Dave Smith asks why so many educators are prone to edutech knee-jerk when they have many options
Why do people working with educational technology suddenly get taken with an “either or” mentality? Why would schools that were ‘given’ interactive boards (IWBs) think that the current choice they were facing was between IWBs or ripping them out to be replaced by sets of tablets like iPads linked to flat-screen TVs via Apple TV?
For many years I have helped schools that are interested in using visualisers for whole-class sharing of visual and digital resources. Now I’m suddenly coming across people who think the choice is either iPads/tablets or visualisers. Can’t the options be a little wider than that?
There is, of course, an antidote: those schools where they keep the technologies they are comfortable with and make sure they work well with new ones they want to adopt. You can find schools where teachers and learners have been very comfortable with their IWBs and are happily continuing to use them alongside iPod Touches, iPads, LearnPads, Surfaces, laptops, desktop PCs or whatever else takes their fancy. They do this in all sorts of interesting ways, even sharing materials from their iPads (via AppleTV) on their SMARTBoards and then using the board’s interactive tools to develop them further...
The demise of the visualiser — or a lack of knowledge about their impact?
The visualiser has often been the poor relation of the IWB due to the high price that made them an expensive companion in the past. During the late 2000s visualisers saw really good market penetration as the prices fell, lens quality improved and, crucially, the evidence of impact from the ICT Test Bed study in Barking and Dagenham and Durham demonstrated positive outcomes for teaching and learning. So, what's happened? Visualisers are now gathering dust in many classrooms or being demoted to an AV cupboard or, even more worrying, becoming candidates for WEEE disposal (a European Community directive).
Many colleagues I know who were involved in promoting visualisers to schools have now moved on as sales have almost ground to a halt, as tablets have offered an alternative solution for visualising documents and objects. Many school staff and resellers mention that visualisers are no longer needed and a tablet with a camera can do a similar job — for example using a range of apps and stands, includuing this interesting solution from Belkin.
How about those schools who already have them and swear by their use? I know of many schools and academies who are still making effective use of visualisers to enhance teaching and learning while adopting other new technologies alongside them. I was recently involved in a discussion on Twitter about the benefits of visualisers. This discussion, including such luminaries as Bob Harrison and Miles Berry, encapsulates some quite diverse views on the fate of visualisers. To me it's more about the concept of visualisation, not the visualiser device itself. There is still some sound advice on making best use of visualisation technologies on the Visualiser Forum website too.
It's not just visualisers that appear doomed. I came across a story in the past few months where a headteacher was advised to replace all of a school's IWBs with touchscreen equivalents. I investigated further and found that some of the IWBs were less than 18 months old and the rest were functioning fine. The total cost of unnecessary replacement would have been approximately £50,000!
This reminded me of the worst excesses in the Building Schools for the Future and Primary Capital Partnership [programmes when I came across some rather unscrupulously consultants, who were quick to suggest overspecced and overpriced 'solutions' that often lacked sound pedagogical foundations. These practices indirectly damage the reputation of the many good resellers that I know and trust in an industry that has struggled in recent years to find new markets for new products without the safety net of ringfenced technology funding like that offered by the earlier Harnessing Technology Grant.
So what is available to help monitor or 'police' such practices in the current educational environment? Not a lot to be honest. Granted, there are many astute people working in schools and academies who can strike a bargain and get great deals. However, where do the vast majority of schools in England now turn for advice when purchasing? The Department for Education does offer some advice on procurement, but many schools that I speak to don't even know that this exists or where to find it. Often they search the internet, looking for the views of other users and experts — which can itself be fraught with issues and personal preferences that are not always grounded in effective practice.
I recently challenged a reseller to explain why a school should rip out its whiteboards and replace them with touch-screen TVs at a cost almost three times that of a standard flat-screen TV. The answer was that the school needs to use the 'touch facility'.
I probed further: "In what ways is this solution any better than a tablet and flat-screen solution using software and an app to mirror the tablet on the screen which puts the control of the learning into the hands of pupils who can quickly and easily contribute their own thoughts without leaving their seats?" The reseller was honest in reflecting: "I see your point. I need to ask the manufacturer." I await the response to see if it provides sufficient evidence to sway me away from my current thoughts and whether or not it offers enough return on investment and impact in the classroom against its cheaper competitor.
Prudent spending — focus on impact
I also speak to schools who have decided to keep their (dare I use the term) ICT suites, but remodelled them into control technology/computer science 'sandpits' — providing a place to connect external devices to computers, build and trial Raspberry Pis, Kano and other such devices. Many schools are making use of older desktops (some even running Windows XP, shock, horror!) by moving them into classrooms for pupils to use. However, the race is still on to replace the existing technology with the newest kit.
Howabout all of the free resources that are available on the internet too? Look for example at the success of Scratch, Minecraft and the interest in using Google Apps for Education and Microsoft 365. All they need is an internet browser.
My argument is that we need to be careful not to jump to adopt new technologies before we have made effective use of those technologies that we already have (check out Ben Benjeddi's RiskIT campaign for ideas here). We must also be wary not to rush to replace a technology with another like-for-like solution when other, more cost-effective, solutions are available that do a very similar and sometimes better job. If we are to do so, we must ensure that we have sound pedagogical arguments for adopting these.
Unfortunately, I speak to too many people who are purchasing tablets without thinking what they are going to use them for (especially in the deployment of Pupil Premium funding). Without sensible forethought we lay ourselves open to criticism that we are wasting money, that it would have been better to have spent the money on teachers’ salaries. If we are not careful we will find the same fate befalls the IWB and laptop computer.
I am a big advocate of the use of new technologies — but always with the caveat that its use is planned for. With this in mind we in Havering are currently working with our partners at Rising Stars to develop teaching materials for iPads to help teachers make more effective use of these new technologies.
National, objective advice is still needed
Even in a world of social media knowledge exchange and schools sharing practice I feel that we are lacking a national, objective source of advice and help for schools to refer to. Last year I was described as a ‘dinosaur’, being that I work for a local authority and believe there is still a need for such advice. Call me T-Rex or whatever, I don't really care. I stand firm by the belief that this is required. Becta had its issues, but it did offer drive and direction. Maybe this is something the Educational Technology Action Group (ETAG) may still come to provide. I certainly hope so.
Tips to get it right
- Audit existing technology and ensure that it is being used effectively - get involved in RiskIT;
- Ensure that you have a specified aim for new technologies before purchasing;
- Insist on examples of the impact of new technologies when speaking to resellers;
- Consider more cost-effective solutions - can you achieve similar outcomes for less money?
- Refer to sources of advice on the impact of new technology, eg Naace;
- Ensure staff are provided with high-quality ongoing, continuing professional development and technical support to make the best use of the technology;
- Embed expectation of use in performance management targets.
Dave Smith is computing and esafety adviser with Havering Education Services in London, and is junior vice-chair of Naace and was chair of the Visualiser Forum (2008-2012)