Blurred vision

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Can schools tap the full potential of digital technology?

At times, the brave new digital world seems so simple. Alluring adverts proclaim mobile gadgets that make life easy, where there is an app for everything and vast libraries of information can be unleashed at the swipe of a screen.

But the truth is more complicated in Scottish schools. New technology is inexorably finding a way in, but progress is far from smooth. Learning Through Technology 2013, a two- day conference in Glasgow that brought together many key figures in Scottish education earlier this month, reflected this dichotomy, lurching between evangelising about digital technology and frustration at what was in its way.

The tone was set by David Cameron, a former education director who seems liberated by his departure from local authority employment: there are few more scathing about councils and schools that approach new technology with caution.

"One of the main reasons we are not making progress with technology at the rate we would wish to, and with Curriculum for Excellence, is that there is a teaching culture in many of our classrooms which is inimical to it," the educational consultant said.

But Mr Cameron does not divide educators into two neat camps of enthusiasts and Luddites: "My big worry is people who are infatuated with technology but don't know how to use it."

For example, many carry iPads because they look "sexy and seductive". In practice, they become no more than "laptops in handbags", their educational potential dormant; people use this technology merely to do what they have always done, if a little more efficiently.

The point, Mr Cameron said, is that digital technology is handmaiden to a fundamentally different approach to education, in which students drive their own learning and teachers take a step to the side. But, at the moment, he believes the technology given to school students is too often "just keeping them entertained".

There are other problems too. Some headteachers are more exercised about how to get technology into schools in the first place than what to do with it. There are serious questions for comprehensive education unless every student has a device of the same quality, believes Alan Williamson, headteacher at Hawick High in the Borders, which has a substantial number of students from poorer backgrounds.

Mr Williamson quizzed learning minister Alasdair Allan over the apparent shelving of a report on devolved schools management, by the same David Cameron who took the podium a day before the minister - although Dr Allan would not be drawn into discussing its more radical ideas.

A recently announced national procurement process will make mobile devices more easily available to Scottish schools, but Mr Williamson said pound;240 quoted for a tablet was still expensive. If he had control of the entire pound;4,500 spent overall on each student, however, the price became less problematic.

"The problem is that secondary schools don't have control of that whole budget like an academy would in England," he said.

Filtering and online safety is a big issue, the cause of heated discussion at any ICT in education event held in Scotland. Last year, TESS surveyed all 32 local authorities (31 August) and found wildly different stances around the country: while some teachers could tap into YouTube and Twitter, others struggled to open online posts by their own quality improvement officers.

"Filtering is a mockery - I would let people access whatever sites they want," said Jaye Richards-Hill, a teacher and member of the national ICT Excellence Group that published its report earlier this year. It was a sentiment widely shared at Learning Through Technology, although a show of hands clarified that almost all expected extreme sites to be blocked.

There is frustration among many local authority staff, a feeling that they are portrayed as Luddites when in fact many share an enthusiasm for new technology and are looking at innovative ways forward, albeit that their positions of responsibility demand a degree of caution.

"I would vehemently disagree that corporate ICT is inhibiting education in South Lanarkshire," said Andrea Reid, a quality improvement officer. "If a secondary teacher could give a good reason for unlocking YouTube, that would be unblocked."

Ian Sellwood, a PE teacher at East Lothian's Preston Lodge High, spoke for many teachers in a blog for learning community Pedagoo, in which he explored topics raised at Learning Through Technology.

"My frustration is with the speed at which new tech and apps arrive, but the polar opposite with which our working environment is being made futureproof, and allowing and trusting us as professionals to utilise all these exciting advancements safely," he wrote.

Jeremy Scott, the computing teacher who was seconded to lead a national project to advance his subject through Curriculum for Excellence, is concerned about "restrictive in-school ICT policies". He said: "They are becoming an increasing problem that needs to be addressed, and is being addressed in some places."

He also highlighted the disparity between shrinking numbers of computing teachers and a Scottish IT industry worth pound;3.4 billion that is growing fast and "grappling with a skills shortage". Some 45,000 recruits would be needed over the next five years, at a conservative estimate, with the industry "crying out for women" in particular - they account for only 20 per cent of IT professionals.

