Challenges to implementing new tech in teacher education

Jo Byrd, Lecturer in PrimaryEducation at the University of Derby, discusses the challenges of introducing new technologies in higher education

Three years ago, while working with second-year trainee teacher students, I asked them to write down reflections on their teaching practice. This was not a task that most students could see the benefit in doing. They saw it as more of a hoop to jump through, rather than a beneficial process that would assist their learning and insight into themselves as trainee teachers.

Reflecting myself on this task, I began to wonder if using a digital tool where students would be free to embed videos, hyperlinks, photos, lecture notes, talks, and write in a blog format, which they could design and manage themselves, would give them a better sense of ownership and enjoyment. I questioned whether they would see the process of reflecting as less of a bind and more as an opportunity to challenge and improve their practice, and grow as professionals. This had to make sense. I was looking at the ‘Google generation’ and the ‘digital natives’, right?

I was keen to develop students’ digital competencies and give them a tool they would then be able to work with once qualified to ease their workload and to model using technology to the children they would be teaching.

So, with the help of the University of Derby’s Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) Team, I introduced PebblePad v5 – a digital tool to log events, reflections and create workbooks. It quickly became apparent the technology could cope with more than just hosting reflections, and so an option for students to upload all of their teaching files was developed.

By the end of their teaching practice of eight weeks, our students generate up to three lever-arch files of paper that are carried around daily. A rather immediate benefit was our students no longer had to lug paper files around. Furthermore, lecturers and mentors and other peers could view their files remotely, which meant no more one to two-hour round trips to placement schools just to check on some paperwork.

Technology is being used more and more in our daily lives and our trainee teachers need to be able to model effective use of technology to the children they are teaching.

However, I stumbled across quite a few problems. My first barrier was my naivety in assuming our students were ‘digital natives’, a term I have since seen critiqued. Some of our students were not confident in taking on this tool and, for some, introducing new technology into the classroom actually increased their stress and workload.

While some students have loved the changes, can see the benefits, and have improved their digital technology skills, others have been less keen and more apprehensive.

A further risk, which some students did do, was to just swap the paper files for online files. Lecturers and school-based mentors also showed a great deal of apprehension, and naivety number two, for me, was underestimating how people respond to change.

A final barrier, and one we are still working with, is Wi-Fi access in schools – some schools will not allow our trainees their Wi-Fi code for security issues. This is not insurmountable, but it makes life a little harder. Similarly, there is the issue of using personal devices, such as iPhones and iPads, in the classroom. Of course, with the introduction of GDPR, there is now an even greater suspicion of online recording and holding of data – the truth, of course, is the data is the same whether it is in a paper file or online, so knowing what is okay to store and what isn’t is really the issue here.

While some students have loved the changes, can see the benefits, and have improved their digital technology skills, others have been less keen and more apprehensive. Some staff also found the changes hard.

Despite this, we are now in a position where we have rolled out this tech to all our first-year and second-year students. Using paper files is no longer an option. Much training has been given from the TEL team and lecturers and, more recently, between our students. We were mindful that while we endorse this new technology 100%, for any final-year students who do not, and where it contributes negatively to their stress levels and workloads in an already busy final year, it would not be beneficial for them.

Introducing technology into teacher education has been extremely rewarding. It has meant both staff and students have examined their digital capabilities. We have also reassessed what we are doing and have been able to justify why. However, it must be stressed that to introduce it, one has to consider the training that is needed. Staff need to be clear on why it is being used and know how to use it themselves – if they say they have not got time to work it out, should we be asking students to do so?

Change does not happen overnight. We are now in a position where more people see the benefit of the technology than the barriers. Over the next year, as students become more and more competent, I am sure we will begin to see their digital capabilities improve. Ultimately, we are looking to see students having more control over their learning and how they represent themselves.

Personally, although it was initially beneficial to trial this with a small group of students, who were confident to express their issues with the technology, in the future, I would always introduce any changes to a programme to a new cohort of students. I would also be mindful of the teaching staff who were supporting the students and ensure they saw the benefits of the technology. Finally, I would remember, when teaching, to never assume anything!

Technology is a key part of teaching and embedding new tools into classrooms in schools and universities is an exciting part of our role. The challenges of this need clear thought and planning however, in order to be most effective.