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How are state schools using tech in the classroom?

Let us say goodbye to chalkboards and overhead projectors, and hello to iPads and 3D Pens.

Tech in the classroom or “EdTech” has well and truly arrived, bringing with it a myriad of buzzwords and renewed excitement for certain pedagogical approaches – from big data or BYOD, to the flipped classroom and blended learning. It’s a fast moving space with start-ups head-to-head with technology stalwarts, and an area ripe for teacherpreneurs and trailblazing schools.

But, it’s no secret that UK state schools have been stung in the past by government or LEA roll-outs of cumbersome, unintuitive and costly tech solutions. Indeed, for many schools in Scotland and Wales, the government led schemes are still in operation with mixed success.

George Osborne's budget announcement that all state schools must become academies by 2022 has further shaken things up. Academies will have more autonomy and responsibility for their procurement, no longer hamstrung or advised - depending on your perspective - by LEAs.

So, how do schools and their budget holders get the most bang for their buck?

Firefly commissioned independent research group VoicED to put this question to state schools across the UK, looking specifically at e-learning platforms or VLE type solutions. Their comprehensive survey looked at levels of adoption, obstacles and challenges before and after acquisition, and schools’ motivations for implementation.

In the same space as this study there are a well trodden mix of truths and truisms, as well as research, most of which look at the impact of tech on students not schools or teachers. An exception is a 2014 study from Virgin Business Media, which suggested a “growing digital divide between the technology that is available in the classroom and teachers’ ability to effectively use it”. This ties into the narrative of digital immigrants vs. digital natives, that is teachers and students respectively. But, this distinction is as misleading as it is unhelpful.

What’s more useful is finding a tool that helps teachers focus on what matters most – teaching, enables different students to learn in ways that are best for them, and encourages parental engagement or other support that will help students excel. In other words, tech that works hand-in-hand with a school’s learning and teaching goals.

From the research, 86% of respondents stated that improving GCSE results was a high priority. Almost 9 in 10 agreed that parental engagement has a positive impact on learning. Yet, teachers have day-to-day obstacles preventing them from maximising their actual focus on teaching.

In February 2015 the Department for Education released their workload challenges findings, with the two clear issues being “recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data” (56%) and the “excessive depth of marking – detail and frequency” (53%). No surprise here, but these are two areas that tech should be targeted to help.

Schools on the whole are willing to consider tech, but the research identified some of the headwinds that prevent schools from investing: A lack of funding and budget limitations is the case for 35% of respondents. Taking just budget holders response to this question, 50% noted funding and budget limitation, as did a similar number of ICT managers at 52%. More general challenges included curriculum changes (25%), a shortage of teachers (11%), increased paperwork or workload (11%), and a lack of resources (11%).

Here’s the rub – these challenges can both prohibit schools from adopting tech and be overcome by tech. What to do?

It’s key to understand the return on investment or value of tech in real terms.

Not exhaustive, but what are your costs? Price of product, time to implement and staff hours to get the tech ready for the classroom. How do you determine success? Levels of adoption, impact on teaching or learning, and grades.

Put in real terms, two products purport to do similar things, one costs £3k, the other £7k. But, after roll-out they have 20% and 80% user adoption, respectively. That initial price differentiation now seems less relevant – in a school of 750 the former costs £20 per user, and the latter £11.

Tech can be about cost saving too, such as cutting down on paper, printing or school planners. But again, only if tech is adopted widely enough to make this possible. And, for teachers, it’s defensible to say that if their time is saved and reallocated from, say, data entry and repetitive tasks onto teaching or planning, there is an equivalent monetary saving. They can put this time towards developing lesson plans, creative classroom ideas or projects.

Frictionless implementation will also depend on the tech supplier. They might provide training, ongoing support, or assist with the change management. In theory, a good supplier will have seen how their product can be placed in a wide variety of schools and be the expert on how to do this best. If they don’t offer such help an alarm bell should ring, and flashbacks to California’s disastrous iPad roll-out, costing in excess of $1.2 billion, a lawsuit and resulting in a lot of red faced district leaders.

How did the research find tech had improved schools?

The key benefits that schools noted were student-driven, such as a shared learning experience (64%), increased engagement (60%) and the ease for the school to communicate with students (51%).

But, schools have different stakeholders – teachers, budget-holders, IT managers – each identifying different benefits.

Budget holders and those with IT responsibility were more likely to find tech useful than classroom teachers. Where a score of four is ‘quite useful’ and five is ‘very useful’, budget holders gave 4.04 out of 5.00 and those with IT responsibility gave an average score of 3.96, with classroom teachers at 3.49.

How to bridge this gap? Simply, schools need to consider tech holistically. It’s a vibrant and ever-changing landscape, and it makes sense to pool insight and talent from across the school. To take a step back, it’s worth considering who is driving the proliferation of EdTech: a mix of ambitious teachers, students, niche start-ups, established tech companies, marketing and advertising, trade magazines or others - or, more likely, all the above.

But, the ultimate decision on what’s right can only come from your school.

It’s a choice that requires deep planning and consultation, and long-term thinking in a fast-paced environment. No question, it’s complex. But, the convergence of tech and education has reached an adolescence, with benefits proven again and again. And, one thing is for certain; by adopting technology you’re preparing students for a modern and digital world – the time to act is now.

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