In the latest issue of Fast Company magazine there’s a fascinating article, ‘A’ Is for App, on how technology may unleash childhood creativity and transform education.
The article begins with the usual stories about how children, often just a year old, are naturals with the iPhone. Simple yet playful apps help them build vocabulary and learn basic concepts. For example, First Words lets kids move tiles on the screen to spell words, and touch crayons to learn color names.
But even more interesting, with the potential to transform how children learn and how schools teach, are devices like the TeacherMate. Created by Seth Weinberger, the TeacherMate is designed to be small and tough — much more so than laptops or cellphones. It runs full-color Flash-based educational software activities, teaching k-2 reading and math.
The graphics and interaction design on the TeacherMate software aren’t particularly beautiful, but the system works. Kids love it — they help each other with it (teaching collaboration, too), and it seems to be more effective at teaching than many traditional methods. But a visual design makeover would be great — there’s no reason kids shouldn’t be taught using good, clean, (but still fun and age-appropriate) visual design. I’m hopeful, too, that the interaction design will improve as technology improves and becomes cheaper, allowing for more iPhone-like interaction (as where the article started).
The greatest potential impact of technology like this is in developing countries. The Open Learning Exchange (OLE) aims to provide quality basic education to one billion children in 100 countries by 2015. Using an open-education model, like MIT’s Open CourseWare, they want to build a free library of open-source educational software.
As devices like the TeacherMate, as well as ruggedized and cheaper phones and tablets, become more widespread — and initiatives like OLE provide the educational courseware that’s critical — the potential for world-change is enormous.
The real barrier seems to be the status-quo. Educational bureaucracies, political institutions, even parents, all have their own reluctance to change. “What’s at issue is a deep cultural shift, a fundamental rethinking not only of how education is delivered but also of what ‘education’ means.”