Edtech: the future of education?

Education technology is too often obscured by hype and hyperbole. Time to take stock and realise what it can – and cannot – do, says Alex Diggins

Teachers these days face the dilemma of technology overkill.” For Ram Kallapiran, Academic Manager at the UK College of Business and Computing, it is quite an admission to make. But Ram, who has a background in higher education and e-commerce, does not advocate a Luddite uprising of classroom teachers. Electronic whiteboards won’t be gleefully hurled from school windows any time soon. Instead, he is keen to stress that technology can enhance learning and teaching, but only if “a rational and rationed approach is used”.

Edtech suffers an identity problem. From flipped learning to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to the smart campus, few areas of education are more burdened with buzzwords. This is unfortunate as the noise around edtech distracts staff and students from its true potential: the power to enhance – not detract from – classroom learning. It also establishes an unhelpful distinction between the ‘real’ business of teaching, and the faddy products which cluster on its peripherals.

Far better to see the greater incorporation of technology into teaching as an inevitability – in line with the increased digitisation of our everyday lives. But also as something to be embraced, not resisted. Provided, of course, it has proved its usefulness.

Look to the cloud

What technologies, then, have schools welcomed? Virtual learning environments (VLEs – apologies for the acronym) have certainly proved their utility. At Canbury School, for instance, Google Classroom is used to help reduce paperwork and smooth out the marking process. It is paired with school-wide Wi-Fi to allow students and staff to sign on wherever they are; pupils and teachers are also given their own Chromebook (creative arts students have Macbooks) loaded with educational apps. Through this generous provision it is hoped that plaintive cries of ‘Miss, I forgot my pen’, or ‘Sir, I left workbook at home’ become less common: students cannot use lack of resources as an excuse for not engaging.

Just as importantly though, by issuing pupils with their own devices, Canbury can effectively monitor them online as well as their engagement with homework. This ensures they stay on track and don’t wander off into the darker eaves of the internet. Unhealthy device usage is also discouraged. But perhaps not enough. As Louise Clancy, Headmistress admits: “[We] would love to impose a detox on mobile phones and social media on a weekly basis.”

At Clifton College, by contrast, cloud-based solutions have been adopted. The focus has been, as Richard Edwards, Head of IT, puts it: “[on] delivering teaching and learning through a web browser”. The school is also “heavily reliant on G-Suite (Google Apps for Education)” which “enables the end user to be completely device agonistic and learn from any location in the world with an internet”. For Clifton, this flexibility has proved “particularly useful for international students”. Such has been the enthusiasm with which cloud-based apps have been incorporated into Clifton’s teaching provision, that the school has plans to expand its bandwidth yearly to facilitate further expansion.

A real revolution

Refreshingly, however, Richard is adamant that age-old education methods are still critical: “Teaching must drive technology and not the other way around.” It is a view that is shared by Naimish Gohil, founder and CEO of Satchel, an edtech provider whose products are now used in a third of UK schools. “I believe that the greatest way in which edtech can really revolutionise education is through enabling teachers.” As a former classroom teacher, with four years in an inner-city school in London, he grew frustrated with the haphazard and patchy way technology was implemented. “Technology was advancing so quickly,” he said. “Yet classrooms remained the same.”

The potential of edtech lies, in Naimish’s eyes, in allowing “teachers to spend more time in the classroom […] the real reason they entered the profession”. Technology can do this in a number of ways. There is opening up of the excitement of the online space to pupils, for one – a driving force behind the adoption of VLEs and cloud-based services at Canbury and Clifton. But more concretely, when correctly used, edtech can also serve to eradicate “all the noise that accompanies teaching, such as excessive paperwork and admin, so that teachers are left able to teach”. In this, Naimish grins, it could be truly “revolutionary”.

And the catch?

Concerns, though, persist. One issue schools are increasingly having to reckon with is inculcating a healthy relationship with technology in their charges. A few are, as Louise acknowledges, toying with the idea of ‘digital detoxes’. These involve restricting or outright banning devices and social media on certain days, or between particular hours (the beginning and end of the school day, for instance.) While somewhat effective, such bans are heavy-handed and do little to encourage heathy relationships with technology. Some pupils will, after all, see bans as challenges to be overcome, not as disincentives.

Striking a balance between acknowledging technology’s ubiquity, while emphasising the paramount importance of interpersonal interaction, is key. One way this can be achieved is through positive emulation. At Clifton, for instance, staff in the Upper School observe a ‘no email Thursday’ when they are encouraged to seek out their colleagues for conversation. Whilst not directly aimed at pupils, the trickledown effect of such initiatives on students’ attitudes to tech cannot be underestimated.

It is an issue where much work still needs to be done, Naimish admits. “On a day-to-day basis, my daughter sees me on my phone constantly, yet she rarely sees me with a book. [Now though] I’m conscious to show her that my phone isn’t the only tool I can use and that writing and reading are just as important.” Indeed, there is a growing body of evidence that excessive screen time and social media use can impact mental health, in particular that of adolescents.

Extraordinary potential

But while the dangers of excessive technology use shouldn’t be underplayed, neither should they be exaggerated. Today’s students, with the internet at their fingertips, are gifted with an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and opportunity – one which they should be encouraged to explore with relish and responsibility.

Edtech, moreover, has great potential to improve mental health as well. No Isolation, a Norwegian start-up, have pioneered a robot to ‘end loneliness’. It allows pupils who have been excluded from class to still participate vicariously through a small, portable avatar, interacting with their fellow pupils and staff. At Canbury College, a No Isolation machine was used by a student for six months, and helped enable them to successfully take six GCSEs. As Louise noted: “Without the unit, this level of engagement might not have been possible.”

Technology, then, holds an enormous ability to enhance education. Whether it’s by lessening the burden of hair-threatening admin teachers must shoulder, or by allowing a previously isolated pupil to engage normally in class, schools stand to benefit at all levels from greater incorporation of edtech. Educators are right to sound notes of caution, though; the edtech revolution must be teacher, not salesperson, driven. They are best placed to decide what products are helpful to their practice – and which are best left in the box.

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