Edtech at every level

While technology in education may vary based on student age, the dreams that lead it remain very much the same. Luke Dormehl reports

Children are using technology from a younger and younger age. Pre-school toddlers are able to unlock an iPhone, while an entire generation doesn’t remember life before the internet and social networking. Technology is changing education too – and it’s noticeable in everything from attempts to ‘gamify’ the learning experience (i.e. blurring the line between work and play), to virtual classrooms and online tutorials.

For this article, Education Technology decided to step back a few years further in the education market than is our usual remit to look at how technology isn’t just affecting HE, but primary and secondary education, also. What we learned is that, while the technology may vary based on student age, the dreams that lead it remain very much the same. 

Tech for the under-10

 Anyone who has ever tried to deal with a room full of primary school children will know the challenges of keeping them learning and from being distracted. Here, technology can prove immensely useful. For one thing it can help increase motivation. Primary school age students have notoriously short attention spans, but their interest can be sparked by the right sort of technology. For instance, a colourful animated screen – as one might find on an iPad or other tablet computer – can capture their attention and keep them interested for longer than usual periods of time. By engaging the child, this technology can also help empower children and encourage them to work independently.

Of course, a danger in encouraging children to use only screens as the basis for their learning is that it encourages independent learning at a stage in their lives when children should be interacting with each other. So how do you build on the positives offered by technology, while stripping away the negatives that would promote detachment?

One solution is offered by the UK-based company WizeLearning, which provides a technology called the WizeFloor. The WizeFloor is, essentially, a super-sized tablet computer, although rather than using a physical screen, it replicates the same effect using a projector and the motion-tracking technology from Microsoft’s Kinect (the line of motion sensing input devices for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One video game consoles). This monitors the movement of the children playing on it, and creates a range of games and educational activities to help them learn.

“Because it’s super-sized, children get to use their arms and their legs to gesture,” says WizeFloor’s managing director, Cameron Wade.

“Think of it as a full-body tablet computer. It encourages learning through play, and gets kids moving around. There have been a lot of studies over the years into kinesthetic learning, which suggest that kids learn better through play than they do from sitting still. This means that kids don’t feel that they’re being spoon-fed, and in many cases they don’t even realise how much it is that they’re learning.”

The WizeFloor comes with 18 different games, 14 of which allow the users to control the content themselves. “This lets teachers incorporate the device into their own curriculums,” Wade continues. “They can change the questions being asked, they can change the content in terms of visuals, and they change how difficult or easy individual games are. It’s incredibly flexible, and that’s what we feel separates us from many past interactive technologies.”

Do you know your Moodle from your Google?

Wade makes a good point. Today, computers aren’t just a tacked-on extra to the learning environment, but a fundamental way of shaking it up. Traditional models of education typically feature around 30 pupils sat in rows facing a teacher. Scholars studying the development of education over the years have likened this to a factory model of “industrial schooling” that rose to prominence with the Industrial Revolution, pitting warden-teachers against prisoner-students. 

The concept of virtual classrooms is seen increasingly in HE, but it is also beginning to appear in secondary level education. For example, multiple schools around the UK, such as Manchester High School for Girls and Westborough High School, utilise what is called Moodle, an open source virtual environment, developed by education technology pioneer Martin Dougiamas. Moodle’s lack of license fee and low cost of implementation makes it an ideal prospect for ever-stretched secondary school budgets. Like WizeFloor it is also highly flexible, and configurable to a range of requirements depending on the learning establishment in question. Using Moodle, both students and teachers can access the e-learning platform whenever they want from anywhere with an internet access. This platform allows students to submit their work, teachers to grade it, and news to be easily disseminated across the entire faculty and student population. 

Moodle claims to extend and enhance the classroom experience. Teachers can make classroom notes and PowerPoint presentations available for learners to access at any time. The subject can also be enhanced by giving students access to relevant media materials. For example, high school history classes can be added to by directing students towards relevant video clips and audio extracts, while teachers can also easily point students to relevant background reading material. Unlike previous technology implementations, which required teachers to direct students to one central screen at the front of the class, Moodle allows this information to be consumed and absorbed by students at their own rate.

A step change in HE

By promoting the use of technology at primary and secondary school levels, students will be prepared for the technological revolution currently sweeping HE. Everyone will likely be familiar with MOOCs, the massive open online courses that are helping to revolutionise individual HE learning – sometimes taking place a distance from where the courses are actually put together. But MOOCs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways in which technology is affecting education at an HE level.

“One thing I find very exciting is the idea of mobility: that students bring with them devices that allow them to connect with learning resources from all around the world,” says Professor Mark Stubbs, part of the Learning and Research Information Systems group at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Technology is something that students are used to using in their personal and social lives, and we’re now in a position where that technology is able to have a major impact on their educational experience also.” 

Online tutorials, virtual classrooms, and even data analytics tools that can help quantify exactly how well a student is doing as part of their course, are all playing their part in this new digital paradigm. Combined, these tools can result in a more personalised, bespoke learning experience that can help improve success and retention. Stubbs also points to the importance of “blended learning” which combines the digital and actual worlds in a philosophy not dissimilar to that of WizeFloor. 

He recently worked with University of London Computer Centre sales and marketing manager Frank Steiner to deliver Moodle and mobile Apps for 36,000 students in order to support MMU’s EQAL Programme to Enhance the Quality of Assessment for Learning, which marks a step change improvement in student satisfaction by refreshing the entire undergraduate curriculum. “Students today expect to a have a certain amount of information available to them when they need it,” Stubbs says. “When is their work due in? What is their timetable? When will work be returned? What mark will they receive for it? All of this can now be made seamless and personalised; available on whichever device students have access to, so that it doesn’t get in the way of the rest of the learning experience. It’s a foundation, and on top of that you can keep on building with other exciting technology applications. It’s a benchmark moment.” 

While the requirements of HE differ greatly from the requirements of primary and secondary education in terms of content, the overall mission statements are therefore not all that different; empowering students by encouraging personalised and bespoke learning, helping to quantify learning using trace data and metadata, and opening up access to new materials that would never have been possible to include as part of an old model classroom, all while ensuring that this enhances, rather than detracts from, the benefits of face-to-face learning.

Technology is changing education as we know it. And thanks to the work of pioneering individuals and companies working within the field, it’s showing no signs of slowing down.