While most schools are now experimenting with interactive whiteboards, texting homework reminders or streaming missed lessons to absent students, technology and education still tend to dance on opposite sides of the hall at the school disco.
But the Essa Academy, a secondary school for 11-16 year olds in Bolton, Lancashire, embraces technology in a way that makes childhood memories of the single BBC Micro out in the corridor feel positively prehistoric.
With an iOS device for each of its 900 students, custom lesson plans built and distributed through Apple’s educational network iTunes U, and no need for wiring thanks to a Wi-Fi-based Avaya communications solution, the Essa Academy is light years ahead of most UK academic institutions. And yet, due to a great deal of innovative planning, the academy has cost less to set up than many similar schools.
Founded with the aim of offering technology-led education, the academy opened its state-of-the-art campus in October 2011, having previously occupied its predecessor school’s site from 2009.
“We started by giving every student in the academy a handheld device – iPod Touches – in 2009. But our old school was falling apart, to the point where floors were collapsing,” says Abdul Chohan, a director of Essa Academy.
With a relatively modest budget of £18m, the academy quickly set about building new premises, and Chohan was given a big say in their design.
Recruited as a chemistry teacher, Chohan was also given responsibility for planning how the new buildings would look and function.
“I’m a bit of a geek in my spare time,” says Chohan. “What the principal wanted was someone who wasn’t technical to look at this – he wanted someone who understood the classroom. Traditionally, the technology bit was the part teachers found difficult to understand.”
Chohan and his team decided that the new school should be built on a simple, central theme: socialisation.
"We wanted people to interact; meet with each other, talk with each other, and so on, and one of the things that hindered that in a big way were offices,” says Chohan.
“So we had to think about why people needed offices. What it came down to was people wanted to make phone calls in the privacy of their own space and so on, but we found a solution that gave flexibility and freedom with existing devices.”
That solution came in the form of Avaya’s Flare Communicator for iPad app.
"What was amazing about it was it actually worked for our existing site, and that we didn’t need expensive infrastructure,” says Chohan. “It also meant we didn’t need to have offices everywhere – you could literally walk into any space and make it your own.”
Equipping every member of staff with their own device-specific extension number – as well as an iOS device to go with it – Essa had soon eliminated the need for private spaces. What is more, the school’s reception staff, says Chohan, could become “more like meeters and greeters, looking after visitors instead of being bombarded with hundreds of phone calls every day”.
The Avaya solution is a far cry from the PBX-based system that, Chohan says, shackled the school to an office structure.
“It had been added to with handsets and so on, and people were always looking for points to plug into if they wanted to operate from a different space, so we had to keep putting extensions in,” says Chohan.
“They took up a lot of time and expense. Because if you need a handset, you need a table, and before you know it, you’ve got an office.”