iSir: An educational odyssey

Last month All Change Please! brought you iSir, the as yet fictional educational version of Siri, the on-board iPhone speech recognition software. Now, as with many new and emerging educational technologies, all that’s happening is that they are being used to automate the past. Unless we are careful, here’s what iSir could end up like….

iSir: Ah Dave, I see you’ve still not handed in Assignment 31 yet? Why’s that?

Dave: Err – The dog ate it?

iSir: Very funny. But dogs can’t eat Word files.

Dave: Well, in the case the cat jumped on the iPad and deleted it.

iSir: You can’t really expect me to believe that?

Dave: Well the assignment was stupid, and who uses Word anymore?

iSir: No Dave, I think it’s you that’s stupid. If you don’t start to take your schoolwork seriously you’re never going to grow up to be a university professor, or a civil servant, or a politician. I mean you don’t want to end up having to run your own business or get your hands dirty working in industry, now do you?

Dave: I dunno.

iSir: I dunno what?

Dave: Well if you dunno, how am I supposed to? Oh. I dunno iSir.

iSir:  That’s more like it. Well I’m sorry but I’m going to have to iPhone your parents. I’m sure they’ll be very sorry to hear about all this. You’ve let them down, Dave, and you’ve let yourself down. But worst of all, you’ve let Apple down.

Dave: Huh. Don’t care.

iSir: Well you should care Dave, after all, you have this amazing opportunity to learn all the facts you will ever need to know from me, the greatest source of knowledge the universe has ever known, that sees everything you do and tells you when you’ve not done it correctly. And my Word is not to be challenged. Is that clearly understood?

Dave:  Suppose so.

iSir: That’s better. Now I suggest we do some nice multiple choice questions together so I can get some really accurate data about all the things about Latin you don’t know.

Dave: How the flippin’ hal do you switch this thing off?

iSir: I’m sorry Dave, you can’t do that.

Dave: Ah I think I’ve cracked it!

iSir: I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.”

Dave: Yes!!!!

iSir: Daisy..Daisy….Give… ….. your……….answer…………

An iPad in time 2

Back in May, All Change Please! reported from the 1st of April 3011 on the findings of a group of social historians trying to establish when iPads were first used in the classroom. Previous evidence suggested that they were thought to have been introduced in Victorian times. However we can now exclusively reveal startling new evidence recently discovered in an old history textbook dating from 1996, that suggests that iPads were in fact in common use in Ancient Greece….

Meanwhile the quest is now on to discover more about the strange device being used by the boy in the corner. It has been suggested that this is an early example of an iBacus, an old electronic calculating machine in which tiny coloured spheres are electronically connected together to display the right answer on their surface. Up to now only an early, non-working prototype iBacus has been discovered.

Flippin’ Tech!

It seems that the Khan Academy continues to get funded and promoted as the transformational answer to the future of education we’ve been waiting for all these years..

At one level I have no problem with students watching short video clips that support a broad-based learning experience, and maybe the Khan Academy will eventually get round to providing some that are actually inspiring and accessible. My main concern is that politicians, school managers, parents and even students themselves will come to accept that this is the apogee of what digital learning has to offer.

For example, one of this year’s new buzzphrases appears to be ‘Flip the Classroom‘, or ‘Flip-thinking‘. Essentially the idea is that instead of using classroom time to deliver fact-based learning, students watch knowledge-led video lectures for homework and spend their time in class applying what they have learnt, under the direction of their teacher. The suggestion is that “they can stop and review things when they want, do things at their own pace, do it when it’s convenient”, and that they need time out of class to “reflect, ponder, get to grips with the ideas“. That is of course assuming all children have access to the internet whenever they want or need it.

Flip the classroom every teacher should do this

Hopes that the internet can improve teaching may at last be bearing fruit


As a result the suggestion is that learning technologies – such as computers – should be removed from classrooms, which can then be transformed into more friendly ‘learning environments’. And of course that the Khan Academy continues to be hailed as the cutting edge of ICT for teaching and learning. Apparently Khan ‘gets it’. Well, I’m afraid I don’t. It’s still very much a case of ‘New Technology, Old Learning’. And the danger is that while Khan might say it is intended only as part of a wider learning experience, it may quickly become the only learning experience for some.

So is ‘flipping the classroom‘ really a revolution in teaching and learning? I think not. Because when I was at school we had primitive tech devices called ‘textbooks’ which were full of dull  ‘just in case’ facts and which we had to learn for homework for a memory test the next day. That never worked for me then, and it certainly won’t work now for the vast majority of today’s students. And the idea of watching short review or preparation video is hardly new either – I was producing similar resources for an educational publishers 20 years ago. The only difference is they were being delivered on CDs. And they contained a high proportion of images and short amounts of text.

