What does technology look like in the classroom? Technology doesn't change everything, but it does change a few things

Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson have just published their latest book What does this look like in the classroom?, expertly and beautifully illustrated by Oliver Caviglioli. In it they ask 18 experts in their field to answer key questions about classroom practice and research. Below is my contribution on the topic of technology in the classroom.

Would you ban mobile phones in schools?

If I answered no, some would think that I am in favour of unfettered access to mobile phones at any time during the school day. This is not quite the case. Although I would not ban the presence of mobile phones in schools, I would not allow students to use them in lessons unless they are instructed to by a teacher for a specific purpose.

In my view, and with the benefit of experience, it is possible to develop and apply rewards and sanctions policies that focus on promoting the appropriate use of mobile devices. This should be every school’s first port of call. Having said that, I am also mindful that an outright ban may be the most appropriate course of action in certain contexts, where, for example, poor behaviour is the number one challenge for the school.

How can I guard against plagiarism when the internet has increased opportunities for pupils to be academically dishonest?

The facile riposte is that plagiarism has always been an issue. Long before the internet, students copied from their dusty encyclopaedia or their library books. But this dismissal does not acknowledge or address the ease with which we all can feel seduced to pass other people’s work as our own with a quick copy and paste.

It would be tempting but fatuous to focus solely on what negative aspects the arrival of the internet has heightened without also considering the huge positive impact in terms of access to curriculum resources that it brings. From this perspective, a strong programme of digital citizenship and literacy (What are copyright and intellectual property? What do these concepts mean in a world where file-sharing is habitual?) that teaches students honesty, agency and to avoid using other people’s work without acknowledgement is preferable to constant policing.

Another advantage of such a programme would be to encourage students to become critical consumers of internet-sourced information. Arguably it is uncritical consumption of information – not plagiarism – that is the biggest problem facing old and young people alike in the age of fake news and social media-enabled echo chambers.

How far do I need to be a digital spy in order to check that my pupils are using technology positively and not for things like bullying?

Pastoral care in schools encompasses so much more today than it did ten years ago. Social media has added an extra layer of extra complexity that many schools are finding difficult to accept. Yet this is the reality in which we live. Yes, social media can be used by bullies and for other nefarious motives. But social media can also bring hope, joy and satisfaction just as easily.

Schools need to step up and educate the whole child, not just in Maths, English and Science, but also how to flourish and thrive in the society in which we live and not in an alternative reality in which the internet doesn’t exist. Only then will students be equipped with the knowledge and skills to change that society for the better.

Traditional interpretations of the problem of opportunity cost in our curricula often lead to focusing exclusively on curricular knowledge in the hope or belief that good citizenship would develop by unconscious assimilation, as the natural outcome of acquiring curricular knowledge in an academically rigorous environment.

As a consequence, increasingly strict bans and sanctions proliferate in place of a truly supportive pastoral provision, one which tackles the behaviour, not the technology. As Steven Pinker once observed, wherever human behaviour is the problem, human behaviour is also the solution.

Do you think technology is used too much in teaching and learning? What do you think is a healthy balance of use by students?

I hope I can be forgiven for suggesting this is not a very good question on two counts. First is the implied assumption that there is a limit after which, if exceeded, technology is somehow bad for teaching and learning. Second is the implication that, to remain healthy, there needs to be a cap on how much technology we use.

This approach biases our evaluation of the advantages or disadvantages of the use of technology by assigning intrinsic characteristics to technology – in this case harmfulness – and leads us to an ultimately fallacious argument about whether technology should be used at all.

Since the notion that technology can support teaching and learning when used effectively is quite rightly not in dispute, instead the question should have sought to ascertain how teachers can use technology to support teaching and learning and how students can benefit from screen time by focusing on controlling, not the length of time students spend on their different devices, but, as Professor Livingstone of LSE suggests, how they spend that time. Pathologising technology use serves no practical purpose and obfuscates the more important question that we should be asking: how is technology useful?

Do computers help long-term factual recall compared to paper?

My assumption is that the question refers to the known fact that handwriting notes leads to better retention than typing the same notes on a computer. The question once again leads us down the rabbit hole to another fallacious argument about whether technology should be used at all, as if typing is all that having a computer or mobile device available to you would allow you to achieve.

If this assumption is correct, then, by focusing on the narrow point about handwriting, the question ignores how computers can be used to receive timely feedback, deliver curated content, promote the interleaving of topics and distributed learning, provide opportunities for retrieval practice, or redesign and improve the quality of the work teachers set.

