Teachers could be forgiven for doubting that technology is the answer to their every educational need. Over the past couple of decades large sums have been spent on classroom technology and even larger claims have been made on its behalf. The results, however, have been mixed.
On the one hand, according to the Education Endowment Foundation, there is some evidence that digital technology has been associated with moderate learning gains. On the other, there is considerable variation in impact and little evidence to suggest technology can replace, rather than supplement, traditional teaching.
Nevertheless, schools in the UK continue to spend heavily on technology – upwards of £900 million annually – and it’s not hard to see why. Whatever doubts remain, the problems technology could potentially solve only seem to increase.
To cope with large class sizes, rising teacher workloads, stagnating social mobility, severe recruitment shortages and depleted budgets, schools will have to employ solutions that are cost-effective, creative and scalable. And those solutions will inevitably involve technology.
Regardless of the merits or demerits of specific pieces of equipment or programs, almost all internet-based technologies share general advantages. Students embrace technology because they find it engaging and reassuring. It’s familiar, accessible from any location and allows those in more isolated communities ready access to resources that they might otherwise be denied.
Technology holds equal attractions for teachers. It can enable a more forensic identification of individual need, which should result in more targeted interventions and improved outcomes. It tends to be economic – if the function is easily replicable. It can absorb basic teaching tasks, allowing teachers to concentrate on more complex ones. And it can augment teacher reach – giving them a virtual presence if a physical one isn’t possible.
If the advantages are obvious, the pitfalls, historically, haven’t been. The question is, how can schools get the most technological bang for their buck? How can they avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and steer clear of ending up with over-engineered kit or online services that promise much but fail to deliver after first contact with students?
One of the biggest mistakes many early adopters made was to be seduced by technological wizardry without considering whether it was appropriate for their school. The first thing teachers should ask themselves is why they want to use whatever technology is under consideration. What is it for?
Target your use of technology
Technology has to answer a specific need, otherwise there is a danger schools will adopt it arbitrarily and wastefully. A piece of equipment, a smart app or an online service should provide solutions, not give rise to more unwanted questions. Nor are all technologies more efficient or economical than more traditional approaches. Sometimes a pen and paper really will suffice.
Consider, too, if your school has the necessary infrastructure for the desired technology. Is your internet speed fast enough, for instance? Do your existing computers have the features – the webcams and microphones and so on – the technology requires? If your school doesn’t, do the benefits of the technology you want justify the upgrade costs? If they don’t, look for other solutions.
Teachers should also factor in the social cost. Technologies can disrupt in good, creative ways. But they can also force you to change your systems without any, or only marginal, benefit. Does the new assessment system you are tempted by, for instance, enhance your existing approach or does it completely upend it? Perhaps radical action is needed and you want a totally different approach. But if it’s not and you don’t, think again.
How you implement technological change is crucial. Schools can’t subscribe to a new service and expect it to work. Students and teachers need time and support to know how to use it, to understand what its functions are and how it can benefit them. The more they know, the more motivated they will be to use it well.
Finally, never forget the human in the technological. Teaching is a dialogue. It’s a conversation. Children don’t just upload knowledge, they explore it with a teacher. The evidence suggests that when schools are tempted to replace teaching with technology, students become disengaged and easily distracted. Technology works best when it is integrated with and supplementary to teaching.
My company, MyTutor, for instance, uses an online platform to connect students with tutors they wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. Others simplify tracking and marking homework or collating attendance data. They are enhancements and extensions of traditional teaching – not alternatives to it. If there is one reason why some of the earlier technological innovations fell far short of the promise they offered, it is probably because adopters did not learn that invaluable lesson.
But where schools do learn those lessons and use technology wisely, costs can be cut, workload reduced and teaching tailored to those students who need more support.
James Grant is co-founder of MyTutor, an online one-to-one tutoring service for schools