`No miracle cure': experts query the value of tablets

29th August 2014 at 01:00
`Fight through flim-flam' to find benefit of costly tech, they say

Educational technology costing hundreds of millions of pounds a year will not provide a "miracle cure" to underachievement and could be abandoned by teachers, according to a leading researcher.

Innovations such as massive open online courses (Moocs) and tablet computers had their benefits, but they did not provide an instant fix for teachers, said Wayne Holmes, a researcher at the University of London's Institute of Education.

It was a "hollow ambition" to want every child in a school to have a tablet, unless there was a clear strategy for what teachers wanted to achieve with them, Dr Holmes told TES ahead of his appearance at the ResearchED conference in London next weekend.

His comments also precede a major report on how to improve the use of educational technology, which is to be published this autumn by the UK government's Education Technology Action Group (Etag).

The document, which will be presented to ministers, will outline a range of short- and long-term initiatives to remove the barriers faced by schools and colleges trying to make the most of technology.

Dr Holmes, who has researched the use of computer games for learning and is director of education for the free game-based learning platform Zondle, said: "What happens is that [new technology] is always presented as: `This is it, we've found the solution.' Whether it's iPads in the classroom, whether it's Moocs, whether it's games. All of them are being presented as brilliant, wonderful fixes for all of the problems in the world of education.

"It means that when teachers get an opportunity to use this tech, they are disappointed. It doesn't do what it says on the tin and they tend to abandon it quite quickly."

He added: "The reality is that all of those technologies have something in them and it's a complex process of fighting through all the flim-flam to get to what they can actually bring to the party."

Dr Holmes said that one of the biggest problems was policymakers, academy chains and school leaders getting excited about innovations but failing to adequately consider how they could be integrated into classrooms. The system worked better when technology was developed in close consultation with teachers, he added, helping to solve problems they encountered rather than looking for a miracle cure.

The British Educational Suppliers Association estimates that spending on computer hardware in UK schools will rise to almost pound;600 million this year. Writing on the TES website earlier this month, leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield was highly critical of the money spent on educational technology and argued that the funds should instead go towards higher salaries for teachers.

But Bob Harrison, a member of Etag who is also due to speak at the ResearchED conference, said it was vital for schools to embrace technology despite a lack of research showing a direct causal link between its use and improved learning outcomes.

The former headteacher and current educational adviser to tech firm Toshiba claimed that schools had a duty to prepare children for the world they lived in. He compared the provision of technology to supplying students with indoor toilets or running water.

"What's the opportunity cost for UK plc and for children if we don't prepare them for the digital age?" Mr Harrison said.

Policymakers and managers were still only providing funding for technology if they believed it improved results, he added, but this was "the wrong question".

"Did we ask that question when we put inside toilets in schools? Did we ask that question when we put electricity and running water or double glazing in schools? Technology is a part of the infrastructure of learning and preparation for a digital world."


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