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From Abacuses To Micro:Bits, How Is The Landscape Of Technology In Education Changing?

Schools in the UK will also have the opportunity to put forward their case for scholarships to get free micro:bits, which means the pocket-sized codable computers will be more accessible to a new generation of technology pioneers regardless of their backgrounds.

By Carolyn Savage, Head of International Education at Winter's International School Finder

Coding, robotics, web design, 3D printing and green screens may sound like components of the latest sci-fi blockbuster, but they are in fact part of the changing landscape of technology in education.

For a few years now, the education sector has been focusing its resources on technology, with education technology funding rising by 64% in 2015 to more than $3.1bn, according to data by CB Insights. The online learning market is reportedly on track to reach $37.8bn internationally by 2020.

This intense focus on 'edtech' is thanks to schools, colleges and universities having to adapt to meet the demands of the increasingly digitally-focused world. Nowadays, understanding the latest technology is a requisite for anyone entering the jobs market. According to the World Economic Forum, the demand for technology skills will continue to grow by 20% by 2025, and new technologies will create more than two million jobs in just under five years' time.

Technology is also being increasingly implemented in schools worldwide. In Abu Dhabi, for instance, the education council - otherwise known as Adec - has introduced Google Computer Science (CS) Education into its curriculums for 450,000 students, so that they can learn how to create programmes, applications, games and to learn robotics. Adec has also introduced 3D printers into more than 90 schools.

When I worked in Cambodia, the top international schools were teaching children as young as six how to code and it is increasingly common for coding to be introduced into curriculums worldwide. I also recently retweeted a post from an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, showing how its Key Stage 1 learners were participating in what they termed 'physical' coding. In the United Kingdom, the new computer science GCSE was introduced two years ago and has coding at its core, while US President, Barack Obama, rolled out 'Computer Science for All' in the United States, an initiative that aims to teach programming skills to every pupil, from kindergarten right through to high school.

In October, I attended a presentation given by Gareth James, the Director of Educational Programs at the micro:bit Foundation, where I learned about the history of the BBC micro:bit mini-computer, which was rolled out to all Year 7 pupils in the UK and has just launched worldwide. This amazing piece of kit is only around 5cm by 4cm in size - tiny! - and was developed in partnership with numerous organisations, such as the National Stem Learning Centre and IGT (International Game Technology). It facilitates the teaching of coding, whilst encouraging creativity and inquiry based learning, and can be used to develop a huge array of creations, such as wearable technology, robotics and heart monitors. It will be rolled out to primary schools in the UK next year, along with tutorials and teacher training so that pupils will get the most out of their micro:bits.

Schools in the UK will also have the opportunity to put forward their case for scholarships to get free micro:bits, which means the pocket-sized codable computers will be more accessible to a new generation of technology pioneers regardless of their backgrounds.

I also learned about the ten-week micro:bit challenge that has been launched for schools in the Netherlands. The aim of the challenge is to inspire schools to introduce the micro:bit and teach them the skills to be able to operate one. Beginning with a session to learn the basics of the device, teachers will then receive a classroom kit containing course materials and other resources, as well as ten micro:bits to take back to their respective classrooms, and over the course of ten weeks, the schools taking part will be given a weekly challenge that is to be worked out using the micro:bit. This is a great opportunity for schools to seamlessly introduce new technology into the curriculum in a fun way, whilst also engaging other schools. After each week, classes are invited to present their solutions on social media and compare this to what other schools have produced.

While this particular challenge only includes schools in the Netherlands, schools in the UK have also been reaching new heights with technology. Using a helium balloon, Rishworth School in West Yorkshire sent their micro:bit, as well as two Raspberry Pi computers and a Lego astronaut pilot over 100,000 feet into space, with temperatures plunging to as low as -47.9 Celsius. The micro:bit offers a huge range of activities, from DJ-ing using a music sequencer, to board games, animation and creating robots, showing that it can be adapted to any part of the curriculum. The micro:bit is just one example of how technology in schools is engaging the children, challenging them and encouraging them to get creative in innovative ways.

Virtual and augmented reality headsets, artificial intelligence, real-time collaborations, and wearable technology are amongst the most significant innovations emerging in education today. Although we are yet to see a radical departure from the way lessons are taught, virtual classrooms are on the rise and there are now numerous 'virtual schools' that serve students worldwide, where parents don't have access to schooling or would prefer the freedom this type of learning offers their children. We're also seeing more and more new innovations being used in traditional classrooms, such as a virtual reality app for biology students to explore the inner workings of the human body in 3D. Artificial intelligence is already playing a role in learning analytics, as we saw in recent months with a robot from Cornell University - PR2 - learning various tasks which it then taught to another robot at Brown University in the United States.

With exciting tech tools launching on a regular basis, it's important that we remember not to bombard our children with too much technology, and that it is instead well integrated into their lives. Otherwise, young learners will lose vital social skills and won't get the physical activity they need to develop and succeed in life.

About the author

As Head of International Education at Winter's International School Finder, Carolyn is passionate about education and has spent 15 years working with children from all around the world. She is a third culture kid, whose understanding of the changing face of international education runs deep and she's keen to help parents find the right schools for their children.