas, and costs can be kept low. “The Borders,” Jewell says, “because of its size, is the most complete example of an education technology project in the UK, if not the world … It’s a small enough place to do a big thing.”

Here’s the kind of simple change tech has made to Borders schooling: an art gallery trip – obviously in the days before Covid – might see a teacher download information to children’s iPads, to enhance the visit and explain the paintings and artists on display. Pupils could have the story of Charles Rennie Mackintosh already saved on their screens before they got on the bus. They could use their devices to photograph paintings, and then copy them later using art apps. Maybe they make a video of their visit, a podcast. The Inspire experiment has the power to transform education – but all change comes at a cost.

Death of the textbook

One screen can do the job of a myriad textbooks, teachers like Jewell believe. “Can we see a future which involves young people walking to school with a digital device for learning rather than a bag full of textbooks? I think we can see a future like that and I think that’s a matter of time,” he says.

“A digital textbook,” he adds, “never gets old or out of date.” Pupils can mark up their own digital textbook, drop in videos that explain the text – like a scene from Macbeth in a copy of Shakespeare – or attach examples of work, such as a quadratic equation, so they remember the process when answering the next question.

Although Jewell says he loves "real" books, many parents and teachers will worry that the irresistible rise of the screen will further erode the place of the physical book in society.

So if we’re going to see the death of the textbook, are we also going to see "the death of the classroom", thanks to the growth of digital learning, particularly in the wake of Covid?

“That’s a very good question,” says Jewell. “The classroom already looks different. We have schools that are running classes where some of the kids are in front of [teachers] physically, some are isolating at home, and some students are taking that class from other schools – that’s not the future, that’s now.”

The Covid factor

Covid has encouraged teachers to embrace technological change in the classroom. Many see the screen as a way to increase attainment when used properly. During Covid, technology became “not just an option, but the option. Everybody had to get onboard with it – for all the tragedy of Covid, it's actually caused significant movement in the hearts and minds and attitudes of teachers who are recognising the value of digital technology in a way they perhaps didn’t before”, says Jewell.

During early lockdown when education was temporarily all online, teachers encountered three big problems: digital poverty – where the poorest kids couldn’t access screens or wifi; childcare problems for working parents; and some children not attending online classes. A screen for every pupil, funded by council, as in the Borders, helps tackle digital poverty.

A more digital future will also be welcomed by those teachers who fear for their health in the classroom during the pandemic and favour blended learning – a mix of study from home and in class to ease social distancing.

Global classrooms

Jewell envisions schools in the near future where “if you’re learning about the Great Barrier Reef, [pupils] are taught by a diver who’s about to literally go down and share from that location – you can see it bringing learning to life in a way we’ve currently been not able to do with textbooks”.

Some of the most visionary advances would see children exposed to talent from across the world as part of their everyday learning. So a great Tasmanian artist, or Irish poet, who might never get to make a school visit to Scotland can drop in for a guest lecture in Glasgow or Galashiels. Teachers and pupils can also speak directly wherever they are in the world.

Jewell imagines a lesson based around the idea of "what’s the world like outside my window" where kids in Scotland collaborate with children in America or Australia.

Will schools exist?

In the future, technology could radically alter the physical shape and purpose of schools. So will schools as we know them still exist? “I hope there will always be a physical place where young people can get together in face-to-face relationships,” Jewell says.

That implies schools may become more about social development as learning goes online. “That’s one of the interesting areas … What does the classroom actually need to look like?” Jewell asks. His team is speaking to architects working on school design so they marry educational needs to the shape of buildings. Schools may morph into something more like modern offices, with break-out areas for team projects and interdisciplinary learning.

The marking revolution

Teachers are already changing how they mark, with some speaking their feedback into devices and then attaching it to essays submitted digitally. Young people simply click on the recording and listen to teachers explain mistakes and give advice. Parents can also be networked in so they too hear feedback. It’s the end, says Jewell, “of the old world where you go home at night and your mum says ‘what did you do at school today’ and you say ‘nothing’”.

Parents' evenings would change dramatically. If you’re constantly aware of your child’s progress, why meet teachers formally twice a year? Advances in technology could bring about a new interaction between parents and teachers.

Jewell explained: “I’d love to see a situation where you’re sitting at work and you get a notification on your device which says something has been added to little Jonny’s portfolio and before you go home at night you see something he’s created, so when you’re sitting down to your tea you can say ‘that’s great’, and you’ve heard the teacher’s comment.”

