Waiting for Napster

A few weeks ago on twitter I passed remark to Matt Johnston that it would be great to have Industry-funded, STEM-focused schools in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, Matt put me in touch with  Denis Stewart and his wife, who between them have more experience of the education system than everyone I know, combined.

In the IT industry we love to rail on the "failings" of the education system and think if only we had the chance we could do it better. There are so many factors involved in changing education that it become much more than just changing education; cultural factors, family pressures, financial implications and job vacancies all have to be taken into consideration. There are already schools in NI, who receive funding from Industry and who have specialities in a range of STEM subjects, who I have no doubt are very good at what they do. Innovation is contagious; I'm sure many of these schools developed their speciality from one teacher, passionate about their subject who drove school policy forward.

I don't pretend I can fix things or that I have all (if any) answers. My school has been very good in giving me free reign, setting IT policy and testing out new systems, but we're part of a very small sub-group of a much larger system and as someone put it yesterday in "the Tasmania of Northern Ireland."

Is it enough to have a few specialist schools and a few innovative teachers? What about those who are still unreached? Mostly working class boys, whose career aspirations are either professional footballer, reality TV star, claim benefits, or "get out of school at 16, join a trade and make some money." I'm not being elitist; if I'm honest this is my cultural background. Neither am I saying everyone should go down an academic route. What I ask is, how many of these students would be potential innovators, if we could only get them past, "maths is hard" and "science is boring." How can we show what will be out there in ten years time when to them school is so irrelevant; they have more technology in their bedroom than most classrooms and they make better use of it too.

How can we better connect technology? Not just connect different elements of technology but how can we connect with teachers and students and get them engaged with it. Napster was one of those moments when society became truly engaged with the Internet; I knew it had made a difference when my 70 year old Aunt began using a Napster clone to download knitting patterns.  Education needs it's Napster. Not a way to illegally download music in class, but a way to connect existing technologies; meeting a need which it's users may not even realise they have.

Whether it's debating the need for STEM schools/STEM in schools, developing Jotter or teaching, I want to make the best of technology that exists, which we may even have, but aren't using in a useful way. Aspiring that my software project, Jotter be like Napster is perhaps a very lofty ambition; but is it not better to set a high goal and fall short, achieving something, than not set any goal or try at all. Is that not what we keep advising our students and if it isn't, why on earth not?

Andrew Gribben @grib