Roundtable: Does tech in schools always need to be new? Martin Hamilton answers

In the first in our series, Steve Wright finds out if schools and universities always need to go after expensive new tech, or if they can learn to better harness what they already have?

Martin Hamilton is a Futurist at Jisc.

Q. How can tightly budgeted schools and universities work with the tech they already have, to improve learning outcomes without spending more?

I think the first thing to note is that a huge amount of ‘edtech’ isn’t custom educational apps, VR headsets or AI chatbots and tutors – it’s just the same tech you would use at home. Ubiquitous but unsexy stuff like PCs, Microsoft Office and Google Docs, wifi routers and projectors. And we really don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the educational potential of this everyday tech.

Secondly, spending some time working to help staff improve their digital capabilities has the potential to improve student experience and outcomes – and to save money too. We could single out virtual learning environments for special attention here – modern VLEs have good support for personalised independent learning, and could be so much more than a dumping ground for handouts. These functions allow learners to access learning materials, participate in formative assessment tasks, and obtain feedback on their formative assessment scores, among many other things. However, because staff have not been made fully aware of this potential or haven’t the skills to effectively use them, many are still being used as digital repositories rather than the powerful learning platforms they can be.

Q. Are there common examples out there of edtech that isn’t being used to its full capabilities? Are educators buying kit that they don’t need, not realising that they already possess the functionality on an existing device?

It can sound trite to say that many of these workaday apps have vast unplumbed depths, but… a recent Mashable article showcases some amazing things that people have done with Microsoft Excel. Forget pivot tables: we’re talking animated GIFs, stop-motion animations and role-playing games.

I would argue that the same is true of multi-purpose devices like PCs, phones and tablets. For example, if you think the iPad is just for consuming content, try a bit of coding in Swift Playgrounds, or have a play with Siri shortcuts and Scriptable, which lets you write JavaScript to control low-level iOS features.

Q. The temptation will often be to view the latest generation of tech as the most effective. Should educators approach this notion with some scepticism?

As always, it’s more about what you want to do with it than the tech itself. A modern PC with the latest graphics processing unit (GPU) can do incredible things like real-time ray tracing, but you have to want and need this in the first place. This is where the increasing trend towards computers as black boxes with no user-serviceable parts is particularly pernicious – you simply can’t crowbar open a lot of modern computers to upgrade them or replace defective hardware.

With climate and the environment increasingly central in people’s minds I hope we will start to see some of the major manufacturers take a more eco-friendly approach, borrowing from the Fairphone playbook.

Spending some time working to help staff improve their digital capabilities has the potential to improve student experience and outcomes.

Q. Where can schools and universities go (online?) to find advice and examples on how to repurpose, recycle and refurbish their edtech?

PC Magazine did a great round up earlier this year of potential uses for an old PC, such as extending its life by converting to it run Linux or Google’s ChromeOS. However, the truth is that a lot of our education institutions, schools and colleges are scraping by on equipment that is already long past its use-by date. When I gave evidence to the Education Select Committee’s fourth industrial revolution enquiry earlier this year, I mentioned that teachers had told me about 10-year-old computers they were still using due to the lack of funds to replace them, and the latest research from BESA shows that secondary school ICT budgets have fallen by £17m over the last seven years.

Q. Can you cite any key tricks for using existing edtech in new ways?

It’s all about finding novel apps and plumbing those hidden depths that I mentioned earlier.

This is where tools like Edtech Impact can be hugely useful by helping to discover the edtech tools that peers have found useful in the classroom and lecture theatre. I’m also really excited about the edtech step up programme that Jisc has devised with partner Emerge Education. Step up assesses firms against objective criteria, such as GDPR compliance, giving educators greater confidence about trialling products from small companies.

And let’s not forget that, when we talk about the potential of Education 4.0, using technologies like AI and augmented reality (AR) to enhance teaching and learning, there is a lot that can be done with existing resources and very moderate investment. For example, Google Cardboard-compatible headsets are available for just a few pounds, and you can even make your own for nothing if you have a bit of old cardboard and a clear plastic bottle handy. Jisc’s pilot 3D scanning service is free to educators, and 360-degree cameras can be had for as little as £200 now, so getting started with VR and AR needn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Q. Can you give any examples of schools, colleges or universities using their ‘old’ tech in new or imaginative ways?

I’m particularly inspired by the Square Mile project at De Montfort University (DMU), which has worked with the local community in Leicester to help residents get to grips with the tech and to build their digital confidence. The project has been supported by around 50 DMU students who were able to give something back to the community whilst also adding valuable experience and expertise to their own CVs, with the university’s commitment being recognised in several prestigious awards.

In a similar vein, it would be interesting to see what our learners could do if given access to a representative sample of phone and tablet hardware – perhaps giving budding teen app developers the opportunity to test their work on equipment that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford or access. Wouldn’t it be incredible if the next teen tech millionaire turned out to be a student from a disadvantaged background, given a leg up thanks to some imaginative recycling of otherwise redundant tech?

Further reading

  Jisc: Building Digital Capability  –

  Amazing projects in Microsoft Excel –

  Learning to Code with Swift Playgrounds –

  Using Scriptable for shortcuts –

  ICT Evangelist blog: Is that edtech tool pedagogically valid?

  Stone Group: IT Recycling  –

  Information Commissioner’s Office: IT Asset Disposal for Organisations –

  Association of Network Managers in Education –

  Edtech Impact –

  Jisc 3D scanning service –

  De Montfort University Square Mile Project –

  Edugeek forum –