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Education and the fourth industrial revolution: a roundtable discussion

Education and the fourth industrial revolution: a roundtable discussion

Holyrood Events and Nesta in Scotland gathered experts and practitioners to discuss education technology's role in preparing young people for the workforce of tomorrow

Classrooms around Scotland are becoming increasingly hi-tech, as teachers and young learners begin to grapple with the skills that have become essential in modern society and the contemporary workplace. 

Coding and programming have been introduced to the curriculum while devices, ranging from iPads to robotic to drones, are an ever more common sight in schools. But there remains a question around whether technology is living up to its potential to improve outcomes for both students and teachers.

While progress has been made since the 2017 “refresh” of the technologies component of the Curriculum for Excellence, significant challenges remain, hampering the abilities of some teachers to fully realise the goal of an integrated  ‘EdTech’ experience. 

And beyond the introduction of devices, the digital skills revolution has brought to the forefront a conversation on how the delivery of education could be altered and what our vision of success should be.

Nesta, the UK innovation foundation, established a new team and programme of work in Scotland in April of this year, aiming to promote and drive innovation for public good. The new team has initially taken a focus on technology, data and digital driven innovation in Scotland to apply across Nesta’s five priority fields of activity, which includes innovation in Education.

Nesta’s vision is for a world where education helps all learners to make the most of the opportunities our fast-changing future will present, with a commitment to making the education system broader, fairer and smarter.

In order to better understand the current dynamics in the education system and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, Holyrood Events and Nesta in Scotland gathered a number of experts and practitioners from across the sector around a table to discuss adapting classrooms, empowering teachers, and preparing young people for the workforce of tomorrow.

Chaired by Polly Purvis OBE and hosted in the National Museum of Scotland, the discussion featured representatives from The General Teaching Council for Scotland, SEEMiS, the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre, the Digital Xtra Fund, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s first School of Innovation at Kelvinside Academy, and Microsoft Education. 

Broader – supporting learners to be well-rounded individuals by helping them build skills like problem-solving, creativity and social-emotional skills, so that they can thrive in the future of work and life.
 - Nesta's vision for better education for all

Opening the discussion, Purvis asked what was to be the core question participants hoped to address in the 90-minute-long discussion: 

How do we ensure that every school pupil and teacher across all of Scotland, irrespective of geography or demographic background, has access to the same capabilities in technology?

Broaching the geographic component of that question first, roundtable participants agreed that in Scotland, all too much about access to tech can be decided by location. 

Adam Lang, head of Nesta Scotland, began by surveying the positives and negatives of Scotland’s landscape - literally and figuratively.

“In Scotland there is enormous potential because of the nature of our country,” he said. 

“The fact that we are more joined up as an operating environment than exists in England or many European countries. 

“We’re in that sweet spot of scale and size.”

Indeed, it was generally acknowledged that Scotland being such a relatively small country makes it easier to involve different stakeholders from across the sector - the day’s event being case in point. 

But on the other hand, Lang noted: “For a nation of 5.5 million people, we have a very complex and too often disconnected public service delivery landscape.” 

The most obvious concern was the differing access to digital infrastructure such as broadband that schools particularly in rural places face. 

Pauline Stephen, the Director of Education, Registration & Professional Learning at The General Teaching Council for Scotland spoke of the change in attitude she has perceived in recent years, with pupils feeding back that the introduction of coding and technology is being accepted enthusiastically as simply “another part of what you do at school”. 

But the limits being imposed by slow internet speeds in some areas can block that potential. 

“When a teacher isn’t even getting their emails at school, it’s really hard for them to see ‘how am I going to make this meaningful for my learners,” Stephen said. 

While Stephen did point to the widely underappreciated offline techniques, known as “unplugged computing”, that teachers do use, it can still be “deeply frustrating” for teachers if they can’t get to that final stage.

Kraig Brown, the Partnership and Development Manager at Digital Xtra Fund, a charity that supports extracurricular computing and digital tech activities, agreed that there was certainly a “postcode lottery” when it comes to access to tech. 

Ian Stuart, an education specialist working at Microsoft conceded that “infrastructure is always going to be a challenge” in a country like Scotland. 

But the flexibility granted by the Curriculum for Excellence can compensate to an extent, he suggested.

Pointing to his work on creating the Digital Learning and Teaching Strategy (DLTS), Stuart said creativity is key.

“One of the key aspects of the DTLS is to make sure that IT aligns to education; not the other way around,” he said. 

Brown turned the focus away from infrastructure to make a point about the importance of ensuring any digital learning pupils take part in should, first and foremost, be captivating. 

He said: “We have to make sure that anything that's innovative or new is interesting and engaging to them. 

“You can put the best broadband in, and you can train teachers up until they know everything that they can. But if what’s being delivered is not interesting or inspiring, then it’s not going to make a lick of difference.”

Fairer – enabling everyone from disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented groups the opportunity to pursue a quality education and rewarding careers in STEM.

- Nesta's vision for better education for all

A more salient issue around the table, was the communication of what digital teaching and learning is actually for. 

Parents’ perceptions on the introduction of what can seem to be newfangled technology and teaching techniques often creates friction, it was agreed. 

