How to buy the right tech for your school

19th January 2018 at 00:00

When I was about the age of the primary children I now teach, one of my favourite TV programmes was Inspector Gadget. You see, I was slightly obsessed with his niece, Penny. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I was obsessed with her but more that I wanted to be her. And the reason I wanted to be her? Well, I wanted her tech.

Back then, I had no idea that the cool watch she wore and the book with a computer hidden inside was even called “tech”. And I had even less of an idea that almost 30 years later (gulp), I would have my own version of Penny’s tech in the form of my Apple Watch and iPad.

On reflection, it turns out that my penchant for all things gadgety and shiny started at quite a young age.

My personal take on tech, however, is pretty different from my approach to investing in new tech at school, which is probably for the best as, when it comes to the latest Apple release, I often want it “just because”. When it comes to purchasing tech in school, I’m much better at applying a healthy dose of cynicism and being far more circumspect about possible purchases.

The facts are that school budgets are decreasing and it is really easy to get carried away with the excitement of acquiring tech – and the two aren’t really compatible. So how can we ensure we make sensible, considered decisions?

First, it is useful to know what our brains are doing when it comes to tech. There are theories to suggest that the way the brain is wired contributes to our cravings for the latest technology products that the big companies have to offer.

Sundeep Teki, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, has linked the fact that our brains are genetically wired to seek basic needs such as security and social status, with our desire for tech, which can help us to satisfy these needs.

What’s more, a neuroimaging study showed that Apple products activate the same parts of the brain in their fans as religious images do in a person of faith.

Now, while you could describe the way I follow the release of new products as somewhat religious, this surprised even me. Well-thought-out marketing of technology, combined with our neurological make-up, could help to explain why buying new technology can be dangerous for our purse strings, so we need to be aware of this when considering what to purchase next.

Mathematical model

Apart from genetic wiring, there’s also a mathematical model that was developed by professors from Seoul and Stanford universities that claims to determine the other factors that influence which tech we are likely to actually invest in.

It boils down to this: the benefits of the new product versus the factors that generally stop a customer from upgrading. It’s no surprise, then, that if the former outweighs the latter, they’re more likely to buy.

Essentially, if a product is significantly better than what we’ve already got and, crucially, the process of upgrading isn’t a metaphorical obstacle course that’s also going to be costly, then we’ll probably go for it. The developers applied this probabilistic model to releases of tech retrospectively and discovered that they could predict who upgraded within the first month of release with 76 per cent accuracy. Maybe there is something in it.

So, science and maths could well explain a lot about the nature of our buying habits, but where does that leave us in school? How can we swerve our biology and clever advertising to make informed decisions about tech and not get swept up in the shininess of it all? Is it possible to balance enthusiasm with necessity?

One thing we can certainly do is consider what we want devices for in terms of learning and how they can be used to have a specific impact.

For example, I have had discussions with teachers in the past who have seen other schools with sets of iPads or 1:1 iPad roll-outs, and they feel hard done by because their school doesn’t have this. Yet they couldn’t explain in a meaningful way how they might use these devices to enhance the learning in their own classrooms.

You also have to take the context in which you would plan to use specific devices into consideration. Not every device is made for every situation, so having a strategy of their planned use is critical. While I’m willing to concede that this would be developed further in practice, you have to have some idea what you would do beforehand. Simply wanting them because it feels like all other schools have them is not a good enough reason to invest thousands.

Once a strategy is in place, consider trialling the technology first. Let’s say you want to invest in some tablets because you think they could have a positive impact on the progress of SEND children; invest in some for one or two classes and see how it goes.

Select teachers you know will engage with the trial enthusiastically, and will willingly share the journey and outcomes with others. If you can get the impact you’re after in these one or two classes, it might be worth looking at investing in the same set-up throughout the school.

And if you don’t get the impact you want, then you haven’t wasted as much money as you might have done otherwise. It’s also worth considering that if you don’t get what you want from a trial with your most enthusiastic and tech-engaged teachers, then what would a roll-out with all teachers, many of whom will be less engaged, bring?

Be wary of comparisons

On the topic of trials, be wary of comparing the results or outcomes of classes with technology to those without in a blanket fashion. Control groups can get pretty messy. I’ve been part of a similar trial in the past and the truth is that there are so many other factors at play that it’s hard to put anything down to solely having or not having tech in a particular classroom. The teacher is the main driver in any classroom, whatever other resources are available.

Taking a good look at how well the tech that is already in place is being used is also a wise move. But don’t be ridiculous about it: if you have a bunch of creaky computers that take an age to fire up and run as if powered by a hamster on a wheel, then don’t be surprised or indignant when you find out that barely anyone is attempting to use them, let alone use them effectively. Be realistic and fair about your expectations.

And while it may not be as sexy as a cart full of new iPads, the really sensible thing to do when buying tech is spend as much time focusing on your infrastructure as you do on the new devices you have a hankering for.

When we decided to install Apple TVs in our classrooms, that turned out to be a pretty cheap investment compared with the wi-fi upgrade we needed in order to ensure they would work properly. Having Apple TVs in every classroom is akin to streaming videos across the school at once and our old network would have ground to a halt pretty quickly. It’s fair to say that no one got excited about the wi-fi upgrade but, without it, the much more exciting Apple TVs would have been useless.

Don’t write off technology

Finally, don’t push things too far the other way and write off tech completely.

While it may be the case that publications such as the 2015 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report highlight the fact that computers don’t necessarily boost results, again, other factors can come into play here.

Ultimately, the reality may not be quite as simple as such blanket statements.

As the educationalist Bob Harrison has pointed out many times, there’s no evidence of a causal link between any piece of technology and improved learning outcomes, but there is plenty of evidence of a correlation between schools and teachers who use technology effectively and improved learning outcomes.

Also, bear in mind that you don’t have to invest in tech solely to see an improvement in maths or English performance as a direct result. Delivering the computing curriculum and teaching children how to be safe and successful digital citizens is a huge responsibility – and a challenge that all schools have to rise to. Doing that without decent tech is, well, pretty much impossible.

Apart from anything else, judging what might be a useful tech investment is as much about knowing where your school is at and what your children need.

Schools these days are judged in no small part on how accurately and effectively they can evaluate themselves, and this kind of care should be taken when it comes to developing a tech strategy, too.

Be enthusiastic about the possibilities that new technology investments could offer to your children but wise enough to commit mindfully.

Claire Lotriet is assistant head at Henwick Primary School in London

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