Technology can even free teachers from admin, leaving more time to devlote to pupils. Photo: Getty
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The latest learning technology can raise standards of education for everyone

To get the best out of it, investment in learning technology needs to be results driven.

Technology makes life better. It allows people from across the globe to collaborate as if seated around the same table, has allowed 3D printing to become a reality and makes it possible to master Guitar Hero from the comfort, and privacy, of our living rooms. As technology changes the world around us, it is also transforming education. Technology at its best can empower teachers and students, raise standards and improve outcomes for those who learn.

While we have seen youth unemployment dropping to its lowest level for five years, it is still too high. Yet employers with jobs to fill are saying that they are unable to fill entry-level vacancies as they cannot find candidates with the necessary skills. This is damaging to individuals and businesses alike. By harnessing the latest technology, we can develop innovative learning techniques and platforms to ensure those entering work for the first time are equipped with the skills employers need, and that those already in jobs are able to progress through their career.

Better still, evidence shows that the biggest impact of technology in education is on those who need it most. Technology has the power to break open the doors of learning, making education more inclusive and enabling it to embrace those learners that have for too long been marginalised. It is these individuals who can benefit the most from innovation. Traditionally, learning was constrained to classrooms and required students to physically attend set lessons. This immediately excludes those who are unable to make this type of commitment, whether because of disability or due to childcare or other caring commitments. If we take learning out of the classroom and put it online, or indeed make it accessible on a mobile phone, then suddenly those people that were previously excluded are able to make learning a part of their lives.

Encouragingly, innovation in digital education continues at pace. Just recently, online learning company Qualt launched a new platform that allows learners looking to develop their careers to study professional skills Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) via a free downloadable app on their smart phone. This is a prime example of how technology can offer people a flexible, low-risk opportunity to develop in a way that works around them and their lifestyle. This week also saw adult learning charity NIACE awarded ‘App of the Year’ in the Prolific North Awards for their Maths Everywhere app that helps adults build vital numeracy skills. 

It’s not just outside of the classroom that technology can make a difference. Technology can be effectively used by teachers to bring subjects to life within schools, colleges and universities. It can also assist teachers with their administrative and planning tasks, allowing more time to focus on inspiring and nurturing pupils.

Through embracing technology, students - whether sat in a classroom or on the sofa - can benefit from a bespoke education tailored to their personal strengths and weaknesses. Digital learning programs can be paced to suit the individual, meaning those who benefit from extra time on key subjects, or indeed those who are capable of racing ahead, are kept on-track and engaged. The digitally enhanced classroom has no disengaged back row, no struggling students too embarrassed to raise questions in front of their peers and no bright stars wasting their potential re-visiting topics they have already mastered.  Technology can help keep the de-motivated engaged just as it helps the best to soar.

While technology is a subject to get enthused and excited by, we must not lose our heads. Teachers should not fear technology. But to get the best out of it, investment in learning technology needs to be results driven. Success must not be measured on technical terms or spending commitments, but instead by its ability to drive up standards and outcomes for learners. Embracing technology does not simply mean writing cheques.  We have learnt the hard way that brand-new kit is only able to prove its worth if used effectively. This means making smart purchasing decisions and ensuring that staff and users are trained to take full advantage of their new devices.

By harnessing the latest learning technology, we can raise standards of education for everyone. Schools can offer students a more dynamic learning experience catered to their individual needs, employees keen to further their career can learn new skills online, and critically those previously left on the sidelines of education, can benefit from more opportunities to learn than ever before.

Matthew Hancock is Minister of State for Skills and Enterprise

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.