Last Wednesday, seven new “Steve Jobs schools” opened in Sneek, Breda, Almere (2x), Emmen, Heenvliet and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The schools operate according to the principles of the O4NT foundation (Education for a New Era), and the iPad plays a key role in the schools’ approach, with each child having access to a virtual school through his or her iPad. By the end of the current school year, it is anticipated that at least twelve schools will be providing education based on the O4NT model. The O4NT foundation is reviewing the method with school boards across the Netherlands, and they expect many more schools to adopt the O4NT principles next year.
The Master Steve Jobs School in Sneek, and the Steve Jobs School Breda are implementing all facets of O4NT education simultaneously. The others will initially start using the approach in the first grades, and gradually extend its use to the higher grades. Some 1,000 children aged four to 12 will attend the schools, without notebooks, books or backpacks. Each of them, however, will have his or her own iPad.
The project claims that 58 core objectives set by the Dutch Ministry of Education can be addressed much more effectively because of the one-on-one student-iPad ratio. This creates space for the additional O4NT goals: promoting the child’s individual talents, and developing 21st-century skills such as ICT and information processing, collaboration, and developing a critical, problem-solving and creative mind.
This ICT-based approach will have a major impact on the role of the teacher. In the O4NT approach, teachers will no longer simply convey knowledge to a group of children; they will be transformed into coaches that support children with their individual and group projects. Because educational apps are used for basic skills, the learning process can be completely adapted to the individual child’s learning speed and style. There will be no blackboards, chalk or classrooms, homeroom teachers, formal classes, lesson plans, seating charts, pens, teachers teaching from the front of the room, schedules, parent-teacher meetings, grades, recess bells, fixed school days and school vacations. If a child would rather play on his or her iPad instead of learning, it’ll be okay. And the children will choose what they wish to learn based on what they happen to be curious about.
When they are in the physical school building, the children will move around the various subject rooms according to their individual schedule, e.g. the language room, math room, creative lab, gym or technology lab. They can also attend planned activities that they have registered for. Parents can follow via a special app exactly what their child has been doing during the day, and the children also maintain their own portfolio, documenting their progress and achievements.
School hours and vacations will be very flexible once the O4NT method is completely implemented. Because the virtual school is available on iPad 24/7/365, parents are free to book their vacation at a convenient time and to determine what their child’s school hours will be. School and out-of-school care are seamlessly integrated. Legislative restrictions are currently preventing this ideal scenario from being realized, but O4NT is in the process of solving this in consultation with the Dutch Ministry of Education.
Tablet schools are not just a Netherlands innovation. For example, some schools in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Nova Scotia have recently announced that they will require students to be equipped with iPads. A much more ambitious and comprehensive tablet schools project is underway in South Korea, where, Korean newspaper Chosun News Chosunilbo reported June 30, the country”s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has announced that it will will invest invest 2.2 trillion won (about $2 billion) over the next two years to first provide all elementary school children with free, Internet-connected tablets and customized e-learning programs. The plan is scheduled to be extended to high schools by 2015 with development of digital textbooks for all subjects and all the country’s schools, although in the early stage of transition, both paperback and digital textbooks will be used.
Not everyone is a fan of the concept. Canadian education critic and reformer Michael Zwaagstra is not. Mr. Zwaagstra, the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) Fellow in Common Sense Education, a high school social studies teacher, and co-author (with Rodney A. Clifton and John C. Long) of the book, “What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them,” (ironically available as an e-book as well as hard copy) and a research fellow with the Frontier Centre, advocates that before rushing to equip schools with the latest technological gadgets, it would be prudent to ask whether this will improve student learning, and that considering the significant cost of purchasing, maintaining, and upgrading technological devices such as iPads, we need to ensure it’s not simply another expensive fad.
Mr. Zwaagstra cites a recently conducted metanalysis of the research literature about the impact of technology on student achievement by Peter Reiman and Anindito Aditomo of the University of Sydney, whose findings were published in the International Guide to Student Achievement (2013). Reiman and Aditomo conclude that most studies show only a moderate academic benefit from technology, and that the effect of computer technology seems to be particularly small in studies that use either large samples or randomized control groups, and that introduction of computer technology in classrooms has had, at best, only a limited positive impact on student achievement.
Mr. Zwaagstra cites Mike Schmoker’s 2011 book “Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning,” in which Mr. Schmoker demonstrates that schools focusing on these three elements substantially outperform schools that do not, and argues that not only is technology unnecessary in the context of improving student achievement, but that too much emphasis on technology can obstruct and eclipse the essentials of learning.
However, The Education for a New Era Foundation’s Maurice de Hond notes that whenever a new technological phase launches, it’s initially used as an imitation of the old. The first cars resembled a horseless carriage. The first news on television in the fifties showed a man reading the news from a piece of paper. The first corporate web sites were only displaying a leaflet or brochure.
Mr. de Hond observes that it’s only after a certain period of time that the new technology is used in a distinctive way in relation to the old, and with the introduction of tablets in schools, as it has happened in the past two years in various places, we see something similar in many cases, to wit: rather than using hard copy books, the tablet is used to spread course material digitally.
Mr. de Hond says it is fascinating to see the similarity between the distinction of the tablet in education compared to previous digital innovations and the basis of the huge impact that the Internet finally got on the economy and society, as he observed in his book “Due to the speed of light” (1995). He says that until that watershed had been crossed, the public were mainly passive users of media; they watched television, listened to the radio and read the newspapers. However with the Internet, everyone’s opinion could be shared with a small audience in many ways—whether on a website, a blog, a video, a message on Facebook or through a tweet, everyone became a kind of a transmitter with their own audience, no longer limited by physical boundaries. Citizens were no longer just content consumers, but broadcasters as well, and there is a clear parallel if we look at the new schools and the changes that tablets will bring.
Mr. de Hond projects that tablets in education will radically break through the model schools have been based on, and can be used at school (and at home) to enable students to learn about subject matter the teacher knows little to nothing about. For example, if a student wants to learn Italian or to study the history of Norway or the particle accelerator, it’s much easier, compared to the past, for the student with a tablet, which he basically can use 24/7.
In relation to that part of the teaching process, the role of the teacher will mainly be to give space and provide a form of guidance, which does not come from the knowledge of the subject, but the knowledge of good teaching.
In order to implement its innovative model of education, O4NT and its partner developers have introduced various new tools.
sCoolSpace is a virtual schoolyard where students can meet safely in an augmented-reality environment. The Tiktik sCoolTool system manages schedules, attendance, parent contact and portfolios, all at the same time. Students use sCoolProjects to work on research projects and other assignments in small groups, supported by a coach. Through iDesk Learning Tracker, teachers and parents (and publishers) can follow the results their children achieved using educational apps.
DigiTalenten will annually report on what the students digital life looks like and what ICT skills children have mastered.
Symbaloo is used for sharing and distributing knowledge, within the school as well as between schools and O4NT.
Not just students in the Netherlands, but Dutch-speaking children around the world will soon be able to benefit from the O4NT curriculum. Expat children can either attend a full-time Dutch-language education via their iPad or start a program that complements their education abroad. O4NT International is expected to start in early 2014.
You can see videos of this school and tools at www.educationforanewera.com. This site offers 20 different apps for the iPad that you could be doing at school (and that’s only a very limited selection.