Devices in schools: disruptive or digital learning?

Written by Tom Freeman on 26 June 2017 in Feature

Learning through technology must be led by teachers, Holyrood's recent conference hears

Learning through technology - credit Alistair Kerr/Holyrood

Through its strategy, ‘Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology’, the Scottish Government aims to do four things: develop the skills and confidence of teachers; improve access to digital technology for all learners; ensure that digital technology is a central consideration in all areas of curriculum and assessment delivery; and empower leaders of change to drive innovation and investment in digital technology for learning and teaching.

Holyrood’s Learning Through Technology summit explored what that might look like in practice. There was recognition that it will be teachers rather than the technology itself which will drive up attainment, but also that technology can broaden the way teachers can engage youngsters with more personalised learning and feedback.

Mark Anderson, a former teacher who now describes himself as the ICT Evangelist, said so far there has been little evidence of the impact of technology in schools.


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Culture change across a whole school would be necessary to enable technology to realise its potential, he said.

“Adding 21st-century technology to 20th-century learning isn’t really going to have an impact. In fact, it’s only going to dilute the effectiveness of teaching. But actually, it doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference.”

An example was provided from Helen Gorman from Stirling Council, who described how staff and student digital leaders at Stirling High School led the introduction of one-to-one Chromebooks for all S1 pupils, which had begun to provide “the catalyst to improve digital learning across the school”.

That enabled Google products such as G Suite and Google classroom to be integrated into the school, integrating with national ICT support systems SEEMIS and GLOW.

“The changes we need to make have to happen by building relationships with pupils, with teachers, with parents,” said Michael Conlon, Digital Learning & Technology Officer at Perth & Kinross Council.

Technology, he argued, has always been disruptive but teachers have always been adaptable. 

“I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and teachers have dealt with change at every step of my career,” he said.

“And although we’ll go to the staffroom and moan, teachers are superbly adept at managing change, every single day of their career.”

When 65 per cent of children entering the school system will end up in occupations that do not yet exist, learning must remain relevant, Conlon said.

“It’s about learning where to place [the technology] to make the learning engaging, relevant, fit for purpose, meeting that assessment goal. That’s my approach.”

This means understanding mobile technology and that pupils are already living in what he called “the attention economy”.

“That’s the currency. Get people’s attention, keep them busy, keep them looking at their screens. Keep them stupid. What we want to do is reverse some of this so they can become not just consumers and the devices don’t just become consumption devices, they become creative devices. They become producers. They become entrepreneurs.”

Conlon explained one of the schools he supports has a sign on every classroom door which warns all mobile phones must be switched off and handed in. 

“I said to some of the teachers, that’s fine, that’s how you are managing it just now, but is that poster still going to be on the wall in 2020? What about 2030, is that still on the door? What about 2635? Is that poster on the door if the school is still standing? 

“Because if it is, there’s a risk classrooms become irrelevant, where young people are visiting other places for their learning and come to school for something else. How horrendous would that be? I think teachers are the most powerful thing on the planet, so I need to support those teachers so they can continue to make what happens in the classroom relevant.”

The poster, he said, gives a signal that technology is not for learning but for something else.

“It is the idea this is a consumption device. This is only for Facebook, making calls and Snapchat. I want to move away from that.”

Scotland’s school intranet, GLOW, which had been beset with problems before it was rebooted in 2014, is still used only patchily across the country. Conlon said he had experienced “the GLOW groan” when training teachers on how it could be utilised. 

But there are tools on it which can make a difference to workload and workflow, according to Conlon.

A crowded market can easily descend into a battle for what particular platform is used. Stirling High School chose Google for cost-effectiveness and linkage with GLOW, but Microsoft, Apple, XMA, Firefly and others compete for a slice of what are limited school or local authority budgets.

Charlaine Simpson, Senior Education Officer, General Teaching Council Scotland, said technology can provide opportunities to co-create.

And when teachers develop new skills with new technologies, they are modelling lifelong learning, she said.

But can technology be both a tool and a methodology? Simpson certainly thinks so. And where does that leave the formal exam process?

“Why are we still getting kids into a room to write for two hours?” challenged Conlon.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority said outputs and impact should be recorded, including new standardised assessments which are being rolled out across Scotland. 

Graeme Clark, the SQA’s Head of Digital Assessment Services, said digital assessment makes things quicker and more efficient because teachers don’t have to mark it. It could also be more adaptable to individual learners’ needs, he added.

But change should be innovative and challenge existing processes, he added. Previous attempts at on-screen exams delivered the exact same experience as on paper. 

“The reality is now we’re in a different environment,” he said.

When it comes to standardised testing, schools will have choice. 

“There are infrastructure challenges. We recognise that,” said Clark. 

In an ideal world, he concluded, you’d want candidates assessed “individually, at a time that suited them with a mechanism aligned to the sort of technology they want to use.”

But how could such an approach be scaled up? It would probably need more than a strategy document. 

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