Technology is changing all the time. But what remains the same is the need for an IT strategy that considers the desired outcomes for learners and teachers, writes Neil Watkins from Think IT
As the former programme manager for Every Child Matters (ECM), I’m a great believer in ‘outcomes’. And I also believe that technology can improve these outcomes, not just for learners, but also for teachers.
However, not everyone shares my belief. I was recently told by the chief executive of a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) that technology in the classroom was a waste of time; a distraction that had no influence on learner outcomes.
His view was that only teachers can improve outcomes. To a certain extent, I agreed with him, but the important point he was missing is that you have to give teachers the tools to do the job. And these tools are changing daily.
It was around 2007 that there was an injection of ring fenced funding from the government to implement audio visual (AV) technology into classrooms. Today, much of this technology is still in place; which is part of the problem.
We’ve all walked into a classroom which has an old projector mounted on the ceiling; its fan noisily whirring away, pumping out lots of heat but not much light. Old bulbs lose up to 50 per cent of their brightness over time, but because it’s a gradual degradation this is not always noticed.
In other schools, we often see that the image on the screen is slightly blurred, or not square and in a trapezoid shape. This is purely because schools have not received the correct training of how to follow the simple steps to change the keystone settings.
If you are a teacher struggling to get the screens to work because the technologies are incompatible (new laptops won’t work with old screens or projectors because the software hasn’t been updated), you are not alone. I’ve even seen classrooms where the wires are hanging down from the ceiling.
On top of this, the cost of getting an AV engineer to visit the school, and the cost of replacement bulbs can be more than the price of a new projector and therefore poor projected images is something schools have grown to accept as ‘normal’.
But technology is changing all the time. If you think about the mobile phones of ten years ago compared to today, the difference in size, speed and usability is tremendous. The same is true with AV.
Sadly though, people don’t think about technology improvements in the same way.
The developments in wireless technology means those dangling cables are no longer required, and multiple devices can be connected at the same time. Interactive technologies (whether this is wall‑mounted screens, interactive tables or even interactive projectors) have changed how teachers teach and how learners both learn and collaborate. And it’s not just the hardware that is evolving.
The software is also refining at an incredible pace. New features including seamless integration with learner devices are enabling co-creation, collaboration and formative assessments, all of which are designed to save teachers’ time and help them to be more creative in how they teach.
I believe teachers will continue to develop their classroom teaching and learning practice as the technology develops; this is both a development of good pedagogy alongside a fundamental paradigm shift due to the changes in technology in the classroom.
When we talk about AV, most people only think about projectors and interactive boards.
What schools need to start thinking about is the latest AV technology which is taking learning by storm: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Google Explore is one of Google’s latest releases that is set to become a staple in most schools. This new tool is already creating the ‘wow’ factor whenever it’s used for the first time.
The excitement it causes will undoubtedly inspire growth in schools in the coming years. Microsoft is taking a different approach, with its HoloLens headset which blends real and virtual realities in what they call Mixed Reality (MR).
At present, many senior leaders in education see VR, AR and MR as a distraction, because the learning benefits are yet to be proven, but what is clear, is that there will be a push‑pull effect that makes their introduction into mainstream teaching almost inevitable; the ‘push’ from the software giants, wanting to promote the take-up of their products, and the ‘pull’ of learners keen to use “cool stuff” in their school. Look out for Google Explore.
If we look slightly wider than the world of AV, mobile technology is also rapidly evolving.
Two to three years ago, we saw a massive rise in the number of tablets, including the iPad, in schools. Today, that number has fallen significantly, with most schools buying Chromebooks: these are effectively laptops with a cut-down operating system that makes them much cheaper. Feedback from schools is that there are two main reasons for this shift in purchasing. The first is cost.
Technologies from Apple are perceived to be expensive to buy and to repair. They are also a target for theft because they’re seen to be so desirable. In comparison, Chromebooks are priced at approximately £200 per device and are therefore perceived to be better value.
The second reason for the shift is functionality.
Children arrive at primary school knowing how to use touchscreens because they grow up using smartphones and tablets to play games and watch videos. However, they lack keyboard and mouse skills. Schools therefore prefer Chromebooks because they teach these skills along with standard applications such as word processing, spreadsheets and presentations.
But there’s a new player looming on the horizon of devices in the shape of Microsoft. To date, Windows devices have been seen as very expensive, often four or five times more expensive than Chromebooks. Microsoft is responding with what it calls Windows 10 S devices; available at Chromebook‑type prices, in the autumn. Windows S devices will have a cut-down operating system to reduce cost, but in addition to the usual keyboard and mouse features, they will also offer touchscreens and a stylus.
The cost and features will make Windows 10 S devices very attractive to all schools, and when packaged with device management software, learning tools and Minecraft, I predict they will quickly make an impact in the market.
Moving on from the technology, what about the teachers? Given teacher retention is a massive issue at the current time, I was particularly interested in the views of newly qualified teachers. I therefore went to the University of Cumbria, one of the biggest providers of Initial Teacher Education in England, to meet Kathryn Fox, head of school partnership at the Institute of Education.
Kathryn’s view is clear, she believes that AV can be beneficial in the classroom, as long as it properly linked to the way that teachers teach.
“AV tools, approaches and technologies have the potential to open up spaces for learning opportunities in the classroom for learners at all levels. I would suggest that the use of audio-visual tools in the classroom can best support learners to make progress when this is aligned to the overall pedagogy of the classroom,” she said.
Kathryn went on to say that “AV tools provide a multimodal space for learning, with expanded potential for communication and representation, in comparison with less expansive spaces. Technology, including AV technologies can, for example, illustrate concepts in ways that words on a page may not. They can take students to places that they may not be able to go themselves and elicit an emotional response. AV technologies have the potential to evoke, provoke, scaffold and stimulate learning.“
If teachers ask, ‘what do I want my pupils to learn?’ rather than ‘how do I want them to be engaged?’ then the focus of the technology is that of a learning tool for pedagogy. In other words, the technology has a purpose that moves beyond engagement and is integrated with the approach and purpose of the learning. Who will be using the AV resource, teacher or learner? Where will they use this? Who will create the resource – teacher, learner or collaborative learning? These are key considerations for classroom practitioners.
Teaching standards set out the expectations of teachers in England. This includes laying out high expectations, which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils. This requires and expects a commitment to continued professional development (CPD). In the same way that teachers have a range of classroom, pedagogical and subject experiences to bring to bear on their planning and lesson design they also draw on a range of experience of AV technology.
New technologies open up new classroom possibilities. This presents the profession with challenges to keep apace of both developments in the technology itself and also the need for critical consideration of its potential to support learning.
The fact that the pace of technology is increasing rapidly, and that new tools and technologies will be incorporated into teaching and learning is not up for question.
The question is, how do schools decide what to buy and what will achieve the greatest learning return on investment? To do this, and to truly transform teaching and classrooms with audio visual and mobile technology, an IT strategy is vital. Most schools don’t have one, and without one they make reactive or poor buying decisions.
At Think IT, we recommend starting your IT strategy with the desired outcomes (remember them) that you want for your learners and teachers. With this in mind, you will make undoubtedly make better investment decisions.
Science Minister Chris Skidmore spoke at the BETT Show, reiterating the government's commitment to education technology and working with industry to create solutions that address some of the challenges in education.