Digital divide

Digital poverty: Can edtech really close disadvantage gaps?

‘Digital maturity’ will remain an exclusive club until everyone is putting the needs of disadvantaged learners first, writes Joe Hallgarten

‘Digital maturity’ will remain an exclusive club until everyone is putting the needs of disadvantaged learners first, writes Joe Hallgarten

3 May 2022, 5:00

Ahead of the much anticipated schools white paper and SEND review, the DfE published a research-heavy, 100-page tome exploring the digital maturity of schools. The report described the majority of schools as “moderately mature”, but only nine per cent as “digitally mature” – which was something of a surprise, given the past two years. It also highlighted that many schools find it difficult to assess the impact of their technology use.

Yet understanding the impact of technology, particularly with regards to supporting teaching and learning, is critical to narrowing attainment gaps between disadvantaged learners and their peers. Using edtech in this way, over and above its contribution to curriculum delivery, is surely the best sign of a school’s digital maturity.

This was the topic of a recent roundtable discussion I chaired on behalf of Tassomai, and the follow-up report, Bridging the attainment gap: edtech and the struggle to level up, had some encouraging advice for teachers and school leaders, particularly regarding impact.

A key message was that data from any given tool has limited value if it’s not connected to a school’s wider information system. Without information on demographics including pupil premium and special educational needs, progress made in the classroom can’t be contextualised. Connecting individual edtech tools provides a much richer data set from which to understand the impact on different students, not least about those who face additional challenges.

Closely related to this, the report also underlines the importance of how information is presented. It may be easy to get edtech tools to churn out reams of data. But in its raw form it won’t help school leaders or teachers understand whether the students who need the greatest support are really benefiting and, most importantly, are actually learning more. Instead, presenting data in a dashboard that is easy to understand gives teachers actionable insight from which to make informed decisions.

For school leaders navigating the increasingly competitive edtech market, keeping the needs of disadvantaged learners foremost in their minds will help to inform the questions they will need to ask prospective suppliers. The report emphasises the need to assess whether edtech software is laser-focused on the needs of disadvantaged learners.

Reaching ‘digital maturity’ depends on the whole ecosystem

There is an encouraging groundswell of interest in how edtech can address the needs of disadvantaged learners among organisations that work with schools. However, our own research at CfEY highlights the importance of co-development with disengaged groups and calls into question how often and how well edtech software is currently developed with these groups in mind.

So a key question for school leaders to consider from the outset is whether software designers are themselves asking questions from the perspective of disadvantaged pupils. Another is whether there is an opportunity to collaborate with suppliers to support the development of more inclusive edtech solutions.

Many edtech software packages are already capable of personalising learning to the needs of disadvantaged children. However, vendors may not be familiar with this functionality (or realise its importance to schools). Taking a lead on the matter from the outset could be transformative for the market, putting closing attainment gaps at the heart of edtech companies’ offer and ensuring teachers are involved in developing – and trained to make effective use of – the tools that can help them to achieve that goal.

The experience of the past two years means all schools, whether digitally mature or on their way to that status, have a clearer understanding of edtech’s value. And while it is true that the sector has in some cases over-promised and under-delivered, there is a broad acceptance that digital technologies are powerful classroom tools that are here to stay.

But reaching digital maturity in any meaningful sense depends on the whole ecosystem. Until developers, vendors and schools (and the Department for Education too!) are working together to ensure all pupils benefit, it’s hard to see how anything more than a small proportion of schools will get there alone.

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