"You would expect computing departments to be bursting at the seams," said Mr Scott, who is principal computing teacher at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh.

In fact, there has been a decline in the number of computing teachers and university students over several years - 10 per cent of Scottish secondaries have no computing teacher - and now there is a catch-22: as computing graduates become more sought after, it is harder to provide the expertise in schools that will allow young people to break into the industry.

"There is an issue of attracting computing science graduates into the profession, because the remuneration elsewhere is much higher," Mr Scott said. The failure to understand the difference between ICT and computing - in schools and wider society - was hampering the subject.

But Mr Scott sees causes for optimism, with Curriculum for Excellence "a real shot in the arm for the subject". That view was shared by Greg Michaelson, professor of computing at Heriot-Watt University: "In Scotland's universities, we are very positive about Curriculum for Excellence," he said.

There are signs, too, of more students taking computing. Mr Scott stressed that there were 4,000 candidates for Higher computing, while England, with 10 times the population, can muster only 4,000 students for A-level computer science.

He believes the Scottish government is taking computing seriously, not least in appointing Muffy Calder, a professor of computing as chief scientific adviser. Meanwhile, the new national computing materials which he worked on, by allowing young students to create their own apps, have brought "a real wow factor" to a subject that has, in the past, stagnated in dreary computing labs.

Yet for all the positives, Mr Scott remains concerned by apparent complacency around the role of computing. No one disputed the importance of science, maths and engineering during the industrial revolution, he said; now, another industrial revolution is taking place but computing does not have the status it deserves, he added. Meanwhile, countries as far apart as Estonia and Egypt are making great strides, and China is threatening to "leave us behind".

"There's maybe a mismatch between what we teach (young people) at school and what we teach them at university, and the jobs they go on to," said Bill Buchanan, a professor of computing at Edinburgh Napier University.

He had seen groups of young children enthralled by the chance to solve code puzzles, a fundamental skill in his subject: "Kids were cracking these within minutes, and none of my students can do that. It's almost as if they have an inherent intellect and we knock it out of them."

Professor Buchanan fears that schools do not realise the opportunities afforded by computing - the market for graduates is "red hot - and that special computing events for children in London do not seem to take place in Scotland. The schools that want to build links with departments like his tend to come from the independent sector, he added.

Some of the most go-ahead teachers in this area now fill key roles within the educational establishment, and are building bridges between schools and the powers-that-be.

Mrs Richards-Hill has since 2006 worked on Glow, the online community for Scottish schools, and for a time was the most vociferous critic of its shortcomings. Now a member of the Scottish government's ICT in Education Reference Group, her Learning Through Technology presentation was upbeat: she is "cautiously optimistic" that Glow can reinvent itself like another much-scorned brand, Skoda; the procurement process for mobile devices is "a good start"; Swan - the Scottish Wide Area Network, which aims to reduce costs for public sector organisations - is another encouraging development; and the government has accepted in full the reference group's recommendation of a nationally agreed policy on internet filtering.

But even the receptive delegates at Learning Through Technology, who can hardly be classed as stubborn traditionalists, wanted the optimism counterbalanced by some tricky questions. Professor Michaelson queried the practicalities of students being allowed to use their own devices: who would manage wireless connections, update software and transfer information from an old device to a new one?

Apps and tablet computers can be constraining, according to the University of Edinburgh's Andrew Manches, an expert in early learning and new forms of technology. Children may be engrossed, but finding ways that encourage individuals to collaborate may prove difficult.

"There are many stories about tablets being picked up and just not being used," he said. Interactive whiteboards offered a salutary tale: at first, they were often brought in with little thought to their educational purpose.

"They sat on a wall and were a waste of money," Dr Manches said. "We need to ask, `What is the value of these learning materials?'"

Others queried how Glow could keep pace with the rapid but unpredictable changes to the digital world bound to emerge in the coming years, or how large public sector organisations could to match the agility of a company such as Facebook. Dorothy Coe, a primary teacher from the Borders, pointed to the "collaborative aspect" of Facebook. "I don't see that, in Glow, happening in a useful way yet," she said.

