Edtech hasn't reduced workload: it's added to it

Before wheeling out more 'workload-saving' edtech, developers need to speak to the experts – teachers themselves, says James Bowen

James Bowen

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At a recent edtech event, I was invited to join a panel to discuss the seemingly intractable problem of excessive teacher workload.

On the way to the session I started to think about the kind of questions that might come up. It seemed a fairly good bet that something along the lines of: “how has technology helped to reduce teacher workload?” would be asked.

In an effort to be fully prepared, I decided to make a list of all the different examples I could think of where technology had reduced workload in schools. After half an hour, all I had to show for my efforts was a blank piece of paper.

The best I can come up with at the moment is the humble photocopier and given the number of teacher hours that have been wasted trying to fix one of those inexplicably complex machines, I’m not sure even this serves as a particularly good example.

Reading the secretary of state’s speech from Bett, it would seem that he has come to the same conclusion.

I need to make it clear that I am in no way a technophobe. I’m as much a sucker for an expensive, unnecessary new gadget as the next person. Separate me from my smartphone for more than five minutes and I start to break out into a cold sweat.

I’m also not entirely dismissing the positive impact that technology has had on the classroom. There are plenty of examples I can think of where I have seen teachers use technology to enhance learning. Devices such as visualisers have been a real boon when it comes to feedback and assessment. I’ve also seen how it can be used to give children access to new places and people in a way that would have been impossible just a few decades ago.

However, when it comes to the specific issue of workload, like the secretary of state, I’m just not convinced that technology has had much of a positive impact; I would agree that there are in fact quite a few examples where technology has inadvertently added to teacher workload, rather than reduced it.

Take the example of tracking software. This was supposed to make it easier for teachers to record and analyse the progress of pupils. However, we ended up with a situation where teachers were expected to enter countless data points for every pupil on a half-termly basis and, because the system allowed it, to analyse that data in a myriad of different ways. The technology allowed us to do more, so we did.

The interactive whiteboard is often cited as another example of a potential classroom time-saver.  Again, I’m not so sure. In many cases, the presence of a digital screen simply raised expectations, with many teachers spending their evenings designing all-singing and dancing slides in an attempt to add the "wow factor" to lessons.

Even email, which for virtually all of us has become an indispensable and extremely useful method of communication, can be seen to have added to teacher workload rather than reduced it. Prior to having email in school, you had to make the effort to walk down the corridor and find the person you wanted to speak with. Failing that, you might wait until the weekly briefing if you had something to update everyone on. Now, it’s all too easy to fire-off a quick email without too much thought for the time it will take to read and respond. All too often I hear of teachers logging back on in their evenings and weekends just to get on top of the daily stream of internal communications, let alone those coming in from outside the building.

I genuinely hope that my technological-scepticism is misplaced and that large tech firms can help find solutions to the workload crisis which undeniably remains a real problem.

If these companies are interested in helping to tackle the workload issue through IT, then the first thing they need to do is spend time listening to teachers. We need them to really understand what the real problems are when it comes to workload and then suggest specific solutions to them.

Two and a half years on from the launch of the government’s three workload reports, progress on tackling teacher workload has been frustratingly slow and perhaps we do need to look for radical solutions from outside of education. However, let’s be sure that these genuinely make teachers’ lives easier rather than inadvertently placing yet more demands upon them – we’ve been there before.

James Bowen is the director of NAHT Edge 

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