Jon Severs

Pupils’ simply ‘having a device’ just won’t cut it

Greater use of technology in schools is inevitable but how can teachers ensure that all students have equipment that is up to the task?

Pupils’ simply ‘having a device’ just won’t cut it

It was in the act of trying to get an article from my iPad notes app into an email and on to my HP laptop, while setting up a Zoom meeting on my phone, that I realised that we in education need to have a more detailed conversation about devices. Throughout the pandemic, the focus was on the need to get a “device” in the hands of every pupil and the government made grand pronouncements about the numbers of laptops it had shipped out to disadvantaged students.

We viewed devices in a universal way, as if all were equal: as long as the students had something – anything – then that was OK.

The reality, though, is that “device poverty” is not just about the haves and have-nots, but the “whats”, too.

This point is made clearly in our Focus On feature this week. It set out to uncover the best device for home learning: if remote education is going to be a fixture of our future, which technology is our best bet to maximise outcomes? The conclusion is, essentially, a shrug: we don’t actually know.

Largely, it depends on the task. For example, as Neil Morris, from the University of Leeds, points out, a mobile phone is probably optimal for listening to an audio lecture or podcast but it is pretty hopeless for writing an essay. Similarly, you could happily watch a video lecture on your games console but you would struggle when completing complex algebra.

Diana Laurillard, from University College London, also points out that age is a huge factor: touchscreen tablets are usually going to be more appropriate than laptops for younger students.

This is just the start of the complexity. The more you dig into the use of technology, the more complicated it becomes.

As we push towards a “digital future” for education, we need to put this issue at the forefront because, in order for there to be a sustained use of digital tools, it must be as easy as possible for pupils and teachers to use them.

Right now, there is no single device that a teacher can plan for to ensure effective learning. Instead, their planning is either constrained by the devices available or tasks are retrofitted to inappropriate devices, making them less effective. (And that’s before we get to bugs in the system and tech literacy issues.)

Furthermore, research has not yet been able to tell us where digital tools are best used and where they are best avoided – a point Alex Quigley made in last week’s Tes.

There is also the fact that technology is moving so fast that even two pupils with the same device may have very different accessibility to the learning.

How, as a teacher, do you find the time to navigate all of this? The truth is that, right now, that time does not exist. So, if we force the issue, the consequences will be poorer outcomes and teachers who are even more overworked.

None of this is to say that tech has no place in our future – it definitely does, despite education secretary Gavin Williamson’s pitch for a “phone-free environment” in schools. What we need, though, is to face up to the fact that – like my temporary inability to simply transfer a block of text from one device to another – getting tech right in the classroom is a lot more complicated than it first seems.


This article originally appeared in the 30 April 2021 issue under the headline “Students may be disadvantaged if left to their own digital devices”

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