The EdTech revolution – And why we're still waiting for it

A little while ago the good folks at Wonderhub asked me some questions about EdTech’s ability to enthuse and exasperate in almost equal measure, and whether supporting people to better teach and learn should be its top priority. Below are my answers, originally published on their blog. (Spoiler alert: the answer to that last one is a resounding YES)

How did you start your journey with EdTech?

It was a seamless transition. You see, I wasn’t always a teacher and, when I worked in the industry, effective use of communications technology was part and parcel of being good at your job. When I took up my first teaching position, I was surprised that teachers were communicating with each other using notes written on slips of paper left in pigeon holes. And students would rarely use technology to support them in their learning, even when using technology would be beneficial, for example, by getting them to practise vocabulary and grammar using online exercises. It was then that I decided to put together a website – (sadly no longer online) – to help my students practise grammar and vocabulary frequently and effectively. My students and, to my surprise, students of Spanish across the planet lapped it up and my fascination with how technology can improve teaching and learning started.

What makes “great teaching” and how technology can complement this?

There is a lot of research and advice out there as to what works best in supporting teaching and learning. This is the essence of my new book “Using Technology in the classroom”, published by Bloomsbury. In it I suggest that teachers should use technology effectively to support great teaching and learning, and should look beyond the whizz and bang traditionally associated with the use of technology in the classroom. Instead, they should explore practical, pedagogically sound ways in which technology can improve outcomes and add value within a school’s context, both in the classroom and beyond. But it comes with the warning that their focus ought to be on the great teaching and learning that can happen when technology is used appropriately and successfully, and not on using technology for its own sake.

What are the most significant changes you’ve witnessed in the EdTech community in the past few years?

The edtech industry developed a bad reputation for itself when its focus was on eye-catching technologies that looked great in the boardroom but were of little actual use in the classroom. Investment in technology was so costly that teachers were often compelled by management to use the technology, even when not using technology might have been pedagogically the right call. Professional judgement was often ignored. Nowadays, edtech seems to be much more focused on learning from what makes teaching and learning great and then layering on technologies so that they support and improve the processes involved in teaching and learning successfully, instead of running counter to them. There also seem to be a much greater involvement of practising teachers in the development of edtech tools. Both of these things are very welcome and may well succeed in restoring the reputation of the industry.

In your work, do you see any specific instructional uses of technology that are emerging as being the most potentially impactful in terms of improving learning outcomes over the next few years?

Following on from the previous answer, edtech has always sold revolutions, which it has invariably failed to bring about. Teaching remains stubbornly in the classroom and pen and paper rule. I firmly believe that teachers, in addition to being experts in their subject and in its instruction, should learn to discern when it comes to using the right technology for the right reason and for the right purpose. Only when a teacher is well-informed as to what makes an impact, how and when, can she then think critically about what technology is best for a particular purpose. If we know that frequent retrieval practice helps us remember key concepts; that spacing practice and interleaving topics support learning; that dual coding facilitates conceptualisation; or that the quality of the instruction a teacher can give are all essential, then the question is: how can technology help us make these things even more effective? If the answer is, it can’t, then don’t use it!

Why do you think it is important for teachers to evaluate themselves with regard to the use of technology to support teaching and learning?

The key to using technology effectively is to know when it can be pedagogically valuable. In order to know this, you need to acquire a secure understanding of the principles behind great teaching and learning and of the challenges and opportunities of whatever technology you intend to use. Self-evaluation is key to understanding when to, and just as importantly, when not to use technology. The most vocal views about the potential of technology in the classroom often present as deeply polarised. To some technology is the answer to everything that is wrong with education, whereas to others technology is what is wrong with education. Needless to say, neither view is correct. Most of us sit happily somewhere along this spectrum and understand that technology can be put to good use depending on various factors, such as our context and an individual’s ability to use technology effectively.

Bear this in mind when self-reflecting about your use of technology. Where on this spectrum are you? Where are your colleagues? Are your expectations too high? Or are theirs too low? Only then are you in a position to identify more accurately what strategies for the use of technology you and your colleagues can apply successfully and resulting in positive outcomes.

What do you think is the biggest barrier preventing the adoption of technology in education?

Teachers tend to be very pragmatic folk. They will use whatever works for them, including technology on occasion. Quite probably, you will have noticed that some teachers are more keen on technology than others. Some will jump to be the first to use the latest gadget or web tool with little consideration of the pedagogical benefits while some others will proudly proclaim that they ‘don’t do technology’.

The good news is that the majority of us don’t inhabit these extremes and are somewhere in between. Schools need to have sensible and informed debates about the place of technology in their context, but first we must recognise the three obstacles standing in the way of technology integration: the notion that using technology is somehow a dereliction of good teaching, rather than an aid to it; the lack of support to move teachers beyond their current comfort zones; and the fear that, despite all our efforts, technology will let us down at the worst possible moment. In teaching, regression to the mean means eschewing technology.

What do you see are the three most promising technologies on the horizon for today’s educational environment?

As Physics Nobel laureate Nils Bohr once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” But if I were to place a wager, I would say that the future will look much like the present does and that technology will continue making small, incremental contributions to the teaching and learning process. No revolutions, but plenty of evolution. Having said that, I am very intrigued by the role of AI in helping teachers make better-informed decisions about teaching and learning.

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