Most teachers would probably welcome this change as it would reduce the hours of marking which force many to leave the profession. The downside, though, is helicopter parenting, with mums and dads monitoring their child constantly. Jewell accepts that’s “absolutely the danger of a digital world”. He adds: “Do we want a world where everyone can see everything? No I don’t think we do”. Portfolios can be tweaked, though, so parents can’t access every detail of a child’s life.

Curse of the screen

Self-evidently, with screens everywhere parents will worry about online predators. “We’re not simply saying ‘hey, the digital world is great, dive in’,” says Jewell, “we’re saying the digital world is the world you have to be learning about, so be prepared to thrive in a world that’s very different from the world your parents thrived in, and that involves things that we also learned like keeping yourself safe, don’t talk to strangers.” Tackling the impact of screens on mental health, and declining physical activity, may be harder circles to square.

The future of exams

With employers looking for digital skills and creativity these days, rather than proof you know the date of a battle or a quote from Shakespeare, it seems inevitable that exams will change too. We’ve already seen the traditional exam morph in some cases into a more coursework based approach in universities – and also in schools, amid Covid, there has been a switch to teacher assessment.

Speculating on the future of the exam, Jewell says: “Maybe the paper goes live at nine in the morning and you’ve got until nine the next morning to hand it in – that’s very different to the exams we remember.” Though he suggests this would require “ungoogleable” exam questions. Rather than a written paper, pupils might also submit a podcast or video.

“The way we’ve done things in the past has to move on … why do we need the exam hall?” Jewell asks. “You could be potentially sitting in your own room at home … There’s a good possibility exams will look very different in the days that lie ahead.”

Tough questions

There is more to be gained from the Inspire project than the effective elimination of digital poverty. There’s hope this educational step-change could also help regenerate the Borders by creating a cohort of entrepreneurial, tech-skilled kids who won’t have to leave for plum jobs in big cities. Could that be copied nationwide?

What digital evangelists struggle to answer in any detail, though, are the moral questions about the role of Big Tech in schools. Obviously, Apple, the computer giant, is right at the heart of what’s happening in the Borders given the iPad is central to the Inspire experiment. What Jewell does, however, say is: “We’re very much independent of anybody. We make the decisions.”

Some will feel that the state should take the lead on technological change in schools rather than big business. Jewell says: “It would be really interesting to see – if and when some of these stones which have been thrown into the pond – if the ripples reach a national level and where that tipping point comes. How many local authorities need to have their own similar projects before we say ‘is there a national conversation to be had?’.”

The role of big tech

Apple is reluctant to speak publicly about such projects, which understandably strikes a note of caution. But here’s what we do know: Apple has been involved in education since its inception – its first computers were made for American college students. The company swears blind that it wants to improve the world by helping teachers to teach better. That’s the corporate spin anyway.

The company has a dedicated UK education team which helps teachers use its technology – but what does Apple get out if it all? Obviously, it sells products and makes money. Councils like the Borders have to buy iPads after all.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that Apple’s apps are great for learning, but it’s also hard to not see that Apple is effectively creating a bunch of customers for life.

Apple claims it doesn’t sell personal data or share with third parties. Speak to the right folk and you’ll hear them promise that “children’s data is utterly safe”. It’s harder to get around the social impact, though – that kids will become screen-bound, turn their backs on books, and lose their connection to the outdoors and the physical world.

However, of course, Apple would say its devices are meant to be used sensibly – like any other product – and that the iPad isn’t a replacement for books but an addition in the classroom. Obviously, it’s also down to parents and teachers to make sure kids behave responsibly.

One of the biggest concerns for teachers, though, is the threat to their jobs. The next big thing in tech is AI – could artificial intelligence start to replace teachers, or more likely thin out their numbers? The rise of tech in schools could easily be an excuse for councils to squeeze jobs. One tech guru told me that where there’s teacher shortages in specialist subjects, like Chinese, a remote teacher could take classes serving multiple schools. That could be a slippery slope to job contraction.

One thing is clear, and that is that Apple sees Scotland, through projects like the one in the Borders, as a key test bed for its tech in the classroom. It’s up to pupils, teachers, parents and government to make sure it's Scotland and children which gain, rather than just big overseas business.