Earlier this week, the Association for Learning Technology published an interview with me about getting technology right in schools. Since I failed miserably to keep to the word count, they had to edit it down considerably. The ALT version of the interview is here, and the original, unabridged version is below.
What was the strategical framework adopted by your institution before giving iPads to staff and students?
In too many schools the strategic vision with regard to technology is epitomised in the sentence “we need to use more ICT” — a notion almost always arrived to in response to a pointedly critical inspection report. Since all schools have an ICT Department, an IT Support Department or at the very least someone at the other end of the phone “in charge” of ICT, it always seems logical to pass on the technology baton to the “experts”.
This appears to me to be the wrong way to go about this, because if you want technology to support the processes involved in teaching and learning – and why else would you use it? – the person making technology decisions for a school needs to be someone who understands the classroom and has a clear grasp of pedagogy. Relegating these decisions exclusively to IT support staff is unwise.
In contrast to this, there is a growing number of schools who are appointing specialist teaching staff to oversee their school’s digital strategy, e-learning, digital learning or whatever other name they’ve come up with when identifying this huge gap in their strategic planning. This seems to me to be the right way to do this and is exactly what my institution did. Since the effective use of technology and great teaching appear to me to be one and the same, it makes sense to put someone in charge who knows a thing or two about teaching and learning, not just technology.
Once you have this base covered, you can begin to think more clearly about what strategies and interventions work best to improve outcomes and, given this knowledge, how technology can be used used to support teaching and learning in your context. Only then is a comprehensive strategic plan covering staff development provision, classroom practice and pastoral issues more likely to be developed and succeed. Arguably a technology strategic framework needs to be underpinned by employing the right people. The specifics about the technology only become important later.
You often appear critical on Twitter of the commercial sector encroaching on schools. What kind of relationship needs to be adopted by developers with schools and what may be needed in return?
I have often joked that any technology which is labeled “educational” is rubbish 9 out of 10 times . This is just a joke and clearly an exaggeration, perhaps even a very unfair one, but the truth is that for every Google Apps for Education, there are numerous examples of dismal educational technology that probably does more harm than good, making good money by taking advantage of teachers unfamiliarity with anything technological and schools’ willingness to throw money at whizzy stuff without the requisite thought and consideration.
I think this is a problem that can be solved in two ways. Firstly, teachers need to understand that saying “I don’t do technology” is no longer acceptable – it’s certainly not something you would want to say at your next job interview! Can you imagine any other professional saying that? Even a marginal improvement in teachers’ understanding of the application of technology in an educational context can result in more informed and better choices, putting many EdTech charlatans out of business in the process.
Secondly, developers need to be working more closely with schools and teachers. This is what the good ones are already doing. The one-size-fits-all approach to educational technology is a thing of the past (when it never worked particularly well, anyway). We now know that the effective use of technology in schools is highly contextualised and good developers understand this and are willing to work with schools and teachers in developing and adapting their products to fit local requirements. If a supplier insists it’s their way or the highway, you should seriously consider dumping them.
Can you explain how you might apply a cost benefit analysis of using technology in your school?
Technology remains financially expensive. If looked at exclusively from this perspective it is very easy to reach the conclusion that technology is simply not worth the trouble and to argue that the large amounts of money spent by schools on unproven EdTech would be much better spent on other things, such as more textbooks. This is commonly referred to as a problem of opportunity cost.
My main objection to this view is that using microeconomic concepts such as opportunity cost in the field of education, although useful sometimes, can only go so far. This is because this concept is often used to justify subjective or normative stances. For example, if you suggest that the money spent on, say, mobile devices ought to have been spent on more textbooks instead, you are making a normative statement, as you are expressing a value judgement and describing what you think ought to have happened.
This approach is flawed because you are not comparing like for like. Mobile devices and textbooks both have a cost, and, that’s right, the financial cost of one is much higher than the other. However, leaving to one side the fact that not even in economics is cost restricted to the financial, the opportunities books offer in contrast to mobile devices are very different. Textbooks offer many advantages: they never run out of battery, for example. On the other hand, they are not very good at accessing the internet or recording science experiments in high definition.
In short, the opportunities lost (extra textbooks) need to be balanced against the opportunities gained. Which is why, when investing on EdTech, it’s so important to invest in staff development commensurately, so that everyone gets an understanding of the new opportunities, and, in doing so, they can then make informed comparisons between what may be lost and what might be gained. Otherwise, we will continue to hear the criticism such as that of opportunity cost uttered in circumstances where people are not really aware of the opportunities or, for that matter, the cost, financial or otherwise.
Are we over-thinking the role of technology in education?
