Former headteacher and author Tom Sherrington meets former principal and author Eric Sheninger at the World Innovation Summit for Education 2017, in Doha, Qatar, to discuss the power of technology to enhance education.

Meeting Eric last week was a breath of fresh air.  He is more demanding when it comes to the impact that technology should have in schools than anyone I’ve ever discussed the idea with – which took me by surprise.

Formerly principal of a school in New Jersey in the US, Eric says he started out as a leader who ‘blocked, banned and prohibited’ tech in schools.  But over time his students encouraged him to change his mind, leading to the development and introduction of a full-scale ‘Bring Your Own Technology’ programme.

This approach includes using devices to access a range of ‘independent open courseware’ – materials from a range of providers that guide students through a curriculum designed to prepare them for moving on to higher education.

What students need is more substance, not more fluff

The intention was always to get more students engaged in learning at a higher level, supported by a view that ‘learning spaces don’t need to be confined to brick and mortar schools’. Eric’s experience is that students can and do access online learning very effectively if this approach is embraced by the school.

The school where he worked, New Milford High School, serves students aged 14 to 18, and the curriculum is accessed through using devices around the school, alongside online tools for different tasks in the classroom.

Eric says the impact of the strategy is significant: he has seen gains in achievement, better attendance, fewer discipline issues, increased graduation rates.  But this is what you should expect from implementing technology in a school, he adds, and he is quite agitated about others’ resistance to the idea.

Eric is clear that any tech is a tool not a learning outcome, and that what his students need is ‘more substance, not more fluff’.  He’s deeply sceptical of many claims made about ed-tech and insists that everything he advocates is supported by evidence from trials or cognitive science.

Tom and Eric

He advises asking questions to stay on track. What’s happening to learning outcomes? How do you know? How are teaching, learning and leadership changing?

Four areas should be used to judge impact, he says: assessment data from regular tests, to gauge improvement; lesson observations, to see how technology is integrated and how feedback is given; samples of students’ work, to evaluate quality; and portfolio-based assessments linked to specific standards.  It’s a blend of qualitative and quantitative evidence that allows him to see achievement in the round.

In order to bring this to life, Eric showed me various photographs of ‘blended learning’ approaches, with teachers rotating pupils through different work stations in a primary classroom, some of which included interactive maths and spelling activities, some that used specific apps to express ideas or communicate understanding, and some that involved reading comprehension. All of this is mixed in with routine teaching.

For Eric, using technology in this dynamic way “is just good instruction”. It’s a means to an end. But he is also clear that knowledge is the bedrock. Effective digital learning has a motivational element – “more kids see why they are learning, what they are learning and how it will help them”.

Most of all it is about giving knowledge a purpose, providing opportunities to apply knowledge to problem solving – the more ‘real world’ the better. “It’s a focus on why we need knowledge and what we do with it,” he says.

Beyond the pedagogical elements, Eric’s key message is about trust. He suggests this was a major driver of change at New Milford High School. “We started with trust with devices but this then became part of the school culture.”