Roundtable: Michael Mann

In this issue’s roundtable, we ask how tech could start to help promote inclusivity for disadvantaged students

Michael Mann, Senior Programme Manager at Nesta’s Innovation Lab, joins the discussion.

Q. Is tech in education inclusive, divisive or neutral?

Michael Mann: Technology has certainly multiplied the channels through which people around the world can engage with education. For example, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) mean that everyone, wherever they are, can join lectures from the world’s leading experts, and Skype has dramatically increased access to tutors.

There are also a whole range of innovative organisations using technology to support those with specific requirements. For example, How do I? is an app that uses NFC (the same tech that’s used in Oyster travel cards) to deliver tailored life skills videos to young people with learning difficulties. The aim of the app is to enable them to be more confident, independent, and less reliant on carers and support workers. 

There is inevitably a cost factor when it comes to gaining access to new equipment though, and this can lead to a risk of divisiveness. This is more reason schools should facilitate increased knowledge, understanding and use of tech. The alternative is that those who have expensive tech at home are the only ones who can build their skills in this area. 

Technology has the potential to be a powerful tool for good in education, but this can’t be taken for granted. As with all teaching equipment, it depends how it is used. 

Q. What are the considerations when introducing tech into education?

Michael Mann: The assumption that the introduction of tech into education will automatically make everything better is dangerous. You have to think about why you’re using each specific piece of equipment, what learning outcome or curriculum objective it’s supporting, and how it will do that. In order to do this you will have to be clear on the practical application of a product. Don’t buy something just because it’s shiny!

It’s worth trying something on a small scale first and seeing how it links to evidence. You should focus on the underlying pedagogy evidence if evaluations of that specific piece of tech equipment are hard to find. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit has good evidence on what makes one-to-one tuition and adaptive learning effective. This can be used to judge the approach on that pedagogy.

Finally, whatever the evidence, it must work in the context of your specific situation. This means you must feel comfortable in the fact that you are seeing tangible results.

Q. How can tech make education more inclusive?

Michael Mann: Tech in education can make up for the gap in access to tech at home between the haves and the have-nots. For example, the roll out of Code Club has meant that children from all backgrounds can gain a skillset that will open career opportunities to them in the future. Online platforms, such as Third Space Learning, can also give young people access to affordable tutoring. VR equipment can be used to show students places and experiences that they wouldn’t be able to see in life, for whatever reason. The list goes on…

Q. What projects and resources exist to help level the playing field?

Michael Mann: Previous Nesta research showed that while hundreds of millions of pounds has been spent on technology in schools, there is very little evidence that it has any impact on learning and attainment. Nesta’s Rocket Fund pilot is testing how, through crowdfunding, teachers can more easily try the new things they think will benefit their pupils, whilst writing reviews and developing case studies to advise other teachers in the future. 

Platforms like Rocket Fund can empower teachers to try new things and enable access to technology which can then be tested on the ground. This means teachers from all schools can have a say in what they think works. The platform gives schools the opportunity to raise money from local businesses and the wider community, to test technology that they would otherwise not be able to afford to try, such as VR headsets and 3D printers.

Q. How do we ensure every student has access to tech and opportunities to use tech, whatever their background or socio-economic group?

Michael Mann: A good first step is to build up evidence of what works and what doesn’t. This will prevent the waste of available funds on rushed purchases of the wrong stuff. Small scale trials to see what works in practice will allow equipment to more genuinely even out the playing field. 

Q. If money were no object for education, what equipment or resource could be provided for students that are disadvantaged in some way?

Michael Mann: It’s not about buying something expensive and flashy. It’s more about understanding how a particular piece of tech equipment can be used within a specific context. This can be done through an in-depth awareness of what it is you’re trying to achieve and access to evidence demonstrating how outcomes can best be reached.