Launching an Education Revolution in Schools

EdTech is often over-hyped and often undelivers. But how can schools change that and make the most of new technology?

In August 2018 education secretary Damian Hinds issued a challenge to the technology sector to launch an ‘education revolution’ in schools. He said this was needed to ensure that schools have access to the ‘sustainable, focused solutions which will ultimately support and inspire the learners of today and tomorrow’.

It’s a bold call, and certainly a headline grabbing one. But it would be remiss to interpret this as suggesting there is not already widespread adoption of EdTech in UK schools. In fact, a study published in January found UK pupils are using technology far more than their counterparts in Germany.1 In the survey of pupils aged 12-15 only 2% of UK respondents said they were not using any technology in their lessons, compared to 22% of those surveyed in Germany.

Technology in Schools Today

Tech adoption might be unstructured, but you don’t need to look too far to uncover inspiring examples of how schools are taking advantage of different technologies and using them in interesting ways. The Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Elstree 2, for example, is using virtual reality (VR) to help children understand how jet engines are built, offer study options on Big Data, and even developed a ‘secret agent mission’ for the BBC micro:bit initiative.

Elsewhere, the Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust – singled out for praise by the government in its release on the importance of EdTech – has built an ‘immersive room’ 3 where a projected display wraps around three walls. It’s a space that’s used for a wide-range of educational activities, from learning about the history of music, to ‘museum tours’ and learning about mechanics (by mimicking the thrill of a rollercoaster ride).

“Now ideally what you’d want is to take [the children] to the theme park,” explained Kirsty Tonks, the Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust’s primary director. “But the cost of hiring a coach is astronomical... If you wanted to go and take them to see Da Vinci’s work, you’d probably have to fly a few hundred miles to get to anywhere. Whereas we can create a museum and use it year in, year out.”

It’s not the only example of practical engagement with cutting-edge technology. At Bedford School a team of pre A-level pupils, with help from their head of computer science, recently came third at a blockchain interoperability hackathon hosted by London-based start-up Clearmatics.4 Blockchain still remains a nascent technology, so this success (against teams from banks like Santander and Barclays) should not be taken lightly.

Meanwhile in Wales, several schools have been working with 3D printers to design and build remote controlled cars 5, which will then be raced in the summer at a purpose-built track.

The EdTech 50 Schools Initiative

These are surely the kind of projects that the government has in mind when it talks about how EdTech can benefit schools. It’s about using technology to create engaging, thought-provoking, practical and creative experiences for children that deliver on school’s pedagogical goals. Better still, viewing virtual art and racing 3D printed cars could spark imaginations and kickstart all kinds of interesting career paths for children.

The hard work and success of schools using EdTech in such innovative ways was recognised with The Edtech 50 Schools initiative.6 Supported by Intel, The Education Foundation, EdTech UK, Jisc, and the Independent Schools Council (ISC) Digital Strategy Group, identified the 50 most digitally advanced schools in the UK. This highlighted best practice, as well as showcased innovative thinking, ultimately helping others consider how they might better use technology in the classroom.

The full list of Edtech 50 winners is available here.7

Students today can have access to a wide range of technologies, from laptops to virtual reality headsets. But there’s often no consistency.

It is also important to remember that, when discussing EdTech, it's not confined to providing benefits for pupils within lessons. It can also improve life for teachers and positively impact their day-to-day responsibilities. Cloud software tools, for example, are becoming increasingly common to enhance collaboration and allow staff to manage key administration tasks from any location. While data analytic tools can help track class performance, predict future grades and spot knowledge gaps in pupils that are otherwise performing well.

“I think we’ve had the tools for a long time to reduce teacher workloads,” says Ian Phillips [8], Assistant head teacher of the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, and Chair of the ISC Digital Strategy Group. “But teachers haven’t been able to take full advantage of the potential of these tools. If schools invest well in training, this will make an enormous difference to teacher’s lives.”

Pursuing a Coherent Strategy

Training is just one aspect that will ultimately drive the education revolution that Damian Hinds has called for. Many schools are no doubt keen to do more with technology and emulate the examples listed above, but perhaps require guidance to help them achieve the sort of educational benefits they, and the government, crave.

“I was involved with the ISBA survey that the ISC Digital did,” Ian Phillips adds. “And I think a number of schools clearly have invested a lot of money in technology. What I feel, is that we’re probably at a stage where we haven’t got a coherent strategy or coherent plan of what it is we’re trying to achieve.”

That’s certainly understandable. When it comes to EdTech there’s a lot to get your head around: Computers, tablets and laptops, smartphones, interactive whiteboards, immersive rooms, 3D printers, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), programmable robots, virtual and augmented reality headsets… the list goes on. To even use one of these technologies well and with purpose in a lesson, requires not just know-how, but time and effort too.

Getting involved with technologies such as VR, 3D printers and robotics can help prepare students for a STEM-heavy workplace.

Of course, even if schools have the will to embrace new technology, and the skills to implement it, there are other significant challenges to overcome. Funding is always tricky, with many schools no doubt seeing little increase in their budgets over recent years. But a lack of knowledge, outdated infrastructure and legacy systems can also make it hard for new ideas to be implemented, even if the costs are manageable. It certainly makes life more complicated that there are no specific Ofsted requirements for how technology use should be provisioned in schools.

No One-Size-Fits-All Approach

Crucially, every school is different and a one-size fits-all EdTech approach rarely suits anyone. Instead, schools need to understand their own needs, challenges and opportunities, and then work to see how technology could address these, specific to their needs.

There are resources that can help with this. For starters, the ISC Digital Strategy Group has a detailed and practical resource – ‘A School’s Guide to Developing Digital’ – that outlines the holistic approach schools should take when incorporating EdTech into their operations.

Its recipe for IT improvement is dubbed the Bursar’s IT “six-pack” 8 and it details the principles that will form the foundation of a successful digital strategy. These include: getting external help; spending at least 20% of IT budgets on training; using cloud-based collaborative tools (like Office 365); building/maintaining a fast internet connection; and securing/safeguarding children’s data.

Demonstrating a Clear Vision

But most importantly, there must be a ‘clear, well-understood IT vision’ that puts teachers at the heart of IT strategy. And that vision, says Ian Phillips, “must be understood by everyone at the school to enable the school to be able to move on.”

The key thing is to realise is that schools are not alone on this journey; that there are organisations and companies out there that can help identify how to start this journey with a clear direction in mind that will benefit pupils, teachers, schools and, ultimately, the country. That’s certainly a revolution worth being a part of.

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