Classroom experiments vs mass procurement in edtech

Nesta

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Image courtesy of supplier. Image courtesy of supplier.

There is no denying that digital technology is transforming the way we live our lives. From financial services, to hailing a taxi, to how we interact socially, tech seems to have infiltrated most aspects of our day to day lives. Why then, have we not seen the same level of transformation in education?

Sure, there are interactive whiteboards now, but that’s more a substitution than a fundamental change in learning behaviour. And yes, there have been some learning shifts - in informal education, an example might be the growth in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), or in formal education, the inclusion of computing in the curriculum. But these remain on the periphery.


One of the problems is that, while digital technology is associated with moderate learning gains (an average of four months, according to the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit), there is huge variation in impact between“Many teachers have seen (or suffered) impulse school technology purchases.” studies. And this same problem is borne out by experience. Many teachers have seen (or suffered) impulse school technology purchases, based on shiny-ness, or the hope of a quick fix. This is probably a contributing factor to why so many teachers resist new technology - they’ve been burned before.


Our research suggests that it is how you use that technology that matters, and that learning goals must drive technology decisions, along with considerations of context. Benefits are far from universal and the specifics of each unique situation, school and classroom matter.


An interesting example of this is the tablet. For a while tablets were the craze, and many schools purchased sets for their school at great expense. Subsequently, these schools discovered the challenges - from configuring with school systems, to their limitations for teaching things like coding. Ironically, though tablets are shiny and new, they are usually harder to learn to code on than a machine with an old fashioned keyboard.


Sometimes, the tablet purchases were driven by mass procurement and top down decisions, other times it was more experimental - championed by individual teachers. In either case, the problem was the same - not enough thought had gone into how they were going to use the technology. There are positive and creative uses for tablets - just the other day an art teacher was explaining to us that she had used them in a lesson so that students could create their own versions of David Hockney’s iPad art.


Nesta research in 2012 showed that while hundreds of millions of pounds had been spent on technology in schools, there was very little evidence that it had had any impact on learning and attainment. Sometimes, it feels like the situation hasn’t improved. According to a more recent report, The Digital Skills Crisis (published in 2016 by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee), 22 percent of IT equipment in schools is ineffective and the UK will need another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017.


But there have been moves forward in the way the education system in the UK is using evidence, not just in edtech, but more broadly. Organisations from The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to ResearchEd are promoting evidence-based practice, and are gathering momentum.


Unfortunately, edtech remains a challenging area for evidence for a number of reasons. Firstly, the rapidly changing nature of edtech means new products are emerging all the time, and research cannot keep up. Secondly, even when there are studies, how can you be sure they’re relevant? If the way you use a piece of technology and the context is key, what if the schools in the study had different conditions to yours? What if the company or academic gave extra support to the study schools, but won’t for yours?


We’d suggest a couple of things. Firstly, if you don’t have a good research study on a piece of technology - why not look past the tool, at “A full understanding of the benefits of the equipment is key.”the pedagogy behind it? If the technology uses ‘personalised learning’ or ‘feedback’, look up research-based guidelines on these on the EEF toolkit. For example, the EEF evidence review on one-to-one tuition suggests that short, regular sessions (about 30 minutes, 3-5 times a week) normally result in optimum impact. If your edtech tuition provider does not take this approach, talk to them about why. Good research is often not clear cut - especially in education where context and implementation is key - and it should inform discussion and decisions, not close them down.


Secondly, whether you are procuring on a large scale, or just for your school or class, some level of testing out what works in your context is usually a positive thing. It may show you that the technology isn’t right, saving you an expensive roll-out, or more likely, it may shed insight into how you need to use it to get the most impact, and help you do a more effective, less rushed roll-out in the long term. This is thoughtful (not reckless), informed experimentation, and it’s also common sense - try before you buy. A full understanding of the benefits of the equipment will also mean other teachers can be trained to use the tool to its full effect.


Nesta’s Rocket Fund pilot is testing how, through crowdfunding, teachers can more easily try the new things they think will benefit their pupils. Designed to fuel imagination in the classroom, Rocket Fund enables schools to raise money from businesses and their community, in order to try new technology that’s beyond the reach of their current budget. This school year, we will be adding a review feature for teachers, providing a mechanism via which case studies can be developed and teachers can be advised on what works by their peers.


When introducing tech to the classroom, whether in a small scale experiment or larger procurement, the main priority is understanding exactly what you’re hoping to achieve with the equipment, and the specifics of how you’ll achieve it. Edtech has no value unless it supports specific learning goals. The context of each classroom will inevitably have an impact on what will work in practice. This is why teacher input should remain at the centre of the decision making process.


[Written by Michael Mann and Amy Solder from Nesta’s education team]


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