Robots and drones take over classrooms

Pepper the robot dabbing

Classrooms are noticeably more hi-tech these days – interactive boards, laptops and online learning plans proliferate, but has the curriculum actually changed or are children simply learning the same thing on different devices?

Some argue that the education this generation of children is receiving is little different from that their parents or even their grandparents had.

But, in a world where artificial intelligence and robots threaten jobs, the skills that this generation of children need to learn are likely to be radically different to the three Rs that have for so long been the mainstay of education.

The BBC went along to the Bett conference in London in search of different ways of teaching and learning.

School robots

A stone’s throw from the Excel, where Bett is held, stands a new school that is, according to its head Geoffrey Fowler, currently little more than a Portakabin.

Despite this, the London Design and Engineering university technical college – which caters for 14- to 19-year-olds – was massively oversubscribed when it opened its doors for the first time in September.

The 180 pupils lucky enough to have got a place have had a very different experience of the curriculum in the 12 weeks since they joined.

One group have designed from scratch a virtual reality environment that takes viewers on a journey around an Ethiopian village as part of a project to highlight the work of the charity Water Aid.

Another has spent the term teaching Pepper – the school has two of SoftBank’s human-looking robots – how to make a variety of moves, including the dab currently beloved of children around the country.

A third group are heading off this weekend on an unusual skiing trip. Travelling with them will be 11 Nao robots, which the pupils plan to teach how to ski.

The school – which sets no homework, relying instead on pupils wanting to get on with their projects in their own time – is, according to Mr Fowler, “inspiring children to be part of a new type of learning”.

While other schools may see the projects listed above as fun “add-ons” to the core curriculum, Mr Fowler thinks it has to be embedded within it.

Sixth-formers work on what is called an extended project qualification, which is the equivalent of half an A-level.

The school works with a range of industry sponsors, including the University of East London, Thames Water and Fujitsu, all of which offer input into the types of skills they would like to see children learn to equip them for the workplace as well as offering apprenticeships.

There are 48 university technical colleges (UTC) in England currently – and the scheme has proved controversial.

One set up in East London in 2012 closed after just two years, having failed to attract enough pupils, while another in Bedfordshire was branded inadequate by Ofsted.

Some head teachers seem to be resisting the idea of the vocational style of education, barring UTCs from recruiting pupils from their schools.

But statistics suggest that pupils attending UTCs have just as good results if not better than those in more conventional schools.

It is something James Culley, head of computer science at the school, sees for himself every day.

“I have never seen students learn so quickly,” he told the BBC.

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