As we emerge from the pandemic, there is widespread acceptance of edtech’s value. But turning this potential into a watershed moment will take a considerable effort of leadership. Acceptance doesn’t organically evolve into effective practice; that needs to be planned for and implemented.
For a start, the skills staff gained through remote teaching are not the same as those needed to make effective use of technology in the classroom. We shouldn’t expect an effortless translation. So school and college leaders need to think hard about what effective classroom use of tech looks like and then ensure it takes root. Without this, at best we’ll see a wide variance in practice within and between settings; at worst, a narrow consistency amid a field of missed opportunities.
We must be more ambitious. School closures laid bare an undeniable injustice in the incomparable remote learning experiences of students attending digitally mature institutions and many of their less advantaged peers. That difference began with the absence of a digital strategy, and the consequences are real-world gains and losses for young people, who moved closer or further from the opportunities presented by a good education.
Sadly, nothing has really changed. The huge advantage conferred on those with ongoing access to a powerful curriculum beyond the confines of the timetabled day carries on. All schools and colleges should be planning a strategy for achieving this benefit for their pupils and students.
Sceptics point to the lack of evidence that edtech use leads to measurably improved outcomes. This is undeniable, but focusing on empiricism rather misses the point. It is not that using technology is better than not using it, but that when intelligently deployed, technology very clearly confers advantages on the processes of teaching and learning.
Take, for example, the relationship between a teacher’s ability to explain their subject clearly and their classes’ ability to understand it. Chalk boards, whiteboards, overhead projectors, the Banda machine, computer projection and visualisers have all presented enhancements to that skill, each innovation ratchetting up teachers’ ability to explain complex things well.
Now, that projection can be driven by a tablet in one hand and a stylus to digitally ink the screen in the other. Teachers can do this from wherever in the room they deem most beneficial. Their annotations and voice can be captured and automatically distributed to their class once the lesson is over. This is “teacher clarity” with the volume turned up to 11.
If we begin with the processes of teaching and learning and layer on technology that adds value ̶ instead of the opposite approach, which has characterised so many failed innovations ̶ there are many more enhancements we can make. (Not least eliminating the cause of perfectly understandable scepticism.)
But it won’t do to leave individual teachers and “early adopters” to make what they can of this complex domain. It’s up to leaders to identify their teachers’ needs, think through which of these technology can best support, and plan out a strategy for change.
Hand-in-hand with the skills teachers developed out of necessity these past 18 months came confidence. And with confidence came experimentation, adaptation and innovation. So too came a realisation that technology isn’t something we stop teaching in order to use, but a strand of effective practice. Leaders with a credible digital strategy will be pushing at an open door.
So, where should they start? With some simple questions. How can edtech support the things that we know make for effective teaching? Do we have access to those technologies already? How can we offer ongoing access to our curriculum once lessons are over? Can we scaffold that access further? Where are the gaps?
Happily, there’s no need for each leader or team to navigate the process entirely on their own (though it should be locally owned). The Department for Education has funded a second year of its popular EdTech Demonstrator Programme, allowing schools to access up to 30 hours of support over the coming months, delivered by peers in similar institutions with deep experience in this kind of change.
And best of all, it’s completely free.