Education Technology – A solution in search of a problem?

I recently read a sensationalist news story which claims that nearly half of teachers don’t feel adequately trained to use the technology they have available to them. The article in the Telegraph, suggests that half of the £623 million invested in school technology is under used due to lack of training. There is a response from “a DFE spokesperson” – but the lack of relevance to the story makes me wonder what questions the journalist asked.

When I first started teaching, I was appointed as Teacher of Technology in a TSI School (Technology Schools Initiative) in the North of England. In my naivety, I was delighted to be joining a school where hundreds of thousands of pounds had been ‘invested’ in the very latest technologies. I was one of four NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers) all starting teaching in the same Technology department. All of the technology equipment had been purchased in the months before we were appointed; the inventory had been put together by a former art teacher and the equipment suppliers. When I arrived, I was asked to plan a curriculum around the technology I was provided with.

It was quite a challenge to plan a balanced curriculum around what appeared to be a supermarket trolley dash around Maplins – but I was at the start of my teaching career and keen to make a good impression. Thankfully, through negotiations with some of the equipment suppliers I was able to return most of the unsuitable equipment and trade it for more useful resources. However, not all of the suppliers were as generous or understanding and so we had impressive looking classrooms equipped with shiny technologies that were rarely used in a learning context.

In an ideal world, we teachers would first have been asked to plan the curriculum and then requested the relevant resources to deliver it. However, as I’ve seen many times since – it rarely works out that way in practice. Perhaps what the survey quoted in the Telegraph article alludes to is the fact that teachers have many pieces of technology available to them that have no particular problems that they can apply them to. Solutions in search of problems.

In my teaching career, I’ve witnessed one technology initiative after another being introduced (sometimes enforced) on the teaching staff, eg. NOF Training, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs), Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), Tablet devices, 1:1 environments.

Where I’ve seen these initiatives be most effective, a group of enthusiastic teachers in the school first volunteer as early adopters of the technology. After they have developed the confidence to use them in their own teaching (or dismissed them as nothing more than a fad), they then act as ambassadors, cascading their knowledge and experience of the technology on to their colleagues and often in the more successful examples, this would be followed by widespread adoption across the school. This can be the best form of technology training that some staff receive as it’s highly tailored to meet their specific needs and delivered by their own colleagues.

I remember campaigning for a long time to have a projector in my classroom when I was teaching electronics. I longed for a means to demonstrate visualisations and circuit simulations on a larger scale to my classes, when I eventually received a data projector it became an indispensable tool in my classroom. In contrast, years later every one of the 40 rooms in our school had interactive whiteboards installed. The high quality projector I was using was replaced by an inferior quality projector to match the same projectors being deployed throughout the whole school as part of the IWB installation. Having the same budget projectors available

Later on, despite the fact that I led a series of CPD sessions over a few years for staff in our school to help them realise the full potential of the IWBs, many teachers commented afterwards that they still only ever used the interactive board as a screen, an expensive one at that.

I’ve encountered some occasional friction from teachers attending the training events that I lead when I ask what they’ve managed to do with their Raspberry Pi computers. Many schools received sponsored packs of [Raspberry Pi computers sponsored by Google], but in some schools they still remain in the boxes waiting to be used. To help with this the Raspberry Pi Foundation offer free training to teachers as part of their [Picademy programme]; teachers that have attended have been highly complimentary and tell tales of going back to the classroom and blowing the dust of the Raspberry Pi boxes and using these to inspire and engage their learners.

This problem is not only confined to large scale hardware deployments in schools. Recently in a [BBC News item where it was claimed that London Grid for Learning were blocking emails from competitors](including Exa Networks who I am now employed by), supporters of LGfL claimed that the higher costs schools were paying to LGfL in comparison to the quotes from competitors actually represented better value since these 5 year subscriptions to LGfL included many online services and digital content which when purchased individually by schools would cost many thousands of pounds more. I do wonder though, how many school are using all of the services and content that is being provided as part of this service. The principle certainly sounds worthy; purchase lots of licenses in bulk then sell at a heavily discounted rate to schools. While I have only questioned a handful of teachers in London schools about their usage of the extra included content, none admitted to using any of the services.

I’m reminded of an eccentric great aunt of mine who when first arriving in New York bought two identical fur coats in a department store summer sale. When questioned why she had bought two identical fur coats and in July, she replied that when she realised she had saved $200 dollars on one, she decided to buy two and save $400!

If you are interested in making the best use of the technology you have available to you, I may be able to help. I’m currently developing a number of ways that I can support schools through Exa Foundation. You can get in touch with me through the usual channels.
Screenshot 2015-12-28 14.58.14

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul says:

    Reading this blog post made me laugh, yet also reminded myself of a somewhat similar situation. Teachers from a school, in the North of England, had been to a CPD session where they had seen a robot controlled by a Raspberry Pi. Their imaginations ran wild with the opportunities for pupils to programme and control these machines for themselves. Therefore, an order was placed for a class set of robots with all the bells and whistles sensors, wires and breadboards that money could buy, not forgetting the Raspberry Pis for them. However, two years later the robots and computers still sit in their boxes all neatly packaged. Whilst there were good intentions to use them in the classroom, there were two problems. Firstly, no one at the school had the know how to configure the machines, whilst this in itself should not be a stumbling block, due to the numerous online tutorials it was the second problem that was most alarming. No one had attempted to use the devices, so another teacher took one look at the devices and knowing the school network, desktop machines and security policies concluded these were a problem for the dust collectors. There was no way for the Raspberry Pis to be programmed! An unregistered machine plugged into the network was seen as dirty, the desktops had no separate monitors, the security policy did not allow students to use the desktop USBs and an SSH client was seen as a security hole that would not be allowed.

    The computers and robots with all their paraphernalia, still sit in their boxes.

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  2. teknoteacher says:

    That’s a terrific shame. I’ve met countless teachers who are frustrated at not receiving Raspberry Pi (or Microbits for that matter), but then when they do, it’s too late because the teacher or their enthusiasm has moved on.
    I have seen some excellent examples, like Kingswood Academy, Hull where an enthusiastic teacher inspired a group of ‘Digital Leaders’ (pupils) to organise their own club. Free of the burdens of assessment and curriculum – these pupils were truly able to direct their own learning and inspired others to follow.

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  3. Brenda Dell says:

    It’s a basic human problem, Alan. We all underuse domestic technology but it doesn’t stop us buying!
    An informative blog! Innovation and willingness plus opportunity do not move apace. You are analysing profoundly wasteful resources however which our schools cannot afford. Your substantial overview is useful to all. perhaps you could manage a column in the most significantly technical broadsheet which would could reach the right places. You explain problems with clarity and the whole buying/ adopting/using business needs to be tightened up.

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