Diagnosing the problem with edtech

3rd November 2017 at 00:00
Tom Starkey was fed up with the misuse of edtech in schools, so journeyed into the medical profession to see if some lessons from the health sector can help teachers better students’ education

I have watched the implementation of education technology in schools and colleges with quiet bemusement, sometimes with befuddlement and sometimes with outright horror.

I’ve been there when conceptualisation has crashed and burned because it’s come face-to-face with children, rather than a romantic notion of what children are. I’ve watched management get suckered into deals for software that is an ill fit for the task in hand and results in more, not less, work for teachers. I’ve had hours wasted learning to utilise a new tech tool, only for it to be abandoned on a whim and replaced with something else that took hours to learn how to utilise and was then, again, abandoned on another whim.

It’s enough to bring a geek down.

As someone who loves technology and the opportunities it offers, it’s massively frustrating when implementation is less than optimal. In the best cases, edtech can aide, streamline, consolidate and empower. It can reduce time and effort on laborious tasks and in doing so give back something that is probably one of the most precious things a teacher has: time to think.

Why then, when technology has the potential to make our teaching and learning lives easier, does it so often fail to navigate the implementation stage successfully to become truly effective?

Here’s what I think is happening: throughout all the talk of “engagement”, “preparing students for the future” and other such non-quantifiables that are so often seen in the promotional material that accompany edtech products, technology in the classroom has yet to be seen – rightly or wrongly – as essential to learning.

The best stuff – and my goodness me, there is some fantastic, innovative and incredibly useful technology out there – helps. It can often transform approaches. But there is always the underlying feeling that learning will still take place whether the tech is there or not.

This lack of the essential makes it easier to be half-hearted in choice and implementation and this, in turn, means I have to navigate five different screens to sign my registers.

Cynicism and cake

So it was with a cynical cloud hovering over me that I attended the University of Leeds Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology Enhanced Learning Showcase. I wanted to see if there were lessons around edtech to be learned from the health sector that we could steal to use in schools.

The university had promised to show me some of the tools they were using in the medical field primarily to train nursing students and other very-soon-to-be medical professionals. And they also promised me cake. They had done their research.

I went in expecting the same type of half-hearted, ill-thought-out attempts at implementing tech that had been my baseline in education up until that point. What I got was very different.

I wandered through a bazaar of impressive tools, such as an eerily realistic patient simulator, where dental students could practice emergency situations in real time, using analytics from actual patients elsewhere in the building; 3D printed models using ultrasound mapping of patient-specific bone structures that could be used as rehearsal for surgery; haptic software providing tactile feedback during virtual procedures; and a wealth of other very cool bits of kit.

Although I was struck by the technology itself, what I found most interesting was the sense of purpose that was exhibited by those who were displaying said technology.

From the conversations I was able to have, it was clear to me that thought had gone into the choice, the implementation and the effect of the technology. The event had a sense of purpose when it came to tech usage.

As one of the exhibitors noted – while I felt the heartbeat of a dummy currently experiencing the virtual equivalent of a scaffold pole through the jaw – “This isn’t an add-on. There’s no other way you can do this apart from with technology. You can’t practise this. This is the closest they’ll get until we have to do it for real.”

I wanted to find out more. The good people of the University of Leeds allowed me to bore their technology enhanced learning (TEL) team with a few of my questions.

I asked Mitch Waterman, pro-dean for Student Education, Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Leeds, why they see technology as essential in his field.

“There’s a difference between what is desirable and what is essential when it comes to technology-enhanced learning,” he said.

“For example: simulation technology is essential so our students can have experience before they go onto doing the real thing, but there are also desirables that accompany that – analytics linked to student progress is one.“

It was interesting to hear edtech described in a hierarchical way where some elements may be more important than others, but where all are used in a complementary fashion. There was very little of the zealotry that I sometimes hear in relation to tech “changing everything” in the classroom. The approach that was being described seemed far more mannered.

“There always has to be a practical application for what we’re introducing,” added Professor Trudie Roberts, director of Leeds Institute of Medical Education, “and we try to consider that as early in the process as possible.

“For instance, we’ve been using 360° camera technology to create virtual tours of the different hospitals. This is important, as many of our students will be placed in a number of various sites. The virtual tour means that they can familiarise themselves with the building ahead of time, taking away some of the stresses that may be minor in the great scheme of things, but that can really help smooth transitions.”

“In fact, our partnership hospitals have started to use the tours with patients, as a way to orientate them when perhaps they may be feeling nervous or vulnerable or confused even with simple questions, such as, ‘Where do I park?’”

This was one of the many examples that the team gave me that had explicit links back to wellbeing. The use of mobile technology, sharing of information on social media, bespoke apps to help young people respond to an asthma attack, lecture recording and all the other innovations that were are going on at Leeds always came back, in some way, to the betterment of patient health.

Question time

Hand in hand with this were evaluation systems that were used to gauge the impact of any initiative, as highlighted by Dr James Pickering, associate professor in anatomy and blended learning champion.

“Evaluation all too often relies on ‘Do the staff like it?’ or ‘Do the students like it?’,” he explained. “We try to get away from that and gauge impact on quality. Admittedly, we hold TEL up to perhaps a higher bar than other more established practices, but this is because these other practices, over time, have been proven to certain extent.

“We take impact seriously and our faculty has taken it upon itself to make sure we have ways and means of doing that.”

This, along with everything else that I learned at Leeds, highlighted the fact that throughout the conversation there was always an underlying thread that went towards answering one question: “How does the technology that is being used help improve the health of its users and recipients?”

Fundamentally, the tech that was being demonstrated and described is employed to improve the public’s health and save lives. This got me thinking about tech in schools.

Although not life and death, perhaps if we took a greater focus on the notion of bettering the education of a student as the baseline during choice and implementation of technology in our schools and colleges, this would improve upon some of the downright shoddy attempts that I’ve witnessed during my career.

The staff at the University of Leeds did a number of things for me that day – as well as provide me with some of the most excellent cake I’d had in a long time.

They offered a model of what effective edtech choice and implementation looks like in an incredibly important sector. And they also showed me that many schools have quite a way to go to catch up.

Here’s to hoping that my own incredibly important sector can take note.

Tom Starkey teaches English at a college in the North of England. He tweets @tstarkey1212

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