For over a decade Britain has been acknowledged as the world leader in educational use of technologies. Year-on-year the BETT Show sees increasing numbers of overseas visitors, all eager to learn about the latest trends in UK classrooms. But are the latest technologies really providing an improvement in learning outcomes or have they just become weapons of mass distraction in the classroom?
In today’s connected knowledge economies, education is signalled as the currency by which nations will maintain their economic competitiveness. Global assessments programmes such as the PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS provide the benchmarks governments care about. Yet IBM’s global CEO study ranked collaboration as the number one trait that CEOs seek in new employees as part of their efforts to embrace in a more connected culture, suggesting a need to gear our students’ learning habits and environments to the future workplace as well as equipping them with knowledge.
Debates on the new “computing curriculum” only dip a toe in this water. While a core knowledge of computational thinking and computer science is relevant, the proposed programmes of study are weak on digital literacy and more general IT skills.
Of course schools will adopt and develop the computing curriculum, but this is only one piece of the jigsaw. Just as important is the need to address the pervasive role of technology in society and distil what that means for the design of teaching and learning in all subjects.
It is important to see this in the context of a national curriculum review which prioritises (factual) knowledge acquisition over skills, and premises understanding on the basis of accrued content as building blocks.
The context is thus one which tends to polarise debate, whereby traditionalists are seen as “anti-tech” and caricatured as insisting that pupils should simply sit in rows and recite facts, versus ed-tech enthusiasts who are equally misrepresented as advocating a free for all of independent learning in which standards have little significance.
A decade ago we were in the middle of the “laptops for teachers” initiative, aiming to familiarise teachers with technology and encourage them to experiment with software that might help improve their lessons.
Early indicators of positive impact led the former technology agency Becta to provide interactive whiteboards to every school in England.
Audio-visual technologies are now seen as part of a core toolkit to create a collaborative environment that increases student participation and motivation to learn through ready access to live interactive multimedia.
Now, according to Cisco, by the end of 2013, the number of mobile-connected devices will exceed the number of people on earth, and by 2017 there will be nearly 1.4 mobile devices per capita.
A nervousness around the use of technology a decade ago is rapidly being overtaken by a generation of teachers and children keen to take advantage of the affordances connected devices can bring. The challenge is in assessing what makes an educational difference rather than simply being fun.
The scale of the difference is witnessed in a recent article in The Atlantic entitled The Touch Screen Generation discussing a gathering hosted by Warren Buckleitner, reviewer of interactive children’s media.
For the first 23 years of his career, Mr Buckleitner had tried to be comprehensive and cover every children’s game in his publication, Children’s Technology Review. Now, by his rough count, more than 40,000 children’s games are available on iTunes, plus thousands more on Google Play.
Many of these are finding their way into classrooms and no doubt many are well used and are promoting reading and helping children to grasp difficult mathematical concepts. But are they all and how do we know? Of course we don’t and can’t, and a proliferating digital environment renders control impossible.
It is a tough message but not all schools can report success even though they have technology in every classroom. Technologies, when used badly can become weapons of mass distraction, with the teacher having limited awareness of what pupils are actually doing or allowing excessive time on activities which are entertaining but don’t actually take pupils’ learning forward sufficiently.
But that’s not bad technology, it is bad teaching. And just as leadership and management has to promote effective “analogue” teaching, so should it promote effective “digital” teaching.
The Lord Silkin School in Telford for instance has progressed from being under threat of closure to one of the most improved schools in the country with outstanding GCSE results. Headteacher Trevor Goddard’s vision was to implement a programme whereby every learning space was fitted with interactive technologies and to implement a CPD programme to ensure that all teachers were proficient users of that core technology.
A bespoke programme was developed so that teachers could learn at their own pace, building their confidence in using the technologies and applications to develop really effective lesson plans, which ensured students’ active participation in lessons.
Jeff Price-Jones, the e-Learning co-ordinator, explained: “I believe the CPD has been a major contributing factor in helping the school achieve this standard. Training is embedded and all our teachers understand its importance and its positive effect on learning outcomes.”
Mr Goddard’s vision combines the understanding of a core set of hard and software with the need for CPD. Interoperability of devices plays an important role in this so that teachers spend the minimum time on technical points and maximise their attention to teaching itself.
His success has come not from being at the “bleeding edge” of innovation, but from thoughtful purchasing and an effective implementation plan, which includes what good and better teaching looks like.
While there might be “an app for that” for pretty much every teaching point one might consider, it risks marginalising the use of technology into the hands of a few keenies. Of course they are to be encouraged, but a systematic approach to making every member of staff an effective “digital teacher” is what school improvement really demands.
There is no doubt that ICT has become the fifth utility, both in our working and personal lives. While the curriculum review is focused on content, how we teach is just as important.
Using ICT effectively to support collaborative learning and create lessons that help develop the social and interpersonal skills sought by IBM and others also helps students become more engaged and simply learn more. It helps them develop the essential skills they need to shape their future.
ICT in schools today makes for the digitally literate workers of tomorrow. Implemented well, classroom technologies are not weapons of mass distraction but provide a step-change in student engagement, motivation and learning.
Rachel Jones is a former secondary head who is now head of education at Steljes and education director of the Elliot Foundation Academies Trust.