It's Not About the Robots

I’m standing in line for a chai tea at Bett 2019, London’s biggest education technology showcase. It may be the longest line of the day, so I turn to the gentleman behind me and make a quick joke. He works for the ministry of education in Iceland and starts off by confessing: “I’m a digital skeptic.” His comment launches us into a discussion of screen time and attention spans. I love skeptics, but I’m not one of them.

Later, I walk past vendors with an endless array of bright lights and expensive products and it’s easy to see why people would question the value of the latest classroom gadgets. Even the conference sessions seem geared towards selling systems and products. Education is a big market and vendors from the US, Russia, Korea and Turkey are all hoping to cash in alongside more local vendors. But scratch beneath the shiny packaging if you want to discover the deeper learning. The portfolio program that allows students to reflect on art at a museum while they visit, the sensors students can build to monitor velocity and temperature, the nodes that can replicate the effect of concussions on the brain.

Professor Judy Robertson and her team understand that innovation is driven by exploration, collaboration and a deeper sense of purpose. When she designed a lesson for education students at the University of Edinburgh, she invited her informatics students to join the fun. And, a team of experienced educators who work directly with kids and technology in schools. Luckily, she’d reserved a large room with large tables surrounded by stools, plenty of floor space, a sink and room for play.

When Kate Fuller pulls out the robots, microbits and makey makeys, groups of future educators begin to fold tin foil, program spheros to change color, plug an alligator clip into a banana and ask for play dough. Obviously, they need things that conduct electricity if they want to make music. At one table, Tommy Lawson guides a group through the International space station using Star Wars VR goggles. When it comes to the latest tech tools for teachers, we become kids again, some of us hesitant while others dive right in. Having the informatics students on board helps to bridge the gap between the digital and educational. Students ask questions, curious about how tech is being used in schools and how many kids have access to these tools.

But this lesson isn’t all gigabytes and stargazing. Before unpacking the tools, Lawson grounds the day in the deeper framework of digital exploration. How can students use technology to solve real world problems? And how can teachers build lessons that encourage innovation with a conscience? I hadn't heard about Apps for Good when I arrived at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research in Digital Education, but it makes sense. As Lawson points out, more students are interested in doing good than they are in technology. If educators can tap into compassion, the innovation takes on a richer layer.

After two hours, future educators share ideas about how to connect the tech tools to school and class initiatives. How educators can design digital projects that help motivate students to exercise more, increase recycling, connect with one another. The planning is the hard part, but it places the digital tools in context. As Tony Cann, Founder of Promethean, noted at London’s Bett Show, the pedagogy is what’s important, not the technology.

  • January 2019