Although classroom computers have been with us since the 1970s, schools have only recently become truly ‘digital’. Now, every school seems full of digital devices and display screens. Anything that can be digitised is stored online. Lessons are live-streamed, resources are downloadable and communication takes place through apps and email. Behind the scenes, schools maintain their own servers, host school-wide WiFi and run complex management systems. In contrast to even a few years ago, today’s schools depend upon substantial amounts of digital technology.

This is not to say that technology use in education is now straightforward. If anything, digital technology is more of a headache for teachers than ever. On the one hand, schools are bombarded with claims from software vendors and technology enthusiasts about the power of various new technologies to transform what goes on in the classroom. On the other hand, the impacts of technology use on teaching and learning remain uncertain. Andreas Schleicher – the OECD’s director of education – caused some upset in 2015 when suggesting that ICT has negligible impact on classrooms. Yet he was simply voicing what many teachers have long known: good technology use in education is very tricky to pin down.

At the same time, it could be argued that the technologies featuring most prominently in teachers’ professional lives have little to do with teaching and learning at all. Instead, it often feels that digital technology is primarily a managerial tool for keeping tight control over what goes on in the classroom. Digital technology is certainly a key part of school data-gathering and teacher monitoring, as well as a means of extending schoolwork long into evenings, weekends and holiday time. While IT firms continue to make millions of pounds from selling their products to schools, teachers could be forgiven for never wanting to switch on a laptop again. We have come a long way from optimistic endorsements of classroom computers as ‘the teacher’s friend’.

This issue of Impact therefore coincides with the growing realisation that everyone in education needs to get serious about how technology is used in schools. We are no longer in the ‘booster’ decades of the 1990s and 2000s, when it was fashionable to enthuse about anything ‘cyber’ or ‘virtual’. Instead, as we enter the 2020s, people are becoming decidedly wary of digital technology. Incidents such as Cambridge Analytica and the Edward Snowden NSA revelations have prompted notable pushbacks against the use of technology in schools. Parents are increasingly unhappy with purchasing £1,000 laptops for their children. Politicians are calling for bans on smartphones in classrooms. Teaching unions are challenging the influence that ‘big tech’ companies such as Google have over public schooling. Civil rights organisations are raising legal and ethical objections to the increased use of data and analytics. While no one is arguing that we should get rid of computers completely from schools, there is growing suspicion of the technological ‘opportunities’ that are being pushed onto education.

Against this background, teachers face a tough task when it comes to making sense of technology. There are still many benefits to be gained from digital technology, but this is an area that requires careful attention. Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy answers to ‘what works’. Instead, perhaps the most helpful thing to do at this point is to offer seven brief bits of advice for any teacher wanting to make sense of the technologies that are featured in this issue. In no particular order…

#1.  Be clear what you want to achieve

 The implementation of digital technology in schools often fails where there is no genuine purpose for its use. While this might sound obvious, many schools continue to purchase the latest devices and apps simply because they ‘look cool’, or because other schools are buying them. Instead, technology implementation works best when teachers start by identifying a ‘real-world’ problem. Only then will they begin to think through which specific technologies might offer an appropriate way of addressing that problem… or perhaps whether any technology is required at all. The actual device or software package should be the final piece of the process, not its starting point. 

#2. Set appropriate expectations

It certainly helps to have modest expectations of what might be achieved through the use of any device or application. On one hand, educational technology has long suffered from being an area beset with hype and grand ambitions. It is still common to hear people talk about digital technology ‘transforming’ teaching, boosting engagement or fostering ‘21st-century skills’. These claims are so vague as to be meaningless – setting the technology-using teacher up to fail before they have even begun. On the other hand, technology use can also suffer from being attached to overly specific ambitions. Even if such changes do occur, it is impossible to say whether the use of a particular app was associated with a two-per-cent increase in graduation rates. Schools are complex ‘ecosystems’, where there are many confounding factors behind why something happens (or does not happen). Instead, it helps to set broad goals and exhortative targets that relate to appropriate areas of classroom practice. Digital technology might reasonably be expected to give students more convenient opportunities to access curriculum materials, but it would be foolhardy to expect technology to somehow ‘cause’ a 10-point grade improvement over a semester.

#3. Aim for small-scale change

Often, the best way to encourage the take-up of technology throughout any school is to aim for ‘low-hanging fruit’. Most technology adoption in schools is gradual, slow-burning and aligned with established ways of doing things. As such, the digital technologies that take hold in schools tend to be those that fit comfortably with how teachers and students are accustomed to doing things. For example, the use of interactive whiteboards follows neatly on from chalkboards. Similarly, the use of digital textbooks follows on from paper books. These technologies support practices that teachers, schools and students feel familiar and safe with. Despite the grand talk of technology transformation, revolution and reinvention, thinking small and keeping things simple can often be the best way to encourage lasting technology adoption within a school. 