Mrs Richards-Hill said of Glow: "It will get better - stay with us." Advances in digital technology are being made at a dizzying pace; it is difficult to keep up and plan for the future. A leap of faith is required, in Glow as in digital learning as a whole.

But an overwhelming conviction bonded all at Learning Through Technology - that there is no turning back. Dire warnings were issued to those reluctant to adapt. Tellingly, by far the most retweeted comment read: "Technology won't replace teachers. Teachers who use technology will probably replace teachers who don't."

`They taught themselves - that was a surprise'

Bellshill Academy headteacher Anne Munro has a headache coming up, due to kick in towards the end of June. The S2 students at her school carry an iPad with them every day, paid for from council coffers, and have done since January last year.

It was part of a trial with about 150 new iPads, initially planned for six months, then extended. Now it has been confirmed that the tablets, whose long-term home was initially unknown, are staying in the school. But there are not enough to go round all 600 students, and no new funding in the pipeline once this school year ends. So what to do: let the S2s keep them as they head into third year, or share them around and let others benefit?

She laid out her dilemma just before a small group of S2s spoke at the Learning Through Technology 2013 conference in Glasgow, extolling the virtues of the glimmering little rectangles sitting on the desk in front of them. Asked afterwards about the prospect of life without them, eyebrows were raised and lips bitten - they did not want to contemplate that catastrophic scenario.

The students had eloquently explained how they relished homework now, how GarageBand made music lessons much more fun, how they saved paper and never lost their notes any more, how they could arrange a string of links to let teachers see the credibility of their research references at a glance.

They were fired up, teeming with excitement about what they had been learning. Not, perhaps, a huge surprise, but what of the pre-digital generation - the teachers?

The trial, deemed a success in a University of Hull evaluation that also examined similar projects at seven other Scottish schools, was a hit with the 34 teachers given iPads. Nearly four-fifths of teachers across all eight schools thought teaching was easier as a result. One Bellshill Academy physics teacher now uses nothing but iPads, leading to a department underspend.

"We knew students would go for it - we were slightly more nervous about how staff would respond," said Willie Davidson, head of The Learning Centre, North Lanarkshire's in-house multimedia service, which is based at Bellshill Academy. "The real revelation in this project has been the staff. Most members of staff didn't come back for training because they didn't need it. They taught themselves - that was somewhat of a surprise."

Mr Davidson stressed that an "acceptable-use agreement" was critical when introducing tablets into the classroom. Students agree to several conditions, which include: switching on the "Find my iPad" function; only recording sound and pictures in class with permission; not tethering a phone to their tablet; not adding credit card details; not changing passwords without informing the teacher.

Fears about the durability of the iPads have been allayed, he believes, and only one has been stolen. Software problems, meanwhile, tend to take seconds to fix.

Tweets from Learning Through Technology 2013 - #ltt2013


- "The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new" - Socrates.


- Never liked computer-assisted learning. Was always linear and repetitive. Prefer social media interactions for deep learning.


- Huge potential for the use of technology in schools. The challenge is making time-pressured teachers confident in using it.


- We are becoming a society shaped by what we share more than what we own - this is really exciting.


- Amazing to see engagement of (Dumfries and Galloway) pupils live: benefits of video conference to rural education.


- "Pupils should be key contributors to a school ICT policy." Interesting thought.


- As the only Head of Corp IT here, it is about building relationships and discussing the issues. Let's stop the "them and us"!


- Alasdair Allan - deepening parental engagement. Do tablets engage parents as well as pupils? Discuss!!


- Strong message from Greg Michaelson - "Invest in sustainable skills not legacy technology". Over-emphasis on devices at this event?


- Additional cost of technology is rarely considered by schools. How true.


- Advantages of using iPad from one S2 pupil from Bellshill Academy: "My dad only knows so much."


- Watching the snowflakes flutter down, and knowing I can't attend #LTT2013 in person, wonder how long before livestreaming becomes 2nd nature.


- Shocking that 10% Scottish schools don't have a computing teacher.

Photo credit: AlamyGetty

Original headline: Digital technology is key, but there is a wall to climb

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today