Whenever I tell someone that I worked in edtech for nearly 10 years – in various forms, from being an English teacher driving technology use in one school, to leading it across a school trust – I somehow always feel that I need to frame it apologetically, as if it’s a confession of guilt.
This is driven in large part by the caricature of edtech as being all about filling classrooms with the latest shiny gadgets (at substantial cost, of course), but also in part by research on technology use often showing a limited impact on student attainment, despite the relatively high cost of technology-based interventions.
Alongside dubious claims about "digital natives" and how they learn, nebulous concepts such as "21st-century skills" and promises of the transformation of education as we know it (enter the robot teachers), this means working in edtech doesn’t always have the best connotations.
And yet, whilst this kind of rhetoric does tend to grab the headlines, in most schools, for most teachers, that’s not really what edtech is all about. And with education secretary Damian Hinds challenging the edtech sector to develop innovative technology solutions in five key areas, today feels like a good time to reflect on this.
The reality is that for most, edtech is less about AI, robots and VR (although this, too, used sparingly and critically, may have its place), and is more about the mundane – schools using technology to support really effective pedagogical and assessment practices which in themselves have very little to do with technology.
Edtech is about improving efficiency
Or, to put it in terms of Ruben Puentedura’s popular SAMR model of technology use, it’s less about technology "redefining" what is possible in the classroom, and more about it "augmenting" existing, effective classroom practices, improving functionality and efficiency. Seeing transformation as the pinnacle of technology use is, perhaps, looking at things the wrong way round.
Technology can be used to give feedback, through voice-recording, for example; for managing low-stakes "retrieval practice" through online quizzing tools; to enable peer support through collaborative document-sharing; to model and scaffold learning simply with a visualiser; even to promote metacognitive practices through the use of video annotation.
But the most critical piece of the puzzle in ensuring that technology is used well is the teacher. A focus on the latest hardware and software can distract from recognition of the role of the teacher’s expertise and the decisions they make about when to (and when not to) use technology, yet these are what really make the difference.
Used badly, even the most perfectly conceived piece of edtech will have no impact – or, worse, have a negative impact. Conversely, very simple tools can be used to huge effect when they are deployed thoughtfully by a teacher in the pursuit of effective practices. To support teachers in developing this sort of critical use of technology, the Chartered College of Teaching will launch a free MOOC on evidence-informed use of technology in early 2019.
Continuing to build a robust research base is an important step in helping teachers to make informed decisions about technology use, too. As well as school-specific research, interesting work has emerged in the past few years about possible benefits of note-taking by hand, rather than typing, and the impact of reading on-screen versus on-paper on reading speed and comprehension. In addition, long-established work on designing multimedia learning has important implications for classroom practice but is not always on teachers’ radars. To help provide teachers with access to key research in the edtech field and stimulate critical reflection, the Chartered College will publish a special edition of our journal, Impact, in January.
Of course, recognising the centrality of teachers in driving effective technology use is not to say that the involvement of technology companies isn’t an important part of the picture – teachers need access to well-designed, rigorously evaluated tools in the first place, and should also play a key role in defining both the problems that edtech can help to solve and the solutions.
But without also providing teachers with the resources, support and training in how to think critically about how and when to use technology, and the autonomy to make decisions, even the best tools will continue to languish in the (sometimes metaphorical) cupboards.
Finally, it’s worth reflecting that if our perspective on how we use technology shifts, our perspective on how we think about and research it needs to shift accordingly. Seeing "technology" as a discrete category of intervention is problematic if we view technology as something used to support effective practices, not as an effective practice in itself.
And by thinking differently about technology, we can help to move the discussion on from the kind of polarised debate that often characterises edtech currently to something more nuanced.
Cat Scutt is director of education and research at the Chartered College of Teaching