In my view, effective use of technology and effective teaching are indistinguishable . Of course it is possible to teach and learn perfectly adequately without ever coming near a screen of any kind, but the truth is that teachers and pupils blend the use of digital technology (desktop and tablet computers) with more traditional forms of technology (pens and paper) routinely. Look around you in the staffroom and you’re just as likely to see teachers employing digital technologies to plan and deliver lessons — be it researching on the internet, putting together an interactive whiteboard flip-chart or preparing a worksheet — as you are to see them wriggling their pens. Look beyond the staffroom and you will see that students already find technology an appealing and effective addition to their learning toolkit. The use of digital technology is already deeply woven into the fabric of our schools and it’s there to stay, whether you personally approve of it or not.
From this perspective, it makes sense to move beyond the technology-changes-everything vs technology-changes-nothing binary paradigm and debate and look at how best to use available technology to support teaching and learning, not whether we should use technology at all, as it is still often the case. My inkling is that digitally technology will eventually redefine how we teach and learn – arguably it is already doing so – but the most important thing for now is to focus on is the learning. Can technology help? Certainly. Can it hinder? That too. A more pragmatic approach is therefore required, in my opinion.
How can the larger institutions (OFQUAL, OFSTED, the DoE, the exams boards, etc)help schools to innovate with technology?
The way we teach and learn is inextricably wedded to exam board practices . Do we teach and learn the way we do because of the way we assess or do we assess the way we do because of the way we teach and learn? Personally, I feel that we need to reevaluate the way we assess and award qualifications, not necessarily in detriment of established and effective practices, but in addition to them. Exam boards such as AQA are already looking at how assessment can take place effectively beyond the traditional stick-everyone-in-an-exam-hall-with-pen-and-paper method. Once these new methods and opportunities for assessment become accepted and established, it will be much more likely that we will see a a virtuous circle forming where teaching, learning and assessing practices are more aligned to what technology is available. For now, there is no impetus or incentive, so nothing much is happening in this respect.
Should technology only be used where it makes something possible that isn’t without it?
The million dollar question. Should technology be used exclusively to support existing teaching and learning practices? No, I don’t think it should. When looking into how best to use technology, it is indeed important to focus on how it can have a positive impact on existing practices, but it is also important to investigate how technology can act as a catalyst to help teachers and learners conceive ways to go about their business in ways which would have been hitherto unthinkable and which may result in more valuable educational outcomes.
Conceptual models such as SAMR or TPACK can go a long way to paint a picture of how technology can conceivably allow us to entertain tasks and activities that would have been impossible otherwise, although they are sadly often misinterpreted as a ladder or hierarchy in which the use of technology is “best practice”. This is unhelpful, unfortunate and wholly inaccurate because, as anyone knows, it is as perfectly possible to teach and learn fantastically well and effectively without recourse to any digital technology of any kind as it is to use lots of technology and make a right pig’s ear of a lesson. One again, it’s the person in charge of the technology and how it is used that matters, not the technology .
The modern teacher has to be a subject specialist, au fait with learning theory, be adept at behaviour management, needs an understanding of educational psychology, should be on verse with contemporary research – and also needs affinity with technological practice. In what order are these issues significant?
The answer to this question probably depends on whether you think good teachers are born or made. We all know natural born teachers who can enthral a class and inspire their students and instil in them a life long love of their subjects seemingly effortlessly, but most of us don’t fall into this category. I certainly don’t! So reflection, keeping oneself informed and up to date with research findings and a desire to constantly improve one’s practice are, in my view, the key elements for a healthy teaching profession and a successful teaching career. All the things mentioned above seem to me to be therefore significant in almost equal measure.
Could you cite any illuminating examples of tech-influenced practice, in schools, colleges, case studies?
Truly illuminating uses of technology are those where the technology is there but it is invisible. Places where the technology is in place and where everyone uses a mobile device of some kind but where nobody goes on about the technology or said devices are what I foresee every school and college will become. At Surbiton High School, we are practising what we preach and all our students have a tablet which they use a different stages during the day for different purposes: self regulation and organisation; seamless access to teacher-approved content; recording and annotating on a variety of media; researching and experimenting… Just to name a few of the ways in which these devices are used.
But a lesson at our school looks very much like a lesson, not like something out of the Jetsons with flying cars zooming around in the background, receiving knowledge through the antennae in our hats and being waited on by robots in pinnies. Yes, there are tablets, but also textbooks, exercise books, pens and paper… Because, sometimes, the best tool for a task is actually a piece of paper.
Finally, ‘what is the next big thing in technology enhanced learning?
An evidence-informed teacher who understands how and when to leverage all the resources at their disposal – including digital resources – appropriately and effectively, with students as the ultimate beneficiaries of this. As you can see, I’m still sticking with the people, not the technology!
Many thanks to Howard Scott, editor of ATL, for asking me to participate in this interview.