10 August 2015
5 min read
From the earliest classroom computers to the latest 1:1 device initiatives, the past 25 years have seen an incredible transformation not just in the shape of information technology, but in the way it’s used day to day in education.
The more affordable and accessible computing power has become, the more educators have been able to harness it as a teaching tool, and with the proliferation of mobile devices and the ubiquity of the internet, this process is only speeding up.
The early days
While some lucky schools were able to dabble with computers from the earliest mainframe days, it was the arrival ofpioneering home computers in the early 1980s that brought classroom computing into the mainstream. In the home, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 struggled for dominance, but at school the BBC Micro reigned supreme
Designed and built by Acorn Computers in 1981, it was developed in conjunction with the BBC to support the corporation’s ambitious computer-literacy project, designed to expose the people of Britain to the nascent power of the microcomputer.
However, the Micro became more than a tutorial platform for viewers of The Computer Programme; it became a hit in education, too. Thanks to government subsidies, a great version of the BASIC programming language and a workable networking standard, the machine became almost ubiquitous. Around 85% of British schools had a BBC Micro by the end of 1984.
The introduction of the BBC Micro also helped define how computers would be used in schools. First and foremost, these were tools for teaching about maths, sciences, computers and programming, although a few moonlighted in business studies lessons.
A-level, O-level and GCSE computer studies courses focused on coding with BBC BASIC or controlling primitive robots with Logo, while science and maths subjects adopted specialist educational software to illustrate principles or simulate experiments.
Meanwhile, primitive office applications such as VU-Calc, Database and Wordwise introduced students to a brave new world of productivity software. The computers themselves were concentrated in science or computer studies labs.
Over the next decade the computers changed, but how they were being used didn’t. BASIC and Logo remained the mainstays of computer studies at secondary and tertiary levels, although the more advanced hardware of new machines allowed students to dabble in graphics and create more sophisticated programs.
By the late 1980s, the BBC Micro started to look dated. Schools began to replace it with the new Acorn Archimedes or MS-DOS-based systems from RM’s popular Nimbus line. While it never became as common a sight in schools as the BBC Micro, the Archimedes still gained a substantial foothold, helped by Tesco’s Computers for Schools voucher scheme.
Studies and whiteboards
The year 1997 brought a new Labour government and the Stevenson Report into ICT in schools. This recognised ICT (information and communications technology) as a key priority for education, and recommended the construction of an overall strategy for promoting it.
The government stepped in to help schools invest in new computers, classroom technology and supporting infrastructure, and ICT training for teachers.
The results were tangible. Windows PCs and ICT suites became a common feature of secondary schools. Meanwhile, the introduction of laptops and interactive whiteboards into the classroom – accelerated by the 2004 Building Schools for the Future initiative – began to transform computing and technology from a separate subject area into a tool that could help primary students grapple with literacy and numeracy, and support the core science and humanities subjects at GCSE and A-level.
Technology could even power new ways of teaching arts, design and media studies, putting professional tools into the hands of young people and letting them create. Yet just as much was going on behind the scenes. Management information systems changed the way schools tracked and managed students.
Virtual learning environments supported new, hi-tech approaches to teaching and learning. School-wide networks and broadband access made it easier to centralise school resources, and to harness new educational resources on the web.
By 2010, the technology that used to be confined to the ICT suite had spread out to reach every part of school. If there was one downside to this ICT revolution, it was a shift away from the teaching of how IT could be made – the fundamentals of computing and coding – and towards the teaching of how IT could be used.
Students who might have once been gripped by the possibilities of programming became bogged down by lessons in email and Office applications – important, but not the be-all and end-all of schools ICT.
A new computing revolution
Luckily, the past five years have seen this reversed. While the coalition government’s scrapping of the ICT programme of study and promotion of classroom coding was both rushed and controversial, it did shake up the way computers are used in schools.
Interest in computing and programming is undergoing a renaissance, helped by a strong grassroots community and the arrival of cheap, accessible computers such as the Raspberry Pi. At the same time, we’ve seen a transformation in the type of devices being used.
The introduction of the Apple iPad in 2010 was a tipping point, spearheading a new breed of cheap, lightweight, robust mobile devices, ranging from Windows 8 tablets and convertibles to Android devices and Google’s Chromebook laptops.
You no longer need a £500 PC to put technology in the classroom: a sub-£200 tablet or laptop will work. This opens up many more possibilities. 1:1 schemes, where each student has their own device, have become a possibility for many institutions.
Once computing power and web-based resources become unchained from the classroom or ICT suite, anytime, anywhere learning becomes a realistic option. You can use your devices on a field trip or around the school grounds.
New interactive displays, high-speed connectivity and real-time communications and collaboration services make it possible for students to work together from different classrooms, or even different schools.
Classrooms are becoming spaces for collaboration, not just top-down learning. Teaching becomes less about delivering content, and more about helping students find and understand the content out there.
Best of all, the combination of these new devices and a revitalised interest in coding is giving educators the chance to experiment; to try new approaches and use unexpected resources to engage students in subjects across the curriculum.
Whether it’s teaching physics using Minecraft or using 3D displays to look inside the human body, there’s scope to make technology work in the classroom in new, exciting ways. And do you know what? The best is yet to come.
Would you like to learn more? Download our free PC PRO Expert Guide to Classroom Technology eBook and discover how your school can make the most out of technology.