Digital classrooms

You enter a fairy-tale world, where fantastical characters offer you secret items – but at a price. To win this bounty, you have a secret weapon at your disposal – maths! This is the scenario of just one of the virtual reality (VR) games being developed to enliven and enhance children’s education in Kungsbacka.

“It was a fun way for learning and asking questions. If you found one thing you could walk through the environment towards the next step to learn. I was delighted when I found something under a chair was able to go further into the world,” recalls Maria Andersson, head of Kungsbacka’s department of education, who tried out a beta version of the software.

No more pencils?

As society becomes more and more digital-focused, many cities and countries are pushing to get digital skills training for children at an earlier age. After all, in the world that these children will grow up in, the internet may be the place where much of day-to-day life, labour, and even global conflict, is centred.

Thus the question has ceased to be ‘should we have computers in the classroom?’ and become ‘how do we best integrate digital learning into the curriculum?’ “A few years ago,” says Andersson, “you had concerns that if we brought in computers, children would forget how to use a pencil. We don’t worry about that anymore.”

Kungsbacka is a frontrunner in classroom digitisation, and that city is concerned to ensure that the change impacts all the pre-schools and schools in the municipality and not only the early adopters. The city’s strategy for school development using digital tools was formulated all the way back in 2013, outlining both what the city wanted to achieve and how it intended to reach that destination.

Like water in the taps

The first step was putting the infrastructure in place. Every teacher was given one digital unit, paired with an interactive whiteboard and projector. There is also one computer for each school child in grades six to nine, that is children of 12-15 years old.

“For smaller children, up to grade five, we have one computer between two students, so that computers aren’t seen as something that isolates you form others, but you learn to share and help each other,” Andersson says.

Parents, children and teachers have quickly grown used to this, according to Andersson. While a few years ago technology in the classroom was considered new and amazing, it is now thought to be as normal as “water in the taps.”

Expanded text

Schools are careful to ensure that even when students migrate to having one console each, technology remains an enabler for collaboration, rather than contributing to social isolation. One example is the project ‘Writing for learning’, a national initiative in which many local schools are taking part.

This project engages students in digital collaboration and learning through what is called the ‘expanded text concept.’ This growing trend in pedagogy treating as a ‘text’ not only writing but also music, drama, art, films, theatre, and so on. Students co-develop ‘texts’ using a variety of digital tools from the standard Microsoft Office suite to purpose-built software. The projects-in-the-making are posted on digital platforms where teams can get continuous feedback from fellow-students as well as teachers.

Privacy in digital worlds

Despite all this enthusiasm, digital privacy remains an important concern: “We have to be aware of data, because the protection of children is so necessary,” Andersson says. To this end, the municipality carefully review its contracts with the companies that supply the technology and technological services to ensure that children’s data privacy is properly respected.

Not satisfied with having digital engagement be a purely on-screen affair, Kungsbacka is also collaborating with seven other municipalities in the region, and local universities, to use VR and augmented reality (AR) to invite students to learn inside digital worlds. Augmented reality uses cameras on devices like smartphones to superimpose digital images and animations into the real world.

Access for all

Along with the above mentioned privacy concerns, a major concern for Kungsbacka is equality throughout its education system. That means that as the city develops and tests VR and AR learning tools, it strives to ensure that teachers throughout the city are equally competent in learning about and teaching with this cutting-edge technology. As well as teacher training, this means that the tools themselves have to be designed to facilitate equal access for all.

It is for this reason that a crucial part of the development of new technology is testing by children and by the teachers, who are, after all, the real experts in education. Nor should the technology be implemented for its own sake, but only insofar as it actually improves education outcomes. That is why the university is involved and accompanying testing of the usability of this technology with measuring of its effects on successful learning.

“It’s so new,” says Andersson, “you have to develop a lot of material for people to be able to use it. We have a studio for testing, and we are bringing it to different schools so that we can see how intuitive it is for students and teachers. Even for us who are developing it, it takes time to get familiar with.”

So, with this impressive suite of digital tools available and in the making, is Kungsbacka ready to rest on its laurels? Certainly not. As it develops these tools, the city is simultaneously working on making them more flexible and adaptable to different needs, such as distance learning and learning at different paces. The future is always uncertain, and the city wants to ensure that its children can choose their path in that future, no matter what it ends up looking like.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer