Headache tablets? —What if schools are doing technology wrong?

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In the debate about technology and education, it is expected that you are either a crazy-eyed zealot or a complete and utter Luddite. So, when people meet me, they tend to find me quite confusing. As part of my role as an assistant headteacher at a secondary school, I study how technology can support the processes involved in teaching and learning. So, of course, I must be the type of person who kneels at the altar of ed tech. But when people actually talk to me, I tell them that one of the most important lessons any teacher can learn about technology is when not to use it.

The reaction I get is symptomatic of what the ed-tech debate has been reduced to. Since it is much easier to disagree with people if common ground is removed, the debate surrounding technology in schools has become predictably, depressingly binary. For evidence of this, you need only look at the Twitter rows resulting from a recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report on technology in schools and from discussions on the issue of mobile phones in the classroom.

Battle lines are drawn across the virtual and physical staffroom, where conversation is dominated either by technology evangelists or by those who still think it’s OK to say that they “don’t do technology”. The majority of us, who are somewhere in between, keep our heads down for fear of being conscripted to either cause.

Identifying the problems

We need a way out of this impasse. Schools need to have sensible and informed debates about the place of ed tech, but first they must recognise the obstacles standing in the way.

1. The myth of fear. When dealing with staunch opponents of technology, it’s easy to claim that they are afraid of it. But, in my experience, few teachers are actually afraid of technology. In fact, most will happily give it a try if they are given the right encouragement and opportunity.

Look around your staffroom and you’re just as likely to see teachers using digital technologies to plan and deliver lessons – researching on the internet, putting together an interactive whiteboard flip-chart or preparing a worksheet – as you are to see them wiggling their pens.

Students already find technology an appealing and effective addition to their learning toolkit. Whether you approve or not, technology is deeply woven into the fabric of our schools and it is here to stay.

No one in schools really fears technology. Saying they do complicates the debate: it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and forces people into defensive positions.

2. Lack of support. Teachers rarely have time to learn to use technology more effectively. This can lead to several issues: they are anxious about being made to use technology beyond their comfort zones; they fear it will not be reliable enough to use in lessons; and, above all, they are disappointed because technology seldom brings transformational change on the scale promised by its more fervent proponents.

If teachers aren’t supported, they are less likely to use technology effectively. If technology is not used effectively, the value it offers to teaching and learning is diminished. If schools see little value, they are less likely to support teachers to use technology. And so the vicious circle goes round and round.

3. The shadow of failure. Even when we have all put the effort in, technology sometimes doesn’t work. Over the years, there have been many examples of technology as a top-down intervention proving nothing short of calamitous. Even when it does work, its impact can be less than compelling.

Analysing the problems

It’s easy to blame the technology for any issues that arise. If it “worked” then teachers would not fear it, it would be easy to use and it would transform our teaching. Yet, as our knowledge and appreciation of its role grows, an alternative view is beginning to emerge: what if schools are simply “doing” technology wrong?

For too many of us, using technology means sitting pupils in front of Linguascope, Mathletics or a word processor for an hour while we get on with a bit of marking. We feel we need to stop teaching to use technology, and we stop using technology to start teaching.

So it’s no wonder that when we compare the use of technology with more traditional teaching strategies, technology always comes across as the grossly overpaid but inept assistant the boss is having an affair with. The comparison is not a fair one.

Many problems stem from a lack of information. Research by the Education Endowment Foundation and the Sutton Trust, among others, shows that technology is most successful when it is used to plan and deliver lessons effectively, to promote meta-cognition and self-regulation, and to deliver feedback. This information rarely makes it down the line to teachers.

Technology is also not questioned enough. Teachers don’t just need to be better informed – we need to ask better questions. Many schools experimenting with mobile devices still expect magic to happen when they give children shiny slabs of aluminium and glass. It doesn’t. They must first ask questions such as: “When everyone has mobile devices, what will they do with them?” The answer is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Critiqueing the reasoning behind the use of technology makes us more realistic about its potential and more discerning as users. If we are dealing with tablets, for example, many of us assume that the choice of apps provides teachers and students with an smorgasbord of opportunities to conjure up the biggest and most coveted C in education – creativity.