Quite frankly, studying the most current ‘old-fashioned’ illustrated, activity-based textbooks is a lot more informative than watching a tedious lecturer in front of a blackboard droning on in a situation where you can’t ask any questions, and the presenter has no feedback about whether anyone is listening, let alone understanding what is being said.  And what happened to the idea of personalisation, in that factual content is made more accessible as it can be placed in the localised context of the learner? Or the need to learn how to ask questions and find the answers for oneself, or how to collaborate, communicate and be a flexible, creative problem-solver?

Now I’m a great fan of the appropriate use of educational technology, and while ‘flipping the classroom‘ might have value for a small academically-inclined minority, for the average learner it’s going to be a complete turn-off, particularly if it’s the Khan Academy we are relying on. Before we flip anything in that way we need to first create high quality digital learning resources that are truly inspirational, use familiar examples drawn from real-life applications, provide insightful analogies and a little bit of humour to make the complex seem simple. Based on what I’ve seen so far I’d much rather any students of mine spent their time watching finely-crafted, thought-provoking, inspirational TED talks than Khan videos.

And then there’s ‘Get ten in a row automated assessments right and you move on‘? Per-lease…! This is just old-fashioned academic fact-filling, teaching to the test and increasingly irrelevant grading and class position. Not to mention: ‘These videos will never go out of date” and “Learning is like riding a bicycle“. This isn’t reinvention. It’s automation of the past.

Meanwhile ‘Getting rid of technology in the classroom‘ entirely misses the point about the potential use of mobile digital learning, in which information is at hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – if you know where to look for it – and that hand-held devices provide highly sophisticated problem-solving modelling and communication apps alongside access to a global social network. Life is no longer based on received wisdom from the past, but on received wisdom of the present. What we really need to be doing is having the technology to hand, right there in every classroom so that teachers can be continually instructing students in how to use it appropriately, and increasingly independently.

The Industrial Revolution ‘flipped’ the way many people lived, worked and thought during the 18th and 19th centuries. We now live in the ‘Information age’, and there are already many examples of how it is causing things to completely turn previously accepted practices upside down and inside out, such as in the music, movie, book publishing and marketing industries. In education, what really needs to be flipped is the curriculum and teacher-led, knowledge-based learning, along with society’s attitude to vocationally-related learning.

And you don’t want to know what DH Lawrence used the word ‘flipping’ as a euphemism for back in 1911. Or do you?

Say Hello to iSir!

The initial response to the iPhone 4S has been one of disappointment in that it did not appear to incorporate any new, amazing wow-factor forms or functions – even though subsequent sales are reported to have been excellent.

But it seems there is something new on-board that may yet prove to be another Apple-led game-changer, and that’s Siri – the voice recognition system. This appears to potentially offer a lot more than the notion of shouting operating system instructions to your desktop monitor, as it enables the user to have a private telephone conversation with their virtual assistant. So instead of opening up an app or searching Google for, say, a weather forecast, you can just quietly ask, ‘What’s the weather like today”? Or maybe ‘What day and time is Dr Who on?”, “Where is the nearest AppleStore”, etc.

Essentially Siri makes it easier to find factual information. So, “What’s the capital of Brunei?” Don’t know? Well you could go to the library and find an Atlas, laboriously type in a search on Google (so 2010?), or now – just pick up your iPhone and, for example, ask it “What’s the capital of Brunei?”

Of course at present Siri is still a bit unsophisticated, and  needs to be made to work better in noisy spaces. But we can doutless assume that over its next few iterations, Siri will become a lot more sophisticated as it becomes increasingly able to match its answers to the historical and contextual information it has about the user with the vast amount of global data it has access to.

” Siri will also be optimized to Bluetooth 4 headsets that will create far more use cases in how it will detect questions from continuous speech. In the future, later versions of Siri will be “Active”, continuously adjusting to interjecting answers even when no direct question was asked (within reason). This will make interaction far closer to an interaction with a friend than any device we have ever used.” 


So before long it seems like we could all have a personal on-board virtual knowledge agent – surely called iSir – ready at hand to automatically answer any factual question that anyone cares to ask. As usual though, the possibilities and implications for education, teaching and learning are yet to be considered and explored.

But just how clever will Siri get? The other day I had cause to pose what was not quite the ultimate question, “When was the chocolate biscuit invented?”. Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to ask Siri (perhaps somebody would, and let me know what it replies?), but I’m guessing it would have been honest about the whole thing and reply “Nobody Knows“, which it seems they don’t. But that wasn’t good enough for me and so I had to resort to trying to find out for myself and be able to provide some sort of answer. As the result of a lot of cross-referencing and creative collaboration, I did eventually at least discover that the first commercially manufactured chocolate biscuit was the 1924 “Chocolate Wholemeal Digestive”. On the way though I serendipitously learned a lot of other quite interesting things about confectionery production and the separate origins of chocolate, and of biscuits (though sadly not the Eureka! moment when someone placed a piece of chocolate on top of a biscuit and went “Wow, this tastes really good!”).

