This week Glasgow City Council announced that as part of its Digital Glasgow Strategy programme a deal had been signed to put 50,000-plus iPads into its schools. This deal, which also includes improvements to the connectivity infrastructure of schools, is to cost in excess of £300 million over seven years.
Many will see this confident and optimistic statement of intent as one that says a great deal about what Glasgow wants for its education service and the future of its citizens. The digital vision that they present for this strategy is one that is framed within an ambitious and sincere narrative of the transformative potential of digital with the promise of a commitment to making digital leadership and staff development, coupled with research partnerships, central to this endeavour.
As one whose career has been very much involved in the exploration of the effective use of digital tools in teaching and learning, my experience is such that I look on this development with excited admiration – but also with a degree of measured caution.
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The narrative of the transformative power of digital technology is one that has been with us for years and yet, as Professor Neil Selwyn (2016, see references below) recently wrote, we should be "treating these descriptions of digital revolution, transformation and improvement as evocative and aspirational stories, rather than sober, objective and accurate descriptions of actual ongoing changes in education".
Selwyn's comments are similar to those made by Larry Cuban (2001), who argued that computers in schools were "oversold and underused", and by David Buckingham (2007), who stated that digital technology is sold to us in such a way that it "moves beyond being a mere consumer product and to assume an almost metaphysical dimension; and in the process, it is endowed with a magical ability to stimulate and transform learning and teaching".
The seductive power of the promise of digital transformation is a powerful one, and one that needs careful and critical consideration by us in education. We can’t just allow ourselves to continue to be the convenient and ever reliable edtech cash cow.
Previous educational rollouts of iPads of such magnitude, such as the Los Angeles project, proved to be problematic and unsuccessful due to issues such as security breaches and hardware failures. The lessons learned from such programmes are ones that I am sure our colleagues in Glasgow are aware of and are looking to learn from. No doubt also that they have looked to educational research to inform their overarching strategy and the way in which they intend to promote effective practice with these devices. However, it can be argued that there is limited evidence to show measurable impact on attainment for the return on such an investment.
And yet, the excited optimism that I spoke of earlier is a feeling that I can’t help but have for what Glasgow is doing; there is so much potential here. However, its success – or otherwise – will surely depend on the educational leadership and the shared and embraced lessons learned through the critical exploration of the pedagogy that access to this connected device can bring to the classroom.
Even though I come at this with measured caution, I must say that I have seen some very interesting practice in the use of iPads in classrooms in Scotland. For example, the way in which they have had an impact on the professional practice and workflow of teaching and learning at Tynecastle High School in Edinburgh is something that I was very impressed with. The considered, informed and committed leadership at that school appears to have been central to the successes they have had.
There is also the valuable work related to accessibility and inclusion around the iPad from our colleagues at the CALL Centre at the University of Edinburgh, which is an area of great potential there in improving learning outcomes for learners with ASN (additional support needs).
The Digital Glasgow Strategy is one that is designed to enable its citizens to flourish in our digital world. They have taken a risk with this iPad investment, a risk that has the potential to make the impact and difference on teaching and learning that the city so desires – and yet, it could also become another example of the failed promise of digital transformation.
We will all look on with real interest as this project develops.
Derek Robertson is head of undergraduate studies at the University of Dundee’s School of Education and Social Work, and is an expert in the use of digital tools in teaching and learning
Buckingham, D (2007) Beyond technology: Children's learning in the age of digital culture (Illustrated ed), Polity Press
Cuban, L (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the classroom, Harvard University Press
Selwyn, N (2016) Is Technology Good For Education?, Polity Press