5 ways to avoid buying expensive dust-gatherers

Heather Abela

Heather Abela is a member of the Learning by Questions team. LbQ improves education with a pedagogy based on timely feedback and intervention. Our Question Sets result in better learning when used in class for just ten minutes a day.

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What is more engaging than a robot dog that kids can program? Or a virtual reality trip through the jungle? Or a 3D printout of Michelangelo’s David? This is the beauty and the diversity of edtech: there is literally something to engage everyone. And isn’t engagement important when it comes to kids? Getting them focused and fully immersed in the lesson - what could be more crucial?

Well, there’s the not-so-small matter of the learning itself. How can a child program a computer if they do not have a solid grasp of numbers? How can a child articulate their experience of a jungle without the basic vocabulary and grammar to convey it? Engagement is a ‘nice to have’, but learning… that’s an essential.

Ironically, learning is something the edtech industry may be guilty of drifting away from. Bigger screens, more gadgets and gizmos, more fun… not necessarily a significant amount more learning. A perfect example was given by education minister Damian Hinds recently, in an article published in the Telegraph in August 2018. In the article, he openly stated that the introduction of interactive whiteboards into schools did not have any reflection in the academic achievement of pupils, and said "schools must decide which products suit them best".

It’s not just the pupils who have been affected (or not affected, as the case may be). The schools, the teachers, the budgets and, subsequently, even the edtech industry itself as the boy who cried wolf (or robot dog!) have all had their fingers burnt. According to the latest BESA statistics, a quarter of teachers, in the modern age of 2018, still maintain that technology brings no significant impact to their classrooms.

It’s almost the rain on the parade, isn’t it? The ultimate party pooper. It’s like Father Christmas coming to take all of his toys back.

In our rush to create brighter colours and louder sounds and hipper concepts… we also forgot that learning, for its own sake, can be fun. Recall the pure joy of finally getting something right. Or the addictive feeling of wanting to get a better score on the next round. What we need to remember is that real learning doesn’t need to be condescending or dressed-up like an accessory from Back to the Future. It can have integrity.

So what should you look for to separate the edtech wheat from the chaff?

1. Accessibility

It needs to be easy to use and implement for busy teachers who do not have the luxury of time to learn complicated new tools. As simple as it needs to be, it also must be flexible so that teachers can use it the way they want to, not be dictated as to how to do their job. Edtech should empower, not burden.

2. Differentiation

One of the key positives for technology in the classroom is that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s adaptable, and that makes it possible for different pupils to learn in different ways. Edtech should maximise this, not just as a one-hit wonder or gimmick, but as a long-term solution that helps children throughout their school careers.

3. Quality content

Great mediums such as VR and 3D printing are being developed all the time, and it’s easy to get very excited. But before you invest, check that they have quality, curriculum-aligned content that teachers can get on and use. This was the problem with interactive whiteboards 10 years ago. Without a clear strategy of use and content teachers can rely upon, expensive edtech can end up gathering dust in the corner of the classroom.

4. Evolution

Everyone who has a smartphone knows that by the time they’ve got it out of the packaging, another version has been released. Make sure that you invest in future-proof solutions for your school, ones that regularly update their content and evolve their platform so that today’s purchase can last for years to come.

5. Evidence

Don’t buy on a promise. Any developer worth their salt will have conducted some research, and have evidence that their product does what it says on the tin. Ask to see some proof of their claims, so that you know you’re investing in edtech that actually delivers.

There is no question that technology is the key to unleashing the potential of our amazing teachers and pupils, but we do everyone a disservice by pushing solutions into schools that haven’t got the infrastructure to support real long term learning.

A robot dog should be for life, not just for Christmas.

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