The notion that great teaching and the effective use of technology to support learning are somehow mutually exclusive is ultimately pernicious, as it stops us on our tracks from developing professionally by learning to incorporate whichever technology is appropriate to serve a given pedagogical purpose.

As a head of department, what advice would you give me on drafting a department policy on the use of in the classroom?

If you’re starting with “The answer is technology … what is the question again?”, then you’re almost certainly heading down the wrong path. Conversely, if you dismiss technology altogether as a distraction or a hindrance to learning, then you almost certainly don’t have good enough knowledge or understanding about technology in the context of teaching and learning to be able to think critically about technology adoption or avoidance in that context.

In either case, being reflective and informing yourself about research findings and other teachers’ practice is the best antidote against bad practice. When it comes to applying technology, give some thought to how the application of technology can support learning (access to content, enabling effective use of dual coding, facilitating retrieval practice, etc) and include recommendations in your schemes of work and programmes of study as to what technology could be used when and how.

Be explicit in outlining how technology could be used to support learning but avoid being prescriptive. Give teachers the freedom to opt in or out. And above all, remember: technology use is only a gimmick if you make it one.

My school has a ‘bring your own device’ policy. How can I make best use of this?

In a mixed-device environment, the common denominator is access to online resources. On the one hand, I would organise my departmental resources so that they could be accessed online and shared digitally by teachers and pupils (with different levels of access).

This ubiquitous access to curated content can facilitate self-regulation and other metacognitive strategies that have been shown to benefit learning. The mere presence of technology does not generate better learning, it’s how teachers adapt their practice slightly to harness the presence of devices for a positive impact that matters.

On the other hand, I would also investigate ways in which I could review assessment. For example, technology allows us to create banks of low-stakes tests that self-mark (reducing teacher workload) and that can be used by teachers to evaluate progress and inform their practice and by students as a learning aid (frequent retrieval practice). There is a plethora of tools and online resources that allow you to create reusable quizzes, flashcards, tests and assessments.

How can I help my students minimise the distraction that can be caused by their tech?

Technically, it is possible to use filters and device managers that can help to focus students’ interaction with technology, but this is most effectively achieved when accompanied by the provision of the academic resources required by students to put tech to work for learning.

Allowing students to bring devices to school but not altering the way in which teachers assess learning or deliver content is a recipe for distraction. Numerous studies have shown that, when this is the case, no improvement in learning takes place. In this scenario, you would be better off avoiding devices altogether.

If, however, you provide reasons and means for students to engage with technology for academic purposes, the result is that said technology ceases to be viewed and used solely as a tool for leisure, as it would otherwise be the case. In contexts where technology use is focused on academic purposes, teachers don’t relinquish control over to technology; instead they control how the technology is used.

This way, technology does not stand in opposition to learning; it supports it, while students develop agency and learn effective ways to manage their distractions, which is a key skill in this day and age.

I’m a self-confessed Luddite but would like to use more technology. What’s the best way to get more engaged with it?

Being a self-confessed luddite is not an intellectually robust position to take. It’s a bit like confessing proudly that you’re terrible at Maths, what a lark, or that, isn’t it funny, you’re terrible at spelling or grammar. Nobody should feel they can self-confess to such illiteracy and expect sympathy.

Having said that, it is possible to avoid using a lot of technology as a teacher in the classroom but encourage your students to be its primary users. This way, even if you feel you’ve not yet caught up with technology yourself, you can allow your students to take advantage of its benefits while you reflect on your practice. Content delivery, tests and quizzes are all pedagogically sound ways for your students to use technology.

As a self-confessed luddite who doesn’t really understand how technology can be used to support learning you could be prone to using technology as a gimmick, undermining your teaching and cheating your students out of learning. This generates a vicious circle in which your attitude is supported by your experience. Luckily for us all, as with many other self-confessed admissions of inadequacy, greater knowledge is the cure.

What are the most useful apps for learning?

The notion that technology is intrinsically good or bad for learning is one which I strongly dispute. It is how technology is used that produces good or bad outcomes. This applies to apps too. There are numerous apps that can support learning in the school context, but only if its use is guided expertly by a teacher. Delegating teaching to a computer or an app does not generally result in improved outcomes.

However, there are many apps that, when used appropriately, can support good practice in teaching and learning by enhancing that which we know works in the school context: the provision of effective, timely feedback (Showbie); the fostering of self-regulation (Calendar, Homework Apps) and metacognition (Explain Everything); or access to frequent retrieval practice tests and quizzes (Quizlet), just to name a few. But the wisest thing for any aspiring user of technology to remember is this: there is no app for great teaching.

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What does this look like in the classroom? What does this look like in the classroom? Bridging the gap between research and practice is a John Catt Publication.

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