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Elementary technology icon (cut off)A white elementary technology icon that's been cut off
Elementary technology icon (cut off)A white elementary technology icon that's been cut off
Elementary technology icon (cut off)A white elementary technology icon that's been cut off

The teacher gives their mouse a shake, sparks their laptop into life and opens a PowerPoint presentation for a Spag lesson on fronted adverbials.

Unfortunately, the ageing classroom projector lamp is very dim. So the teacher shuts the blinds and switches the lights off so the pupils can see the presentation a little better, and rattles through a few examples on the whiteboard.

A dim projector, with the blinds closed, from a pupil perspective
A dim projector, with the blinds closed, from a pupil perspective

Next stop? Spot the Adverbial worksheets - 30 of them. Shady grey and white, and each with 15 sentences. A cost of seven pence per photocopy, plus around 20 minutes of teacher time to prepare.

After spending 45 minutes marking the worksheets later that day, though, it appears many pupils haven’t grasped that a fronted adverbial is a word placed at the beginning of a sentence to describe the action that follows.

So now the teacher needs to recap another time - a disruptive, time-consuming and demotivating exercise for all concerned.

The school down the road

A teacher at another school is teaching Spag to their Year 4s on the same day. The pupils each have access to a Chromebook, empowered with robust wi-fi and a teaching staff fully trained on how to embed them into day-to-day learning.

After an engaging drag-and-drop activity on the interactive touchscreen to learn the basics, pupils each play a learning activity personalised to their ability on their Chromebook. The self-paced game coaches them if they answer incorrectly and marks their work in real time.

A school pupil using an ActivInspire lesson activity in a classroom

The teachers have a live dashboard so they can see who’s understood the lesson and who hasn’t, and intervene where needed. It retains the data per pupil, showing evidence of improvement over time.

Pupils with accessibility needs use Microsoft Immersive Reader, where their laptop reads each sentence to them, ensuring they understand without simultaneously testing their ability to read.

The teacher gathers evidence of this understanding by recording them verbally describing their findings - captured as audio files, stored and shared in the cloud and accessed with a QR code. The need for pupils with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) to write things down as evidence of understanding is entirely avoided.

Why edtech inequality is growing

Neither of these examples are extreme. Both take place in thousands of classrooms each day and represent a classroom lottery of edtech implementation and growing inequality around the use of technology for teaching and learning.

It’s an issue that, based on many conversations I have had with education leaders, appears only to be getting wider, too.

For many schools, better implementation of edtech was kickstarted by school lockdowns - and many have continued their trajectory of improvement. Others, however, have barely moved from the status quo.

This inequality is increasing, which is sad and frustrating to observe, yet it has always existed. Indeed, addressing it was one of the founding missions of the Labour government’s push for an academy trust system, later formalised by the Academies Act 2010.

The dawn of the multi-academy trust (MAT) brought us a growing army of centralised IT functions focused on the management of IT infrastructure and services.

Then, pleasingly, the greater autonomy afforded to MATs allowed them to be more creative with their recruitment, which saw the advent of digital learning leads and others of a similar remit. These strategic individuals explore how technology can be used to improve outcomes, and are literally changing the lives of some pupils when doing so.

This is particularly true of pupils with SEND; effective use of technology can transform their learning experience, making learning accessible, assessment more effective and helping teachers have more impact, more easily.

Those who miss out

But what of those schools that don’t have these opportunities? Where senior leadership teams don’t understand what they’re missing out on because there’s no one there to explain? Many teachers who hear murmurings of using artificial intelligence (AI) for lesson planning find it entirely baffling what AI is, let alone how to reap the rewards it can bring.

There are thousands of schools in this position and working with stakeholders in all roles in education, as I do, anecdotal trends tell me it’s the local authority (LA) primary schools that are more likely to be left to their own devices - literally.

The historical safety net of LA advisers fell away ten to fifteen years ago, and the most trusted adviser many have now is a managed service provider.

These IT technicians are available more for maintenance, management and snagging, and less to help schools embrace technology for teaching and learning.

This two-tier system, where some schools are leaping ahead with edtech and others are muddling on, struggling to keep up, or even unaware they are falling behind, is no good for anyone.

How can we close the gap - and quickly?

The ideal is the return of a Department for Education-endorsed office for education technology, similar to the British Educational Communications Technology Agency, which was abolished in 2010 - arm’s length enough to provide credible, independent expertise, advice, support and resources, while avoiding top-down instructions.

In the absence of this though, well-managed MATs with intelligent funding infrastructure seem our best bet. Trusts with a strong sense of community and varied expertise at their core - finance, estates, behaviour, pedagogy, SEND, technology and so on - where academy principals balance the headspace and autonomy to run effective schools, while having the safety net of expertise where it’s needed.

Many trusts are already effective at a trickle-down approach with technology. Equitable use of funding means they can support each academy according to its need rather than one size fitting all, so every corner in every school reaps the rewards of being more efficient and more effective.

Other trusts I work with? Less so.

A particular pain point I see is actions being taken without fully understanding the views other stakeholders have, and without proper regard for how the end users will embed it into the day to day. Decision-making focus can be too narrow, often too product-led and based on a specification sheet rather than human experience.

Too often, there is a disconnect between the choosers and the users of the technology. Those choosing make choices without understanding the lives of those who use it.

Alongside this, and sometimes to justify this, is an understandable preoccupation with short-term cost. Not understanding standstill costs and longer-term savings can lead to poor choices and false economies with technology.

Two action points to address

So, we need to work harder to help schools and MATs use technology in two main areas.

Firstly, helping schools use technology to be more efficient - teacher time and school management time, energy costs, IT management costs, sharing of resources and best practice using the cloud, communications within and between sites, visibility for governors and more.

Secondly, helping schools use technology to be more effective - richer, more engaging skills-based lessons, more effective assessment tools with granular tracking of improvement, equity in access to lesson content for all pupils - regardless of (dis)ability or need, behaviour management, safeguarding and communication with parents and communities.

The good news is that those who are succeeding with technology are doing well at sharing their success, delivering evidence that technology is often the kickstart to progress, and giving those at earlier stages of their journey a decent dose of “fear of missing out”.

This needs to happen more loudly and more quickly, though. Edtech inequality is widening more quickly than our system can address these challenges.

Technology brings the opportunity to transform learning. It’s time to bring this opportunity into all our classrooms.

A white elementary technology icon that's been cut off


Date: 24th February 2023

Written by Ed Fairfield

Commercial Director, Elementary Technology
Vice Chair of Naace – the EdTech Association - a charity supporting schools on effective use of technology

Email: e.fairfield@elementaryuk.com

Twitter: @mreddtech

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