Ed-tech: an ill-advised purchase or a critical investment?

Following this years Bett, Education Business hears from Naace’s Mark Chambers and Dave Smith, BESA’s Caroline Wright and head teacher Tony Ryan on the future of educational technology.

The global ed-tech market is already estimated to be worth $43.27 (£30) billion, yet the first assessment of digital skills from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that schools have some way to go in fully taking advantage of the potential of technology in the classroom.

Although wider press coverage of the OECD’s report focused on the findings that heavy investment in ICT failed to improve results, Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills stated that the key to success was to ‘find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide educators with learning environments that support 21st century pedagogies and provide children with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world’.

Echoing the views of the UK’s early adopters and technology experts, Schleicher commented that technology’s potential to dramatically expand access to knowledge should not be ignored, citing training and teacher engagement as being the key to maximising its benefits. He said ‘to deliver on the promises technology holds, countries need to invest more effectively and ensure that teachers are at the forefront of designing and implementing this change’.

With the debate continuing and policy-makers abstaining from offering guidance, the future of ed-tech is mutable, but research in the UK indicates that investment continues to rise.

Caroline Wright, director general designate of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), said: “Our annual Information and Communication Technology in UK Schools research has recently shown that schools and colleges will continue to increase their use oftechnology in the learning environment.”

This increased investment is perhaps an indicator of schools’ awareness of the need to ensure digital skills remain at the forefront of education. Tony Ryan, head teacher of Chiswick School believes that, even in an era of tightening budgets, technology plays a crucial role in preparing students for the future.

He said: “One of my strongest drivers here is the desire to prepare our students for the life that awaits them after school. They need exam passes, as these open the doors to opportunity, but wider than that, students need to be intuitive, independent problem solvers who are aware of their own strengths and areas for development, with the confidence to set out and follow their own path in life. IT simply has to play a significant part in this development.”  

State of the nation
So what is the current picture here in the UK? Wright suggests that ‘as one of the earliest adopters of education technology, the UK now leads the way globally’.
She continues: “One proof point is the fact that many thousands of educators travel across the world to Bett, the world’s largest education technology event.”

The UK also plays host annually to the world’s largest gathering of education and skills ministers, the Education World Forum, a platform for discussion on the future of education. Courtesy of events like Bett, the EWF and associations such as Naace, which supports schools and educators in the best use of technology, the UK has long played a central role in developing the best pedagogies when it comes to using technology in the classroom.

Wright commented: “When we look back to the UK’s early adoption of learning technology at the turn of the century, we made many mistakes and have learned a number of lessons. In almost every case where investment has not gone to plan the reason is overwhelmingly due to a lack of effective investment in continuing professional development (CPD) and teacher training. This often results in hardware sitting idle or teachers having little idea of how to use it effectively.”

Ensuring good investment
But how can schools act to ensure the success of their investment? Aristotle’s often-used philosophical advice is suitable; ‘Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom’.

Dave Smith, senior vice chair of Naace and ICT advisor at Havering School Improvement Services, believes schools should start by forming answers to some key questions in order to ensure that they know what success will look like for them.

Stating that ‘getting the strategy right first is paramount’, Smith questions what will be the impact on educational outcomes and how will this be measured? What devices will support this? What CPD will be provided?

For leaders, what is the vital component to a successful investment? Ask Tony Ryan and the answer is simply ‘vision’.

He says that schools need to ask themselves ‘what do you want to achieve by introducing technology to learning? Why is this an integral part of your school’s educational vision? How will you bring teachers on board and as importantly keep them there?’

He concludes: “A teacher’s daily list of ‘to do’ items is vast and appears to be growing daily, it is important that staff see and share the ‘bigger picture’ or the integration of IT to their lessons is simply another thing to add to the list.”

What to invest in?
Plans for technology will differ from school to school, but whether it’s an inner-city secondary or a rural primary, the foundations need to be in place. Smith says:“Overwhelmingly, school leaders need to ensure effective infrastructure in terms of fast, reliable connectivity and robust wireless provision which are the foundations upon which any effective educational provision should be built.”

Infrastructure is a hot topic in terms of investment, and it is also on the radar of policy makers following the findings of BESA’s 2014 research. Wright claims: “It showed an alarming digital divide forming across the UK. Schools in rural areas were identified as having the lowest access to ICT, with the reason being attributed to poor wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi). A significant minority of schools also reported that they were under-resourced in broadband provision.

“Although secondary schools have been purchasing tablet computers in some quantity, the continued growth in sales of laptops suggests that this group of schools sees value in a wider range of devices. We expect to see the adoption of tablet computers continuing to grow. Their size, mobility and cost make them the ideal hardware to improve the child:device ratio.”

Smith added: “I have seen an increased interest in Google Chromebooks and Google Classroom in local schools. Flipped learning will become more of a norm, even with younger pupils as schools recognise the benefits of getting pupils involved in learning that is not always led by teachers, but facilitated by them.”

The latest generation of learning platforms, apps and collaborative learning technology also look set to continue to grow, and policy changes will inevitably continue to spur suppliers’ offerings. BESA’s Wright singles out assessment as a prime example.

She commented: “The removal of assessment levels and the demand on schools to implement news systems that meet the government’s criteria appear to be leading to increased levels of investment. For the 14 per cent of primary schools indicating more spending on ICT than planned, the focus is most likely to be on assessment systems. The need for assessment solution training is expected to be significant across primary schools in 2015, with 58 per cent of teachers identified as in need of training.”

So what next for technology?
Ryan says: “I do not expect government backing to drive progress. It will be down to school leaders with a clear vision for how IT can make a difference to learning for all students. For me this has to be about more than exams and more about creating a culture within which students can learn, grow and develop into young adults, equipped with the skills, attributes and confidence that life will demand from them.”

Wright adds: “The crucial point is that education should be designed to support our students for their working lives ahead. This inevitably will be in line with what our country needs to thrive in the global economy.

"So whether a student’s passion and expertise lies in art, or science, languages or sport, their education should provide them with the skills they need to support them in the years ahead.”

Most experts agree that technology should play a central role in education, but, crucially, its effect should be transformative.

A report from the United States Department for Education earlier this year outlined key areas for development to ensure progress and impact, and called on suppliers to innovate rather than simply digitise information.

Using technology not to replicate existing tasks but change them rather than focusing on traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teaching methods is something that the technology association Naace believes passionately in. CEO Mark Chambers, himself a former head teacher, says: “Maximising the impact of technology on learning is crucial. Technology can and does radically improve teaching and learning, but only with the right investments, especially in professional development, proper management and pedagogical change.”

Wright cites the increasing prevalence of technology as being a key driver for its use in the classroom.

She says: “While no one can predict the future, it is likely that technology will continue to prevail in most working environments. Car production will become increasingly automated, healthcare will welcome new technologies to identify illnesses and make operations less invasive, and consumers will increasingly carry out retail transactions through the use of technology.

With this is mind, we all have to agree what education should be like for the coming decade, but few could argue that any strategy that ignores the technology our children use every day and that permeates working lives, will risk failure.”

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