Drifting into the future without a map

29th May 2015 at 01:00
Advances in ICT were supposed to transform schools from rigid institutions to interactive wonderlands. But, as Henry Hepburn discovers, the sector is still trying to find the way to this utopia

Spray and pray. It sounds like something you'd do in a downmarket tanning salon. Instead, this may be the most memorable summary of what can go wrong when technology is brought into the classroom.

The idea is that teachers, beguiled by the notion that technology can power their pupils' learning to new heights, invest in an expensive hoard of shiny gizmos - only to realise that no one is sure what to do with them. So they haphazardly "spray" these devices at their pupils and "pray" they will somehow make a difference.

There is no shortage of evidence - some compelling, some more sketchy - that tablet computers can have a profound impact on some children's educational prospects. Delegates at a major education conference in Glasgow earlier this month heard one such example. Speaking at Holyrood Connect's Learning Through Technology 2015, the University of Edinburgh academic Paul Nisbet told the story of a six-year-old girl, born many weeks premature and with severe learning difficulties, who had gone from hitting her teacher 30 times a day to never doing so after a tablet transformed her ability to express herself.

The conference learned, too, that an app to help children with sensory difficulties could reduce costs from pound;4,000 to pound;400 when compared with older specialist technology.

Food for thought

The danger, however, is that technology is seen as a superfood for the mind that simply needs to be ingested to work its magic. When tablets arrive in classrooms without a well-formed idea of how they will be used, they can end up gathering dust or being brought out as treats like the teddies and colouring books children take in for Golden Time.

A digital learning consultant once told TESS about visiting a P1 class where technology simply provided an inferior facsimile of things children had always done - exemplified by the children he saw playing "tea parties" on iPads. Instead of sliding virtual crockery around, he despaired, why weren't these five-year-olds using the real stuff?

At the Holyrood Connect conference, similar concerns were expressed. Nisbet, who has led several innovative schemes using technology to help children with communication difficulties, said that universities should train student teachers more effectively in ICT when they entered the profession.

Teachers, too, told us that the absence of skills was a greater problem than the absence of up-to-date technology. A move in 2013 by the Scottish government to give ICT services provider XMA the go-ahead to offer a wide range of devices to schools, colleges and universities at affordable prices was largely seen as a success. But teachers added that the existence of different policies across the 32 local authorities meant that approaches to educational technology were haphazard, and that more national guidance was needed.

"Bring your own device" (BYOD), for example, provided a conundrum. One teacher at the conference recalled a university lecture eight years ago where an academic evangelised about a near future in which young people would bring their own smartphones into school and rigid old classrooms would be transformed into hubs of individualised experiences.

That utopia, the teacher observed ruefully, remained a long way off. The blame tends to fall on risk-averse ICT staff in local authorities, although some delegates conceded that they, too, preferred a safety-first approach, with concerns about sexting and the like tempering their enthusiasm for BYOD.

But banning personal smartphones is not an option, according to Steve Wheeler, associate professor of ICT at Plymouth University. "It's inevitable that you are going to see children bringing these into the classroom, whether you let them or not," he told delegates.

School-led technology initiatives have their own problems, of course. Teachers told the conference of difficulties with connectivity and heavy restrictions placed on internet use in school - although the signs are that these have eased in recent years.

But Stewart Brown, a primary school teacher and development officer in Scottish Borders Council, was full of praise about what could happen when the shackles were taken off. Using the examples of P1s conversing with astronaut Chris Hadfield on Twitter and P4s revelling in the chance to use social media such Instagram and Snapchat, he said that to teach internet safety but deny pupils opportunities like these was like teaching road safety without ever allowing children to cross the street.

Here we glow

No education technology event in Scotland would be complete without agonising over the future of Glow. What began life many years ago as the Scottish Schools Digital Network - thought to be the first such tailored service for a nation's schools anywhere in the world - has since been through several crises. After the latest revamp, however, it has attracted plenty of praise from technologically minded teachers, including some of its former critics.

But Brown said the service was still hampered by the "Glow groan" - the response of many teachers whenever it was mentioned. Nisbet, meanwhile, acknowledged that doubts existed about its value for money, with a Freedom of Information request having revealed that Glow cost pound;52 million between 2005 and 2011. Some delegates, too, complained of basic problems such as not being able to carry a login from one authority to another when changing jobs.

There was heated debate about whether it was worth persevering with the project. Jaye Richards-Hill, managing director of Tablet Academy Africa and a former teacher in Scotland, dismissed Glow as a "toxic brand".

But that view frustrated technology teacher Andrew Hay of Balwearie High School in Kirkcaldy, who said there was a "big misconception" about Glow. In response to complaints by some delegates that it typified Scottish education's "secret garden" approach to the internet - a gated online community that contradicted the web's spirit of openness - Hay said that Glow was merely a platform leading to all manner of well-known and commercial resources, not a stand-alone service.

Some schools are undoubtedly getting a lot of out of Glow but not everyone is so enamoured. One delegate likened others' satisfaction with the service to a party in Campbeltown being viewed from just across the water in Girvan: it looked exciting but was frustratingly out of reach and the four-hour road trip to get there just wouldn't be worth it.

Glow was thought up in a time before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter; these days, they're the elder statesmen of the online world. Technology is changing at breakneck pace and teachers don't have a map to guide them in how to use it. The advice of experts at the conference was for teachers simply to embrace the opportunities offered by this educational Wild West.

As Nisbet put it: "We don't really know what we're doing - we're working it out as we go along." And a tweet by ICT educators in Stirling and Clackmannanshire pointed the way ahead for teachers who could not match their pupils' digital savvy: "You lead the learning, let them lead the technology."

What Twitter said about Learning Through Technology 2015 (#LTT15)

I make two passing references to #Glow in my presentation but in questions it's all they want to hear. Let's move on.


@JayeRHill Ah, but move on to what? Fragmentation is not necessarily a good thing. #Glow potential not realised yet. It still could be.


The matter at hand: is Glow rubbish? Answer seems to be: "No, but keeping the name `Glow' is proving a millstone."


@TESScotland "Glow" brand makes it very difficult to engage teachers. Tools good but leveraging them needs good connectivity.


Glow is access to lots of tools, not just what's in front of you, it's a digital library ticket.


Quite. If you haven't tried it, don't knock it.


'Mon the #glowscot.


Technology is really just a tool - the experience you create with it is everything.


I have to say, I'm not convinced we have universal access to technology just yet; social inequality still a barrier to access.


"Twitter is one of the most powerful CPD opportunities I have ever had - I learn something new every day from it." @timbuckteeth


Some of the team at #LTT15 today finding out about film-making, 3D-printing, Glow and Bring Your Own Device [BYOD] - lots of ideas so far.


Great BYOD idea: one phone plays a karaoke video of a song, the other records pupils singing with new lyrics tied to learning.


3D-printing gives kids a chance to express their creativity in new ways.


3D-printing Create workshop.Blind mum "sees" print of unborn baby. Fabulous technology example! bit.ly1FaTEDo


I like the notion of "transliteracy" - the ability to represent yourself equally powerfully in any medium you choose.


Your pupils will know more about technology than you. This is good. Embrace this. You lead the learning, let them lead the technology.


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