From Slide rules to Virtual Reality

Janita Gray, senior editor of The Good Schools Guide, looks at how technology is being used in the classroom.

Most adults of a certain age can remember school lessons when they were supposed to watch an educational film. The stately wheeling in of the trolley bearing a projector or television; the lengthy adjustments made by teacher or technician; the smell of burning dust intensifying as bulbs and internal workings heated up. Then eager anticipation (watching a film was always better than a normal lesson) turning to boredom as one sat in the dark waiting for something to appear on the screen. All too often the bell would go, leaving disappointed pupils and a seething teacher whose lesson had once again been frustrated by equipment stubbornly refusing to cooperate.

Even today, when electronic whiteboards, iPads and laptops are seemingly ubiquitous in the classroom, valuable lesson time can be hoovered up by technical problems of one kind or another. For now, at least, getting pupils on to the same page of a book is probably quicker and more straightforward than getting all eyes looking at the same screen.

Schools have had to integrate technology into pre-existing subjects at the same time as educating pupils (and parents too) in how to navigate this brave new world safely. The timetable has been stretched and adapted to accommodate teaching on avoiding potential hazards such as online grooming, internet scams and fake news. Today’s pastoral care remit includes dealing with cyber bullying, helping pupils withstand the pressure to have Instagram perfect looks and ensuring career prospects aren’t damaged by foolish Facebook posts. Many schools also run evening sessions for parents on how to ensure their child’s online safety. Digital natives our children may be, but that doesn’t stop them being digitally naïve at the same time.

Despite budgetary pressures, schools in both the state and independent sectors have been keen to invest in educational technology and the market is currently worth £900 million a year in the UK. However, not all the money is spent wisely – hardly surprising given how hard it can be to find reliable evidence as to whether or not the latest kit actually improves children’s learning. And whatever the potential benefits of the technology, if teachers aren’t trained to use it properly then money will have been wasted.

A case in point is tablets. Schools invested in these because it was believed they could help children with writing, but it turned out that children made more, not fewer, mistakes writing on screens. According to Donald Clark, founder of technology in education company PlanB Learning, tablets are poor teaching tools.

“You have to look from a pedagogic and learning point of view,” he told a Guardian panel. Writing on a tablet “slows kids down, they resort to a truncated style and it is a disaster in terms of literacy.”

So, what about something sensible like making digitised versions of text books available on school laptops? A 2017 study by the think tank, Centre for Education Economics, concluded that using digitised text books (in maths and Spanish) on laptops had no effect on pupils’ performance in these subjects. Nor was there any economic benefit, since the fixed cost of the hardware, plus ongoing maintenance, was greater than that of the books. However, digitising more text books would start to result in savings.

Of course the applications of education technology extend far beyond the conventional classroom. Digitised text books, online tutoring and other forms of e-learning, have the potential to bring huge benefits to schools in the developing world. Specialist technology has also been developed for children with SEN and virtual reality can be used to show the world to wheelchair users.

The most successful edtech businesses make products that bring something new to teaching and learning. The quiz app, Kahoot, enables teachers to devise their own subject based games and tests – or use pre-existing formats. Pupils download the app onto their own devices and can challenge each other for points – a case of technology making users more, rather than less, sociable. The website Vocab Express, used by modern languages students to practise vocabulary, crashed a few  years ago because it couldn’t cope with the intensity of inter-school competitions!

At a more advanced level, using 3D projectors to animate complex diagrams has made a significant difference to the teaching of subjects such as biology – students can don 3D specs and watch blood flowing in and out of a kidney as it hovers right in front of their faces.

While most schools are consumers of education technology, at Eton College the Tony Little Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning is collaborating with universities and researchers in its development. Eton’s ambition is to create technology that will transform education, not just for its own pupils in the College and its state school partnerships, but nationally and globally. Headmaster of Eton, Simon Henderson, told The Good Schools Guide: “Technology is changing what happens. For example, if there are 20 pupils of broadly the same ability in a maths set, computer programmes can be used to detect areas of weakness and generate questions that consolidate or extend learning.”

He believes that rather than replacing teachers, personalised learning will free them to concentrate on higher order work – spending more time with individuals rather than generating questions.

“Technology will enable teaching in schools to become similar to that in universities – with a mixture of small classes, online courses, set-piece lectures, time spent on individual study and more fluidity between year groups.”

The first bit of classroom tech was probably the slide rule. First introduced in the 17th century, it was a fixture in maths lessons until superseded by calculators in the 1970s. Well-designed educational technology can certainly have huge benefits for teachers and pupils, but it’s doubtful if any of today’s innovations will endure for three hundred years.

The Good Schools Guide is the UK’s leading independent source of education information and advice. 0800 368 7694