“Marking with a red pen – that’ll be gone soon”: Fujitsu talks education

In the teaching profession, enthusiasm and passion goes a long way. It has to, really. As someone who comes from a family with statistically more teachers than is likely, I’ve seen first hand just how much it impinges on your everyday life, even when outside of the classroom.

When you’re trying to push technological evolution on a profession that isn’t always hugely receptive to change, that same enthusiasm is definitely helpful too, and if you spend any time at all speaking to Ash Merchant, Fujitsu’s director of education for the UK and Ireland, you can’t deny that he has it in bucketloads. When I speak to him ahead of this week’s Bett show, his enthusiasm for the project is certainly infectious.

Fujitsu’s biggest contribution to education in the UK – Innovation Hubs in its Ambassador programme – is also proving to be infectious. At the show, the company announced that the programme, which provides technology and expertise to schools and colleges in the form of ‘innovation hubs’, would be expanding to 20 more schools and colleges, after rolling out to an initial ten at last year’s Bett show.

“Having seen the success of it the last 12 months and seeing children get passionately involved… we’re delighted, we’ve had a great year. One of the teachers told me, ‘you need emotion, you need passion, you need rapport with your students,’ and technology allows us to break that down.girl_working_on_ipad

“What makes it successful? Why is it working? It’s giving them the opportunity to do things that they potentially would never have thought of doing.”

It’s no surprise that Merchant has risen to the top of Fujitsu’s education programme. When it comes to the subject of what drives young minds, he’s extremely talkative and keen to express what a difference the right tools can make. Some of this can be traced back to his own role as a parent, especially watching the development of his oldest son who was diagnosed with quite severe autism at a young age. With the help of tablet computers, he has made incredible progress that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.

On top of this, Merchant sees technology in education as a great way of pushing for greater gender equality. “How do we get more girls interested in ICT? And how do we overcome that children are conditioned from the age of five to seven that boys will do this, and girls will do that? Forty-eight per cent of the UK workforce is women, but only 15% go in ICT. Of course science is not for boys and it’s not for girls – it’s for everyone – so how do we get to a situation where girls and boys are not stereotyped? If you can put technology at the heart of that, then I think you’re on the right road.”children_learning_from_tablets

Of course, even if you’re the biggest evangelist of technology in education, certain barriers still need to be overcome. For one thing, if technology provides a massive boost to children’s development, an unintended consequence is that richer schools could increase the inequality between their graduates and children from poorer schools, purely by buying up the best tech available. Merchant is well aware of the challenge here: “At the age of five, children from a disadvantaged background are almost 18 months behind in their cognitive learning, compared to those who are not. If you add disability to that, it jumps to 36 months.”

To Fujitsu’s credit, the range of schools and colleges in the scheme are a broad mix, including some that have very little funding available. “The objective is to give it as an opportunity for everyone,” Merchant says. “It’s something that we’ve looked at, and it’s something we’ll continue to do.”

The flip side to this dilemma is that the ubiquity of technology is a great equaliser. Fujitsu is hoping to encourage greater collaboration between teaching institutions, creating a free resource on how to use technology to make lessons stimulating.oculus_education

“The days of marking with a red pen – they’ll be gone soon. It’s programmes within [Office] 365 that allow you to give direct feedback in OneNote, or collaborative tools such as Yammer. Gone are the days when teachers would just stand in front of a chalkboard. The classroom environment is changing – it’s about preparing students for the demands of the digital age that’s here already.

“Teachers also want to be challenged, and to find new ways of teaching, and to become more comfortable with software and technology that’s out there.”

Do they really? Surely there’s something about old dogs not wanting to learn new tricks here, but in Merchant’s experience – admittedly in institutions that have specifically volunteered for the programme – that couldn’t be further from the truth.  

“Teachers are saying they’re always learning as well, and this helps them learn even more. The only pushback – if you can call it that – is ‘can we do more?’” Schools particularly want assistance with cybersecurity  and internet safety. “We want to reaffirm that the internet doesn’t have to be a bad place – it’s a good place, and we need to make children and parents aware of that.”

How effective these innovations are, of course, remains to be seen. Fujitsu’s Ambassador Programme only dates back to 2015, and education is a long game to see clear, unambiguous results, despite the increase of assessment and testing. One year, after all, would only see through half an A-level course, and GCSEs are an even longer journey. Anecdotally, though, things look promising.educational_technology

“It’s going to take a little time to assess all the impact, but the feedback we’ve seen from the principals, from the teachers and from the students is really good. UTC Reading is the only UTC [University Technical College] in the country that became OFSTED “outstanding”, and one of the things [OFSTED] said was a direct contributor was the Innovation Centre we created for them last January. We also had great feedback from Barnsley College and City College Coventry, again around the diverse learning their students are getting.”

Last year, there was a little suspicion from parents at the idea of using gaming in education: “I got some strange looks in some communities,” Merchant says. “But they’re coming round, and you can see that children have a passion for using that kind of medium to learn. I think if you can capture the heart and minds with things that get them engaged, they’ll learn better and they’ll learn more.”

With the focus on gaming and cybersecurity – big areas of growth in the century so far and likely to get bigger – where does this leave what used to be known as the “core subjects” and, indeed, the “three Rs’?

“Part of the programme is to ensure we don’t forget about the core skills, and we’re working alongside the examining bodies to make sure we cover these subjects as well, and we build upon them.”

For people of a certain age who grew up when word processing was only just being allowed for homework (we were always told it was cheating to use spell check, bless them), these advances may all feel a little bit disconcerting. But technology will continue to advance in children’s home lives, whether or not schools try to mirror things. In a sense, schools have no choice but to keep running to stand still. Programmes like Fujitsu’s might just offer an effective blueprint for scaling an education programme when the teachers are having to learn just as much as the students.

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Images: Maurizio Pesce, Brad Flickinger, Brad Flickinger, Brad Flickinger and Michael Coghlan used under Creative Commons

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