In reality, although there are some laudable exceptions, a proper look at these apps reveals that most are actually terrible, or, at the very least, ill-suited to classroom use. There is no app for good teaching.

Finding the solutions

If we are to move from problems to solutions, first we need to change the mindset in education. Let us take it as truth that, given the right conditions, technology and teaching can complement each other. By studying what currently works and does not work, we can develop a clearer, more realistic, evidence-informed framework for technology adoption. Here’s how it might look…

Grant teachers freedom to explore

Teachers should be permitted to use their professional judgement to introduce as much or as little technology as they feel is appropriate. After all, we shouldn’t impair the quality of someone’s teaching by forcing them to use technology.

Teachers who think technology is just a gimmick, or that it is distracting, are not likely to change if they’re forced to use devices they are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with. It would be much better if they were allowed to learn and experiment at their own pace, with effective support provided when they require and request it.

It may seem counterintuitive, especially to school leaders but it is only when teachers have this combination of freedom and support that they begin to explore more sophisticated ways of using technology than just sitting children in front of computers for an hour or clicking their way through a PowerPoint. It’s only when we nourish this culture (think of it in the biological sense) that the cells begin to grow and multiply. To paraphrase Goodhart’s law, greater use of technology when it adds value to the learning ought to be the outcome, not the measure.

Empower teachers to make judgements

Another valid question is: how do we know when technology adds value? We are all biased, of course, but I’m not going to suggest that everything you know is wrong or that your teaching practice is built on a myth.

Instead, I’m going to be bold and assert that if you are a trained teacher and think something has added value in your specific context, it probably has. If you are still a trainee teacher, find someone who is more experienced and whose judgement you trust and ask them. But feel free to disagree, because even if they are more experienced, you may be more knowledgeable about the use of technology.

You can only pass judgement on what you know and understand. And if you don’t know much about how technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning, you will be a poor judge of it and an even poorer critic.

Analyse the pros and cons

At my school, I am currently piloting a mobile device programme in which every child and teacher will eventually be issued with a tablet computer.* One of the most common criticisms is that the money spent on tablets would be better spent on other things, such as textbooks. This is commonly referred to as a problem of “opportunity cost”.

But microeconomic concepts such as opportunity cost can only take you so far in discussions about education, because they are often used to justify subjective and normative stances. If you suggest that the money spent on tablet computers ought to have been used for textbooks, you are making a normative statement, because you are expressing a value judgement and describing what you think ought to have happened.

This approach does not work in the case of technology in education, because it does not compare like with like. Tablet computers and textbooks both have a cost, and the financial cost of one is much higher than the other. Leaving aside the fact that cost is never restricted to the financial, the opportunities that books can offer are different to those offered by tablets. Textbooks never run out of battery, for example. On the other hand, they can’t access the internet or record science experiments in high definition.

The opportunities lost need to be balanced against the opportunities gained. Which is why, when investing in technology, it’s so important to invest in staff development too, so everyone understands the new opportunities. Only then can people make accurate comparisons between what may be lost and gained.

Create your own ‘truth’

It’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to technology. It is down to every school to carefully implement the strategies they feel will contribute to improved teaching and learning. The specific challenges and opportunities that might arise from greater use of technology need to be considered within this wider context.

Acknowledge how far we’ve come

Let us remember that in most schools, teachers are already imparting knowledge and delivering content in effective, creative and engaging ways, supported by technology. Interactive whiteboard flip-charts, PowerPoint presentations and web-based multimedia resources have been features in our classrooms for years.

However, the success of lessons is almost always down to the quality of the teaching, with technology cast in a supporting but nevertheless important role. Teachers could deliver the same lessons without any tech at all, but they probably wouldn’t want to. Technology helps to engage students. And it helps them to learn.

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Photo credit

*At the time of writing the article, the tablet computer roll-out was being piloted with two year groups. The pilot was a success and all staff and teachers now use a tablet computer when required and when it adds value to daily business of teaching and learning.

This article featured in the TES on 25 September 2015. 

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