EdTech: Are we nearly there yet? By Chris Yapp

Bill Gates recently remarked that EdTech has underperformed. In his talk he makes it clear that he believes that the good times are ahead, as the needs of teachers and students are better understood by the technical and educational content communities.

Is he right?

It is now 35 years since Ken Baker introduced the “micros in schools” project. Have we made 35 years progress in 35 years? I would argue not, but I believe that it is timely to look back and learn the lessons of the many waves of technology.

From micros, CD-ROMS to the internet and WWW, to Electronic Whiteboards and Tablets we have plenty of evidence of points of innovation, interesting experiments and much contestable evidence of the impact of ICT in schools. So can we do better? What can we learn from the cumulative experience of the last 35 years?

First, not all ICTs are the same. It is important to distinguish sustaining technologies from disruptive ones.

A sustaining technology is one that helps you do what you already do. An electronic whiteboard can, in the hands of an experienced teacher, enhance whole class teaching. I have seen wonderful examples in the UK and abroad of teachers using that technology in ways that a traditional blackboard could not deliver. But have we trained teachers adequately and in an appropriate manner in ITT or CPD to develop their pedagogical skills to exploit the technology when appropriate? I think not.

A disruptive technology causes you to question both what you do and how you do it. For instance in the digital world, a school is no longer limited by the books in its school library. The vast resources on the Web challenge the role of the library. Students and teachers are now open to material of much greater variability in quality, of unknown provenance or veracity. How has curriculum changed to meet the need for our children to learn the skills they require as adults to navigate this challenge? Here I struggle to be optimistic.

Twenty years ago a number of UK schools were involved in using video-conferencing for modern foreign languages to help children develop their capabilities by communicating with children of their own age, which proved effective and motivational. In a more complex world, foreign languages are growing in importance, yet UK performance in modern languages has not improved.

Interestingly, technologies introduced as sustaining can become disruptive as practitioners develop their confidence. I have seen in a few countries teachers who have changed the layout of their classrooms, enhanced pupil engagement by letting them use the EWBs and used the interactive features in thoughtful ways that were relevant to the task in hand.

Technology cannot be justified in schools on pedagogical gains alone. We have labour saving technologies. We can automate a task and take work off the teacher to give them more time for planning and teaching. Take the automation of multiple choice questions. Instead of a teacher marking 30 sets of answers, the machine can provide the scores and enable the teacher to spend time looking at class-wide and individual issues. So why has the administrative burden risen not fallen at school level?

And in other sectors of society and the economy, as technologies become mainstream new roles emerge, new skills are needed. Some years ago I proposed that the biggest mistake in education was to believe:

“Old Teacher” + Computer = “New Teacher”.

(One interesting example I found on a trip to the Far East of novel practice was beautifully simple. While the standards in the school were high and impressive, there were concerns that the spoken and written English tended to stay in an oriental mind-set. All homework was electronically submitted, much of it in English. Instead of sending a geography or history project to the respective teacher, another copy was sent to an English assessor to comment and feedback on the use of English outside English lessons.)

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Why do I disagree with Bill Gates?

I disclose that I used to work for Microsoft. So far much of the experimentation and activity with ICTs in schools has been within the constraints of a school by school model. If you look at the questions I have raised, I think there is one observation that leads to the underachievement that I agree with Bill Gates on. Many of the issues have to be tackled at a system level, not at a school level.

If we are to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of edtech and deliver education for our children we need to resolve the following. Here are my key challenges:

  1. How could we make ‘schools without walls’ a reality for all children and their teachers?
  2. How do we construct curriculum to build the necessary environment for the academic, vocational and cultural development of children, given the tools we now have?
  3. How do we develop the teaching profession to create an adaptable and highly motivated workforce that understands the potential (and limitations) of ICTs?
  4. How can technology link school to school, to community, to the workplace and other institutions, to enhance the experience of learners?
  5. How do we use ICTs to transform assessment, both formative and summative, to put learning at the core, not accountability?

At the heart of transforming education through ICTs there is a need for teaching and learning to be research and evidence led. Teachers as action researchers working collaboratively is what turns the necessary to the sufficient condition. We need to build a research culture which embraces the challenge of scaling up and diffusing innovation.

I am grateful to an old colleague who taught me at the start of my edtech journey that there is nothing new in this world, only those things that we have forgotten. I am an optimist by nature who believes that nothing is more important than an idea whose time has come.

Now seems like a good time.

Chris Yapp is a Leading Thinker for the National Education Trust

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