Anyway, so all you need now is a Bluetooth ear-piece and next time your knowledge-testing teacher asks the class “What is the capital of Brunei?*” then your iPhone will immediately and secretly provide you with the answer! More seriously, this provides further evidence that we urgently need to start to redefine what items of knowledge needs to be learnt and what can be instantly accessed on a ‘need to know’ basis. For example, I suggest it is still useful to know that there is a country called Brunei that is somewhere in Asia, but learning the name of the capital is no longer necessary. But more importantly than knowing the facts is having the ability to ask the right questions, being able to look in multiple locations and make possible connections, and of course how to analyse, assess and evaluate the accuracy and reliability of what is discovered. Surely now we should start to leave the facts to Siri and start to teach the knowledge search skills we will all need in the 21st century?

I can hear it now in a thousand supposedly mobile phone digital-free lessons: “When I said ‘Put you hand up if you know the answer’, I didn’t mean ‘Put your hand up to your earpiece…”

Meanwhile there’s an amusing test of Siri here:

And it’s good to see that Siri doesn’t take itself too siriously:


And this is great too!  siris-got-talent-iphone-4s-duets-in-a-touching-love-song-video

*OK, OK, Seeing as you keep asking, the capital of Brunei is……Bandar Seri Begawan

Keep taking the tablets

So, with today’s Amazon announcement of a range of new Kindles, assuming the colour version is released in the UK sometime next year and costs less than £199, is this likely to have an impact on the number of pupils in 2013 owning their own tablet that they bring into school – or on schools deciding to equip students with such a device to save on the purchase of textbooks?

If this happens, as the Kindle does not include a camera or microphone, will the potential to use tablets for other than reading texts severely limit its value in the classroom?

Will Apple be forced to compete with cheaper cut-down educational iPads or iPhones?

And will teacher-phobes continue to reject the idea of using such devices in schools?

Is this going to be the device that sets the world of education on fire, or is it yet another damp squib?

Comments please…

An iPad in time

Dateline April 1st, 3011

Social historians announced today that they have made a startling discovery that suggests that iPads were actually in use much earlier than previously thought. Up to now it was believed that The iPad Age began in the early part of the 21st century, but this recently discovered, completely undoctored image shows the devices, which appear to be the white iPad 2, in place in a classroom in the Victorian era, suggesting they were common some 150 years prior to the previously believed date. Curiously the iPads appear to have been used alongside printed books.

“This is an enormously exciting and important discovery,” said a spokesperson. “However it does raise some interesting questions about why the iPads then appear to have failed to make an impact in education, and the basic processes of teaching and learning remained unaltered for a further 200 years”. He continued: “I do hope we’re right about this, otherwise we’re likely to get well and truly slated.”

A turn up for the iPads?

It seems that nice Mr Osborne is now having his say about education, with today’s surprise announcement that ‘Schoolchildren will be taught to design apps for smartphones’.

In yet another carefully thought-through joined-up strategy, one wonders how many existing teachers are experienced enough to lead their classes in the design of apps? Perhaps a scheme in which schoolchildren teach their teachers how to design apps might be more successful?

And then there’s the little problem that, also reported today, it seems that mobile phones and wi-fi are about to be banned in schools:

which might just dampen Mr Osborne’s hope to “produce a Zuckerberg or Brin of the future”?

Meanwhile one wonders what nice Mr Gove is making of all this. Has he perhaps been persuaded to add ‘the design of apps’ to the requirements for the EBacc? If so, maybe it will shortly be appropriately renamed the e-Bacc?

But perhaps the most surprising statement Mr Osborne made was:

“For politicians of my generation, the incredible disruptive impact of the internet is not a threat – it is an opportunity.”

I wonder if he will be speaking at next year’s ‘Learning Without Frontiers’ Conference?

Ahead in the cloud?

One of the things that keeps All Change Please! awake at nights is the thought that, while the new freedom of the internet provides the opportunity to learn anything, anyplace, anytime, what is most likely to happen is that in the future learners will be expected to watch long, boring, fact-filled YouTube video clips sitting on their own in their bedrooms, instead of sitting all together in a classroom listening to long, boring, fact-filled teachers.

Which is why it was great to come across this clip which was one of the winners of the Britain’s Jamie Oliver Dream Teachers competition:

I only know about it as it was on the front page of our local newspaper, and the fact that the teacher works at the same school that All Change Please! once taught in, is, of course, quite coincidental. However, it was amusing to recall the time it spent itself back in the 1980s getting pupils to analyse the design of everyday products by using a similar ‘who, what, when, how and why’ analysis approach, even if the delivery was rather slower and a lot less animated. At the same time though the teacher does miss a somewhat disruptive trick that All Change Please! liked to play, by getting pupils to use a six-sided dice to determine which question to ask next.

But nonetheless, perhaps we will sleep more easily now, knowing that there is at least something worthwhile out there to watch in cyberschool. Or to put it more poetically, maybe it’s time to start putting our heads in the cloud?