If tech is the answer, what's the question?

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Schools can hurl money at the latest gadgets, but there is a huge difference between buying them and using them effectively

More than a quarter of a million tablets and mobile devices have been bought by schools around the world so far this year. As reported by TES last month, spending on technology by schools is projected to rise to pound;596 million in 2014-15, up by 8.4 per cent on the previous year.

Technology is also a popular choice for pupil premium spending in the UK. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that among the poorest tenth of households, 43 per cent of students do not have internet access. Many schools understandably believe that bridging this digital divide might be a way to narrow the attainment gap.

Within this overall trend, actual take-up varies greatly by school and classroom. Some teachers are enthusiastic adopters, seeing the possibilities that technology offers to strengthen relationships with parents - by using text messages and sharing videos of lessons, for example.

Others - very much at the cutting edge - are experimenting with "flipped classrooms", where students take lessons on their own at home in the first instance, leaving more time in class for discussion and feedback.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ostriches, heads in the sand, waiting for the technology storm to pass. Determined teachers deal with interactive whiteboards by taping up sheets of white paper and continuing as if nothing had happened. Visualisers make excellent, if pricey, paperweights.

The figures on spending suggest that this kind of response will become increasingly difficult to sustain, but examples such as these highlight an important point: buying technology and using it effectively are two very different things. Unless we learn from the mistakes of the past, the current surge in spending could be just another expensive fad. So what are the most common pitfalls to avoid if your school is considering investing in technology?

Let's start by asking this: if tablet computers are the answer, what is the question? The easiest mistake to make happens even before the gadgets are taken out of the box. In our hurry to jump on the bandwagon, we can forget to consider why we wanted to be on board in the first place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, unless you have a clear idea of the difference you want technology to make, it probably won't make any difference at all.

It is, therefore, important to be sure of what the new technology will help you to achieve before you write a giant cheque for it. Think carefully about how it will enable students to learn. Will technology make learning more efficient, effective or secure?

It is also important to identify what students and teachers will stop doing when they start using the new learning aids. Technology is not going to be introduced into a vacuum, so make sure it does not replace something that is already working well.

We must also remember that if the research into the use of technology in schools tells us one thing, it is that there is no substitute for good pedagogy. Technology can undoubtedly motivate young people, but whether this engagement translates into increased learning depends on the degree to which it is underpinned by sound pedagogical principles.

Nothing new under the sun

The idea that today's children - the "net generation" - learn differently from older people is a popular one but it is unsupported by evidence. Our capacity to learn appears to be much as it was before digital technologies were prevalent, meaning that the extensive, and growing, evidence base on what good learning looks like can be used to help us get the most out of new technology.

Ask yourself whether technology will support the provision of quicker feedback between student and teacher, or whether it will promote the development of meta-cognitive skills that enable students to plan and monitor their own learning. Simply allowing students access to the internet without guidance is like sending a class into the British Library and expecting them to find and use resources to support their learning. Neither is likely to be successful.

A final pitfall is that although technology has consistently been shown to improve learning, most things improve learning to some degree when they are introduced. As a result, the bar should not be whether iPads "work", but whether they make a bigger difference than other approaches that could be introduced for the same cost in terms of money, effort and time. The burden of evaluation must be shared by developers, providers, universities and schools.

A variation on this idea is that, because technology is expensive, it will definitely work. Although it is natural to want to reap rewards from any big investment, it is unwise not to evaluate its impact. You must try to establish whether your new initiative improved learning in the way you had hoped. As a start, you could compare the progress of students who used the new technology with previous cohorts who didn't.

By putting some effort into evaluation, you will be able to justify the money you spend and, more importantly, have a better chance of convincing the ostriches that the changes are worth the fuss. You will also avoid wasting time and effort on approaches that do not work.

The possibilities that technology offers to improve learning are tremendously exciting. The question has shifted from whether it should have a place in the classroom at all to understanding how it can be integrated into lessons to achieve specific learning goals.

An intelligent approach to investigating these questions - with all the planning, pedagogy and evaluation that entails - will give us the best chance of capturing the educational benefits of new technology. And will help us to avoid making some expensive mistakes.

Dr Kevan Collins is chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation. Steve Higgins is professor of education at Durham University. The Education Endowment Foundation recently awarded grants worth pound;3.5 million to schools to test new ways of using technology in boosting student attainment.

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