Oliver Cross: Crash course in computer learning comes with a hitch

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THE City of Leeds secondary school had a computer crash this week – which, it seems, is more of an inconvenience than a traditionally-schooled person might think.

I work as a volunteer for four hours a week at the school, helping (so I hope) pupils who have English as their second language to read better.

The children, often recently-arrived in England and progressing very impressively from a low base, read from a graded range of books, then move to one of a bank of computers and take a comprehension test which provides an objective measure of their progress.

Their English may stumble a little but their computer skills don’t; they flick through programmes and passwords like fish through water. They’re in their element.

Except when, as is inescapable the modern world over, there’s a computer hiccup. Then there can be no comprehension tests but there can be sighs of frustration from passing staff, who rely on computers in ways I can’t imagine, having been brought up with a teaching technology which hadn’t progressed much beyond blackboard dusters.

This is a world away from the Khan Academy which, as I learned in a Radio 4 programme called My Teacher’s An App on the very day of the City of Leeds computer crash, is an American internet learning programme used by around 10 million youngsters.

This aims to provide what Bill Gates describes as “a radical rethinking of what it means to go to school” and, says its inventor, Salman Khan, offers a personalised service for pupils of all social backgrounds to stem the waste of so many creative minds under the traditional, class-ridden system.

The programme didn’t fully explain how this miracle would come about but it did show how a deprived primary school in San Jose where a quarter of all school time was spent on-line, had improved results to rich-school levels while laying off some teachers and improving the salaries of others.

Another internet baron called Nolan Bushnell - known, apparently, as the father of modern video gaming - had designed “addictive” (in a good sense) learning games on the grounds that a teacher with a piece of chalk could no longer  hope to engage young minds.

In contrast, said the radio programme, many senior people working for Google, Apple and similar firms in California’s Silicon Valley send their children to progressive Waldorf schools, which emphasise problem-solving, learning through play and social skills and don’t allow pupils to use computers at all before the age of about 14. Apparently, which makes sense if you think about it sufficiently hard, the early years maths curriculum includes knitting socks.

All these ideas would horrify the 1950s-minded education secretary Michael Gove (which is no bad thing) but I’m sure Bill Gates is right; we need to rethink the way we school children. It’s a new world.

Don’t ask me how to do this – like Mr Gove, I’m a journalist rather than a teacher -but I suspect the truth is that, if the educators are enthusiastic and competent, many competing school systems and ideologies could be made to work. And if not, not.

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