Equipping the classroom for modern needs

Knowing how and where to invest in education technology can be a complicated task, especially when faced with a squeezed school budget. Mark Chambers, CEO of Naace, discusses how to make the best of your school’s education technology.

The modern classroom is becoming ever more technology-focused, whether it’s for the purposes of teaching in new and innovative ways, or allowing students to make the most of the wealth of information available through online and digital content. That being said, knowing how and where to invest in education technology can be a very complicated issue, especially when faced with an increasingly squeezed school budget.

In this article, Mark Chambers, CEO of Naace, discusses the findings of this year’s Leadership Briefing Paper – published in association with the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) and C3 Education – and provides advice on how to make the best of your school’s education technology, as well as how to effectively prepare for the future.

When we talk about education technology, it can sometimes be easy to forget just how broad a category that is. The term encompasses everything from hardware to software, teaching aids to learning platforms or assessment tools, even classroom administration; the list is wide‑ranging and often presents just as many questions and concerns as it does potential solutions. For example: do we have enough money in the budget to account for this? Is there an adequate infrastructure in place to handle the influx of new technologies? And possibly most importantly: how will this actually benefit our students? With these questions in mind, let’s look at the 2016 Education technology landscape, and the predictions for 2017 and beyond.

The statistics
Across the board, schools are downgrading their Ed Tech budgets. 19 per cent of primary schools, and 12 per cent of secondary schools have claimed that they are looking to significantly reduce their technology spending from what was predicted in 2014. Furthermore, 46 per cent of all schools feel unable to maintain their current spending on education technology in the future.

This being said, more schools are investing in digital assessment systems, most likely because of the curriculum changes that saw the beginning of ‘assessment without levels’. There have also been a number of computer suite replacements taking place in order to deliver the new National Curriculum for Computing. Demand for tablet computers is increasing, with roughly 66 per cent of schools feeling under‑resourced in hand held-classroom devices.

Essentially, teaching and learning is becoming more and more digital. In secondary schools, it is predicted that by 2017, 70 per cent of student time will be spent using technology, and at least 50 per cent of the time in primary schools. Very few believe that more than 80 per cent of learning time will be conducted using technology, but as young people will more often than not require digital skills for employment in the future, having a somewhat constant exposure to technology is expected.

Where are we struggling?
In addition to budget concerns, some schools are also facing the challenge of poor infrastructure or broadband and Wi-Fi capabilities. This is, as you might expect, more prominent in rural areas, where internet access is typically quite slow. These figures are steadily improving, but it is estimated that around one fifth of primary schools are still having difficulty in providing internet access to their pupils.

Another key issue is in training. While schools can have all the innovative education technology in the world, they need to be able to use it effectively. The trap that most schools fall into is that they use technologies to replace traditional learning methods, or using technology just for technology’s sake. For example, replacing books with iPads simply for reading isn’t always effective. However, if you use the highlighting, annotating and research capabilities of the digital version then this helps to enhance the overall learning experience. It is knowing what the effect is, and how the education technology gives an advantage that is an essential skill that teachers should have. In effect, teachers should know when and how education technology ‘pays its way’. Unfortunately, although how this works is now well understood, too few schools are investing in the professional development required for their teachers to maximise the benefit of education technology spend.

Without the confidence to use education technology, teachers may avoid using it entirely, meaning that students don’t get the exposure they will need to develop those all-important digital skills for the future workplace. This isn’t just in computing either, as a basic understanding of word processing, spreadsheets and online communications are essential to almost every job role. There are innovative methods appearing across the country, letting young people explore various subjects in new ways that also encourage these skills, but we need to do more to share these with teachers and help them develop their practices.

Walk before you run
The first thing that any school must do before making a purchasing decision is to understand its own needs, the intended outcomes for students, and how any spending compares with investment in other areas. Any new project should be considered carefully, and this requires lateral thinking to evaluate the need, cost and benefit of the proposed technology. There are opportunities to make significant savings in time and money, which can then in turn be invested elsewhere, so the pressure of keeping up with digital trends can genuinely benefit schools in the long run.

Then it’s a case of finding suppliers, which takes time, research and negotiation. Keep a checklist of all the things you require and make sure that the company can provide these. Questions that you should be asking include: will the supplier conduct any necessary installations? Will they help to audit your current infrastructure to ensure that the technology will be effective? Is there training included as part of the contract? And what level of support is offered to both teaching and technical staff? From September 2016, Naace, in partnership with the Department for Education, will be piloting a Procurement Advice Service, providing free and impartial advice to schools when making investments in technology. Information will include how to write and execute tender agreements and managing contracts with your chosen supplier.

Communicate & collaborate
Another way of identifying reputable suppliers is by taking a look at any quality assurances they might have. For example, what have their customers said about them online? Are they part of a prestigious organisation that quality-checks its members, such as BESA? Do they have Naace Open Badges?

Another really beneficial activity is to talk with other schools in a similar situation about the decisions they’ve made with suppliers and procurement. There are even opportunities for schools to partner up during this process, working together to make the most of the supplier’s offering while also sharing experience and expertise amongst staff. We will see more of this with the rise of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) standardising their procurement processes, but schools can still engage in a more informal manner outside of these arrangements.

Final thoughts
While the process of installing and implementing new technologies can be a daunting prospect, there is plenty to be excited about. We’re already turning our attention to Bett 2017, where we are sure to see a whole new cohort of innovative teaching ideas and classroom solutions. As the world evolves, education follows suit, ensuring that students are always prepared for what’s to come. Ed Tech is likely to be an integral part of this for a very long time, so we should embrace the change and the challenges that come with it, as the benefits it brings to every part of school life can be phenomenal.

Further information