Nancy Wilkinson, Nesta's lead for smarter education, spoke about the trepidation some parents feel. 

Many parents might say “I don’t want my child to be the guinea pig here,” Wilkinson said. 

But there’s a disproportionate focus on devices, the table agreed.

“This is an issue which comes up more often than not in education technology. Surprisingly it doesn’t come up with different pedagogical approaches which could potentially have just as much of an impact or a negative consequence,” Wilkinson observed.

Similarly, Joanna Maclean, the Head of eLearning and Professional Development at Kelvinside Academy, which hosts Scotland’s first School of Innovation, described the response to her decision to move away from traditional school report cards, onto more self-reflective, evaluative projects. 

“We’ve got some parents saying ‘we just want the bit of paper,’” MacLean said. 

Stephen raised the issue of “screen time”, with many parents likely to feel that children get enough time with devices at home. 

But Wilkinson referred to a Nesta report on the future of AI in the classroom, which found that parents views on how comfortable they were with AI in the classroom changed depending on what it was used for.

“When you see it as supporting teaching, not replacing it, that’s when people become more okay with it as a concept,” Wilkinson said. 

Darren Grant, the Digital Skills Education Manager for the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre suggested that technology could be used to involve parents more in the classroom, which could help them relate more to changes in education delivery. 

Online resources like the Seesaw platform can “give parents insights into things in the classroom that they never get a chance to see,” he said. 

Stephen, at this juncture, drew attention to the need to be mindful of the disadvantages in access many pupils could be coming to the classroom with. 

“Not all of our children have access to technology in the home. We have to be really sensitive about that,” she said.

There needs to be a constant awareness of the need to balance “consistency versus need,” she argued. Some pupils, some areas and some schools will need more support than others. 

At the beginning of the event, Danny Gallacher, the Chief Executive of SEEMiS, the Education Management Information System provider, said it was his aspiration for children “to prepare them as best we can for their future careers.”

But with technology rapidly changing is there a danger the tech industry could be unrecognisable in 20 years time and can schooling be expected to dovetail with work?

“I don’t think it’s necessary to know where the industry will be in 20 years; we just need to get them engaged with tech,” Brown said, suggesting that foundational skills and passion would allow pupils to respond to a changing workplace.

Gallacher agreed, saying: “don’t focus on technology, focus on what the skills are that people need, for now and the future”.

Professor Judy Robertson the Chair in Digital Learning at the University of Edinburgh described how many of the skills needed for tech jobs are couched in existing classes. 

“Skills for data science are currently embedded in several subjects,” she said. 

Conversely, “the skills you learn from doing data analytics really build up the four capacities,” Roberstson says, referring to the ‘four capacities’ of the Curriculum for Excellence.

“It’s about looking to the competencies children need to have when they grow up, not just for the workplace but for society,” she concluded.

Wilkinson agreed, and drew attention to a Nesta study that analysed 41 million job adverts to identify the skills most commonly listed by employers as desirable. Among many of the most commonly referenced were creativity; team working; problem solving. 

The question for Wilkinson is “what does that look like in a school?”

Smarter – empowering learners, teachers and learning institutions to make more effective use of technology and data.
 - Nesta's vision for better education for all

‘Project learning’ was highlighted as an effective mode of teaching, where different curricular objectives and skills can be hit upon while learners work on projects that are particular to their classes. 

Brown highlighted an initiative in North East Scotland called ‘Accelerate Learning’, backed by the Wood Foundation, that focuses on bringing project based learning to classrooms. 

Building on this, MacLean said it was her belief that there should be a “residential centre for excellence” in Scotland, where teachers, learners and parents can brush up on their digital skills in ways that are most relevant to their own needs. 

On the big question of closing the attainment gap, there was agreement around the table that technology can play a role in that, although it depends on a range of contextual factors. 

Robertson said “research evidence shows a small to moderate difference” while MacLean and Stephen said the results vary - in MacLean’s experience from class to class.

“Teachers make the difference” Stuart said. 

“It’s about looking to the competencies children need to have when they grow up, not just for the workplace but for society,” - Professor Judy Robertson

In the mission to improve Scotland’s education with the use of technology, there is a tendency to look to Nordic and Baltic countries for inspiration and best practice. 

But roundtable participants agreed that this can lead to great and instructive examples being overlooked in Scotland. 

Stephen urged those passionate in improving education in Scotland to go on a “treasure hunt” for innovation and good practice in Scotland. 

“Look amongst yourselves,” Stuart agreed. 

Reflecting on the roundtable discussion, Adam Lang, Head of Nesta in Scotland, said: “My main takeaway from this session was one of inspiration. I was genuinely inspired by the knowledge, passion and enthusiasm of participants and by the great examples of local best practice and innovation they shared.

“There is some fantastic stuff going on in Scotland’s schools to harness the power of technology and digital innovation to better support our young people.

“However, it is also clear that part of our challenge is around ensuring all schools and all pupils have the same opportunities and more effective replication and scaling of those best practice examples.

“There is no reason why Scotland cannot continue to build on the great work that is already going on in communities across the country to be a genuine world leader in delivering an education system fit for the 21st century. As we grow our team and activity here, we want to work in partnership with organisations in Scotland to help make this a reality.”

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