#4. Pay attention to the ‘bigger picture’

Everything that takes place in school is influenced by a variety of people, processes and other pressures. In this sense, it is important to think through how any technology use will ‘fit’ with the whole-school context. This includes familiar issues such as lack of time and resourcing. It also includes a range of within-school issues that do not usually get talked about when it comes to technology use – from the physical layout of classrooms and school buildings, to staffroom micro-politics. Similarly, technology can be influenced by a range of outside-school factors – from National Curriculum requirements through to local neighbourhood characteristics. This means that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of getting technology to work. Successful technology use requires a lot of planning for the specific contexts and circumstances of your own school.

#5. Think about unintended consequences

 Even if you are clear what you want to achieve with technology, it is important to give some thought to what other consequences might also result. Using any technology in the classroom might have unexpected implications for pedagogy, student behaviour and group dynamics. At the same time, technology use also raises issues that stretch well beyond the classroom. For example, what data is being generated by the software you are using and where does it go? Is data being sold to third parties, or used by school authorities to measure and monitor performance? Perhaps most important are concerns relating to fairness and equity. Research shows that technology use tends to benefit particular students over others – usually those who are already most advantaged (the so-called ‘Matthew Effect’). So, which students are likely to gain most from your use of technology, and who else might actually suffer? In the words of the media critic Neil Postman, the most important considerations are not questions of what technology will do, but questions of what technology will undo.

#6. Technology use is a collective concern

There is a longstanding tendency for successful school technology projects to be those driven by ‘charismatic champions’. The introduction of new technologies into school is understandably reliant on the expertise and energy of committed individuals – from the enthusiastic IT-using teachers who drag colleagues into projects, to the technicians that keep everything running on a shoestring. The trouble with this approach is that once these individuals move on, then the impetus for technology use often moves with them. Instead, sustained technology use is best achieved by making digital technology a collective, communal and shared concern. Rather than one person pushing things through, technology works best when teachers work together – talking with each other and getting the whole school community on board in working out what to do. The days are of education technology being a personal passion project for just a few teachers are over. Developing technology use should be a collective responsibility for all staff, students and parents.

#7. Beware of over-confident ‘experts’

Educational technology is an area that is fuelled by bold predictions, strong assertions and promises of improved teaching and learning. There are many people who make a good living from telling teachers what technology can do for them. Unfortunately, this is an area where no one can be completely certain of what will happen. As mentioned previously, every school is a locally specific context. What works in one school might not be applicable to another. It is nigh-on impossible for researchers to ‘prove’ that education technology leads to particular gains, improvements and outcomes. Anyone who is trying to tell you otherwise is either being cavalier with the facts, or else trying to sell you something. The most useful education technology knowledge does not come from globe-trotting ‘gurus’, keynote speakers and product evangelists. Instead, the best technology advice can often come from simply trying things out for yourself and/or speaking with colleagues working in similar situations and circumstances. There is still a lot to be said for teachers drawing on local knowledge and trusting their own judgement.

Conclusions

Set against the hype that usually surrounds education and technology, these low-key suggestions might not seem particularly exciting or inspirational. Yet the actual implementation of digital technology in schools is rarely that exciting or spectacular. Neither is school technology simply a ‘technical’ issue of what new device to buy next, or which app to get your class to download. Instead, school technology is a ‘socio-technical’ issue – relating to the social, cultural and political aspects of people and schools, alongside the technical aspects of organisational structure and processes. In this sense, getting the best from digital technology involves thinking about the specific contexts of your school, and how you can work with (and sometimes work around) them.

This all points to the need to approach technology use in schools in a manner that is realistic rather than idealistic. This involves being questioning, objective, discerning, disinterested and dispassionate when it come to the claims being made about specific technologies. This involves being curious about the problems – as well as potential – of new technologies. Above all, this involves seeing digital technology as something that requires plenty of forethought and collaboration with others around you.

Digital technology undoubtedly involves more (rather than less) thought and effort for teachers. Of course, there are plenty of benefits to be had from engaging with the vast variety of digital opportunities that are now available to schools. Yet perhaps it is most fruitful to always view digital technology as a choice. Digital technology is not something that teachers have to adapt to in the best way they can. Instead, digital technology should be something that you engage with on your own terms, to achieve your own goals and to address your own needs. Used appropriately, digital technology can be a powerful addition to any teacher’s repertoire. I hope that these articles provide you with plenty of food for thought.

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