Lauren Thorpe is Head of Data and Systems Strategy at Ark.
She has a background in Computer Science and was formerly the Principal of a Secondary Free School in London.
I am often asked “Which new technologies should we be adopting in our school?” or “What are the best Ed Tech tools out there?” These are difficult questions to answer. Schools, local authorities and multi-academy trusts are inundated with marketing materials from one supplier or another, telling us that their technology can be used to reduce teachers’ workload, provide more targeted interventions, better engage our students in their learning, and provide them with quicker and more impactful feedback. They profess to tell us how our students are performing, and to share better quality information and insights to school leaders. All of this could be true.
However the state of school funding, and the sense of ‘change fatigue’ in education means that schools cannot afford to make the wrong choices. Alongside this, the evidence shows that there is a wide variation in the impact of digital technologies on attainment in schools, and there is even less evidence on the impact of technology on other metrics such as workload. As one US academic puts it, “Just as buying a professional-looking mixer will not make you a better cook, technology alone will not make pupil learning better.” So what should schools do?
I find it helpful to split today’s tech innovation in school into two categories – those which can substitute for existing activities and those which have the potential to transform them.
Technologies which substitute are the ones that can deliver marginal gains in a school – this might be saving time, money, or improving a process or experience. They are often small scale IT projects, easy to implement, and can be very low cost. A great example of this is Microsoft Translator – a free add-in to the desktop version of PowerPoint. This app allows you to add live subtitles to your presentations in any of 65 languages, or convert your slide deck into a different language. Whilst the translations are not perfect, they are good enough to support English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners to access the curriculum and understand concepts more quickly, and can save time on producing additional EAL resources. Another might be No More Marking which uses the principle of comparative judgement to speed up the marking and moderation of student work, leading to more accurate judgements whilst saving teachers’ time.
There are many great examples of technologies and software which can enable us to perform our current roles better – we need to find better ways of sharing them, and look at ways to increase our use of them within our schools.
Transformational technologies are those which are likely to have a significant impact on the way that teaching and learning takes place in your school. They are likely to amplify existing pedagogy or provide more personalised experiences of learning. Here it is wise to proceed with caution. These projects often require significant investment, the purchase of expensive new tools or software, and require new IT equipment to be deployed. An example could be the purchase of a platform to support personalised learning, or the introduction of a 1:1 device programme. Both of these could require costly infrastructure upgrades in order to deliver them. To realise any long-term benefits for large capital IT projects, they must be accompanied by a change management programme, a commitment to train and coach the staff team, be championed and managed by a key stakeholder in the school, and be supported by a wider digital strategy that the school leadership team buys into.
It is easy to be seduced by the hype that surrounds Ed Tech, but there are no silver bullets and technology is not an end in itself. A cursory glance into the cupboards and IT rooms of any school provides us with the evidence of that. Any new technology innovation is only as good as the vision and processes that you build around it. To avoid the technology graveyard I would ask those interested in Ed Tech a question back: “Before you even think about Ed Tech in your school, what plans have you got in place to make it work?”
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