The subject of technology and education is being hotly debated. You will find many people saying “edtech” is the solution to all of education’s problems and just as many others stating how ineffective it is and, in some cases, detrimental to learning.
I believe the answer lies, as with most things, in the shades of grey between the two viewpoints. I am both an edtech sceptic and evangelist.
Below I have listed the great, genuine benefits of using technology in education:
1) Access to quality information
It is awe inspiring to think that anyone and, in particular, students with the internet, can have access to the world’s highest-quality information at any time of day or night. Examples of the most inspiring content are numerous and too long to list but my personal favourites, as a geeky mathmo, include Numberphile, VSauce and TED Talks.
But there are problems. In among all the great material there is truly awful, inaccurate and distracting material. We owe students more than just saying “Google it”. We must help them sift the wheat from the chaff.
Access to this quality information is only useful when the student has that hunger to learn and focus on that material. Bringing the internet and access to this information to countries where teachers are sparse could be a disruption with a truly transformational positive impact. Having this access in other places where the child is more entertained with the latest Vine clip, I think that impact is less prominent.
Some argue, given that one can access so much knowledge, one does not need to learn or memorise facts when they can be Googled. However, it is only with knowledge that other knowledge becomes interesting and I believe creativity comes from someone who knows things.
2) Making life easier
Some technologies make life faster, more efficient and easier, and the same applies in the teaching and learning field. Anything that genuinely saves the teacher time (their most precious commodity) or helps them be more productive, allows them to focus more on students. This type of technology can help teachers and, in turn, help students get better teaching. There are technologies out there that do this to a meaningful extent and, as such, are priceless. One personal favourite includes using Google Docs to be in the same document as students, giving them live feedback rather than resending draft versions back and forth via emails for every iteration.
3) Social media and teacher CPD
This is where the “sharing economy” really comes into play for education. Over the past few years the sharing of ideas and resources on Twitter and other social media for education has been incredible – the best CPD I have ever had since I started teaching. The practice of teachers pooling together, sharing strategies, ideas, resources and visions is really taking great shape and, I think, the growth in this area has the ability to make genuine differences to our pupils. Anything that helps the teachers save time, improve and collaborate with other great teachers helps them become better teachers and so our students benefit.
4) Disrupt in the right ways
Linked to the above point, in recent years social media has allowed teachers' voices to be heard and even impact government policy. The use of technology and social media in this way either to gain critical mass for ideas that we know work or to question the efficacy of ideas and policies is powerful. This can only be a good thing. Movements such as Tom Bennett's ResearchEd typify this and have the potential to make genuinely beneficial changes to our education system. Other noble ideas include the Global Teacher Prize with the aim to improve the status of teachers across the globe. Another brilliant edtech solution I have seen is Founders4Schools, founded by Sherry Coutu. It quickly allows teachers to access the country's greatest business leaders from their LinkedIn profiles and invite them into schools to inspire the next generation. The simplicity and ease of this service means it’s almost as simple as a click of a button to inspire your pupils.
5) Teaching coding/computing
In the UK, the recent focus on teaching coding and computing is a needed, although uncomfortable, change. For me, this is a crucial subject for the future and I think that making this disruption is needed. Careful planning needs to be in place to help teachers be able to effectively help students and adapt but, in the long term, this curriculum change will be beneficial.
6) Student collaboration and sharing
There is great potential for students to communicate with other students, their teachers or anyone else in the world at the click of a button. This must be good thing. It means nothing when used in a gimmicky way, but allowing students to genuinely collaborate and work together could have huge impact on learning. In my role as judge of the UK Teaching Awards, I have observed students working together using technology on projects in meaningful ways, akin to how people collaborate in the workplace. One group of students worked online together to make a computer game for a European competition, which they won. The technology for them to collaborate when they were at home to the same extent as when they were together at school can only be a great thing for their project. Imagine a class of English students learning Mandarin having a voice call once a week with a group of Chinese students learning English. Something like this has the potential to meaningfully impact learning. There are many other examples that are too numerous to mention.
7) Custom-built learning platforms
This may be a harder sell and it would certainly be harder to make it work, but I believe there is scope to create learning platforms that help both teachers and students and make meaningful differences to learning. Often edtech created in this arena is pitched at teachers, but has little thought for the final user, the student; or they are aimed at the student and try to replace the teacher. There is a niche space to create platforms that help both teachers and students, and so improve learning.
Any such product needs to be created with an obsessive focus on the science of teaching and learning. Without this, it will be a gimmick. Products I have great respect for include Membean and Memrise, as they are developed with clear focus on learning.
I am launching a website at the start of 2016, which I believe has the potential to genuinely help teachers and students in maths at school. I am so excited to release this product as it is something I have been wanting to build since I started teaching. Everything in my platform focuses on two things: firstly, the students' learning and, secondly, how to help the teacher save time and put the focus on how the student is learning. With this combination I believe there is a huge opportunity to impact learning in great ways.
In summary, the blanket belief that edtech will solve all of education's problems is a simplistic and erroneous view. Edtech can, however, have a great impact and already is in some cases. I call for teachers out there, if it is possible in their busy lives, to make or demand the changes that they know their students need.
This is an abridged version of Colin's blog, which you can find here.