Train to gain

The constant challenge with edtech development has been around the lack of educationally focused training, says Dan Sandhu

Q. Is there still a reluctance to embrace technology in schools from a teaching point of view, and what can we do to help promote the use of edtech in all schools?

A. There is some reluctance, which is in part because so many studies have failed to show demonstrable impact from the use of technology. This is partly down to too little being spent on teacher training, and also because there has been too little innovation. Technology is a resource like any other, not a cure-all. 

If you look back at how innovation in edtech has evolved, the constant challenge has been around the lack of educationally focused training on maximising the impact of technology in the classroom on student attainment. For example, the National Grid for Learning in 1998, the introduction of Interactive Whiteboards in 2004-2006, and VLEs/Learning Platforms in 2008/2010. They were all plagued by the same lack of well thought out, centrally coordinated training. 

Technology is always a challenge because you’re always going to have to demonstrate that it works. My view is that it is like any other resource; if it’s done well and doesn’t overwhelm the teaching process it works, but if it does overwhelm the teaching process, it is just an interference. 

At Digital Assess we are impact driven, because we are intent on providing solutions to real problems that make a measurable difference to our learners. We really try and understand what the impact is of what we do, and if we can track it. If you’re in edtech and don’t understand the impact, you’re just a technology provider. 

Q. Are budget restrictions a major factor as to why we are seeing a digital divide between teachers and their students? What can we do to improve this?

A. Budget restrictions play a part, but I wouldn’t say that they are a major factor. A major factor driving the technology is assessment. Like it or not, much of what goes on in the classroom does so to serve the end goal of tests. Assessment is the tail that wags the dog. If all those tests are done on paper, why use technology as part of the curriculum? Change the forms of assessment and the curriculum will follow, taking the digital divide with it. 

It’s more about re-designing the curriculum to make the most of technology, and assessment is a very good exemplification of this. In Norway this has already started to happen – formative assessment is now part of the curriculum. This helps students understand more about their own abilities, and technology helps to deliver and support this, in a scalable and quick to respond manner. This works so much better than the current UK curriculum model where we wait until the very end to assess the students before penalizing them for what they don’t understand, giving them no chance to correct this.  

The reality is that the best way to deliver core teaching in the primary and secondary years is always going to be face-to-face

It’s an interesting discussion point, because in a world of budget restrictions, only the good solutions slip to the top. With restrictions, people make decisions on what the best technology is. In that sense, we don’t find it a constraint. You can have great pedagogical solutions in tight budget solutions, so it shouldn’t really make a difference as a factor.  

Q. How often should schools look at training teaching staff to use the latest edtech, or is it more important that educators show initiative and take responsibility in keeping up with new developments?

A. The problem is that people get too fixated around changes or innovations in the technology. Instead, we should focus on the most effective ways of using technology enhanced approaches to maximise curriculum impact and student attainment. Teachers are very bright, and they are always going to adapt to the natural academic challenges, so it shouldn’t make much of a difference. Technology may change, but the principles of how you make effective use of technology in the classroom remains the same. Tech innovation just makes this easier.

Q. Do you think tech suppliers should as standard supply teacher training on their technology products?

A. You can tell technology is really working when the discussions you have with education providers are about educational strategies and not the technology itself, and those are the discussions I enjoy the most. The reality is, technology should be made so intuitive that it doesn’t require training, and that is what the best technology does.

The best training is to be involved in the process, and that is our view of educational technology as a whole. Something that requires more training is therefore less intuitive, and will have less adoption in schools. The more intuitive it is to use as part of the teacher’s process, the less training will be required. Some technology doesn’t even need people in order to be used.

Q. How important is it that teachers embrace social media rather than shy away from it? Do the benefits of using Twitter and Facebook to engage with students outweigh the potential risks?

A. Teachers should be engaging with their pupils face to face. Technology should not be seen to replace the most important interactions between a teacher and student. Learning Management Systems and Virtual Reality Environments have largely failed by setting out to do that.

Technology should be seen as a mechanism to support teachers in supporting student learning. The use of social media in (and out) of the classroom can be very effective, especially in terms of motivating students and encouraging collaboration, but this is only if done hand-in-hand with good tools to monitor and guide student collaborations in this medium. The Singapore Ministry of Education have done quite a bit of research in this area, some of which Digital Assess was involved with, providing teachers with assessment tools to help them better understand how students were collaborating and gain insight into what was being learnt by students as a result.

I have my own children, so this is a very relevant question for me and anyone else with kids. The reality is that the best way to deliver core teaching in the primary and secondary years is always going to be face-to-face. It’s not just about the content but the process and the interaction. Social media is an interesting information source, and a useful way of engaging students to get them interacting in a social environment, but real contact will always trump that. It can be useful as part of another collaborative tool, but it isn’t a replacement of anything, nor should it be. 

Before Facebook or Twitter, guiding was about making friends and building relationships, but now teachers should be telling the students how to build social relationships and use the tools effectively

The benefits go hand in hand with the risks in this instance, because you have to have that strong face-to-face time too. In early years, it’s all about how to support the children and guide their learning. Part of that should be how to use these tools for learning and how to engage online as part of a community. Before Facebook or Twitter, guiding was about making friends and building relationships, but now teachers should be telling the students how to build social relationships and use the tools effectively. There are risks, but the pupils should be guided away from them by a strong face-to-face environment at primary level. 

The tools have a role to play, but it requires a certain amount of maturity. If you’re getting children ready for the world, you need to give them the knowledge they need before they leave your circle of influence, and that’s down to the parents and teachers. I am all for children going on social media but only when they are mature enough to use it, and can use it, effectively. 

Dan Sandhu is Chairman and CEO of Digital Assess. 

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