Insight: Workin’ 9 till 5 (and beyond) – How can technology make teachers’ lives easier?

Kevin O’Malley reports on the elephant in the classroom: teacher workload

When discussing edtech, the benefits to the student is well-trodden ground. The percentage of companies looking to provide effective tools to increase information retention is huge. But less commonly discussed is how it might assist the teacher. “We know there is potential for technology to be a force for good for schools, colleges and universities,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Education.

“Our recently launched edtech strategy set out our aim to support and enable the education sector in England to help develop and embed technology in a way that cuts workload, fosters efficiencies, removes barriers to education and ultimately drives improvements in educational outcomes.”

An optimistic stance. But do the realities match up? “I think it can depend on the teacher, how computer-savvy they are, and also the school or academy they work for. Because I know there are different demands. It can vary,” says Dinsdale Shaw, a teacher of 25 years and the NASUWT Teacher’s Union local secretary for Grimsby.

He’s echoed by Andy Kent, CEO of software company Angel Solutions. “Sometimes it’s really, really hard to get the support through to the people who need the help,” he says. However, in areas like marking, lesson planning and content curation, edtech can occasionally provide solutions.

Marking

Technology’s ability to help with marking is most obvious in maths and the sciences. “Marking in a digital form traditionally has been about dedicated assessment points where they have a black and white answer,” says Patrick McGrath, education technology strategist for Texthelp. John Smith, the CEO of writing platform Pobble, agrees: “Maths, science, those sorts of things where there is a right or wrong answer, it’s quite easy for a machine to mark a piece of work, perhaps suggest where they might have gone wrong in the process.”

But artificial intelligence and machine learning have begun to broaden the scope of edtech’s applications. “It’s certainly helped change the face of how things can be marked, how they can introduce less bias, how they can produce faster feedback for students,” says McGrath. Texthelp’s work on the subject has recently led to multiple aids to teachers for maths and education, cutting time off marking subjective documents like essays.

Recent pedagogical developments have also proved fruitful ground for modern edtech. “There are a lot of very advanced schools in Dubai and the Middle East that are adopting very different approaches to marking,” says Smith. “Rather than taking home a stack of books at the end of the day, they’re actually doing lots of feedback, and commenting on each others’ work, exploring what’s good about it, what could be improved, during the lesson. There are a lot of tools that will make that process easier.”

[AI] has certainly helped change the face of how things can be marked, how they can introduce less bias, how they can produce faster feedback for students – Patrick McGrath

Lesson planning

Lesson planning can also benefit from the influence of technology. McGrath says: “In the traditional sense, where teachers are taught to create a lesson plan and very clearly set out their objectives and their learning criteria, success criteria, that’s still an important part of planning. I think online tools have started to present a number of opportunities for teachers to do that faster.”

Companies like Pobble operate by (among other services) offering access to answers generated by other students to discuss in class. Smith says: “My brother, a teacher, called me up and said, “Look, John, I’ve noticed when I’m planning my lessons, the best are the ones where I can show my class real examples of handwritten work from other children. I want to make a website where we can take photos of this work, because everyone is doing the Romans, everyone is doing passive voice – why is there not a central database where we can share our resources?”

As time passed, other providers began to work with the company to host their content on the platform, creating a wide archive of materials for use in the planning process, all linked to examples of students’ work to provide context.

“It’s really about collaborating and sharing ideas. Technology just makes that so much easier,” says Smith.

Classroom resources

Similar principles apply when creating materials to be used in class. Here, edtech companies have facilitated a thriving community of educators, creating and sharing content on a host of different subjects. “Definitely in the last year, we’ve seen improvement in education websites and online content to be used in the classroom,” says Shaw. “It makes life easier for teachers, and kids are glued to it.”

But while sharing resources can be helpful, it’s not a perfect solution. “Most teachers are teaching similar sorts of things, but what’s important is the context for that class that they’re teaching for,” says Smith. “We hear this all the time from teachers that this is why they want to stay in charge of all of the content that they’re delivering in their classroom. It’s not as simple as just having a curriculum of resources and just delivering that, it’s about the context.” To facilitate this, a host of tools have been developed; “You’ve got amazing tools like Wakelet and EdPuzzle,” says McGrath – two programs which allow for easy multimedia content curation and user access. They also allow the student to directly relate to the material more easily; “We’re providing much more flexibility to the student to be more creative in their learning.”

Definitely in the last year, we’ve seen improvement in education websites and online content to be used in the classroom. It makes life easier for teachers, and kids are glued to it – Dinsdale Shaw

Wellbeing

While the workload itself can be reduced, companies must also consider the wellbeing of teachers. In their recent State of Technology in Education report for 2019/20, Promethean found that 46% of teachers found their workload unmanageable. This alone should indicate the intense degree of emotional and psychological stress teachers are under.

Part of the problem faced by edtech companies trying to solve this problem, however, is familiarity in classroom structures. Without keeping teacher empowerment at the front of their minds, technology can find itself going unused in the classroom. Still, Smith sees reason for optimism: “It’s former teachers, it’s people who really understand the context of the classroom. Those people are starting to proliferate through the industry.”

“I think, if truth be told, we’re only starting to become cognizant of the fact that these tools can potentially help,” says McGrath. “I do think we have a long way to go before we can understand the full stress a teacher’s under, but reducing workload and reducing student stress are two important things we can do with technology today.”

“Certainly stress levels are much easier with some of the equipment,” says Shaw. “If you can do stuff online, it’s a lot easier. If you’ve planned a lesson, created the resources, you’ve got them for the year, and you can soon update that.”

Teachers themselves are already providing methods of managing their emotional wellbeing: “The union works with education school partnership which has a great website for reducing stress for teachers,” says Shaw. “And there are various mindful apps you can use. Headspace is a popular one.”

The running theme across these areas is simple: Edtech companies must work with teachers if they want to be effective.

“We’re trying to support teachers doing what they do, just a little bit better,” says Smith. “It has to be on the teacher’s terms.”

Source for all stats: Promethean State of Technology in Education Report 2019/20 (https://resourced.prometheanworld.com/technology-education-industry-report/)


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