It's Time to Rethink our use Of Technology in Schools
Interview by Nick Morrison
I recently sat in on a talk by Bob Harrison, a former teacher, lecturer and college principal who is now education advisor to Japanese electronics giant Toshiba . He also chairs the U.K.’s Department for Education computing expert group and was one of the architects of the new computing curriculum, introduced into schools in England this September.
And his comments should provide food for thought not just for school leaders but for anyone involved in buying and or using technology for schools.
Harrison believes that asking if investing in learning technology will improve outcomes is the wrong question.
For evidence, he cites a lack of evidence. Despite numerous weighty, thorough – and expensive – studies, none has yet shown any link between information technology and improved learning.
There is evidence that where schools and colleges use technology effectively there is a correlation with better outcomes. But that is not the same as saying the technology is actually aiding learning.
It is not the technology that makes a difference, it is the teachers.
Harrison argues that far from revolutionizing the way children learn, too much of the technology that is used in classrooms actually reinforces traditional teaching methods.
For an example, he cites the interactive whiteboard, so beloved of teachers and still nigh-on ubiquitous in classrooms.
“My view is they have actually done damage because they have reinforced the pedagogy of teachers standing at the front,” he says. “This is one of the reasons why technology has not really permeated into the life of our schools, colleges and universities.”
There is a certain irony that when we have access to all sorts of interactive technology, the classroom staple is a glorified electronic blackboard.
This kind of technology makes the student a passive recipient instead of an active learner, Harrison argues. And to compound the offence still further, students are often at the forefront of the active use of technology, it’s just that they do it outside the classroom.
“Why is it we have spent all of the money on technology that predominantly is predicated on learning by paying attention? Why are we chucking digital technology at a process that was designed in the Industrial Revolution?” Harrison says.
So how should we be using technology in schools? He cites as a model for good practice the five e-words coined by Martin Blows, a consultant and formerly a director of online learning at the U.K.’s National College for School Leadership:
- Exchange: swapping traditional ways of doing things with ICT
- Enrich: engaging learners with a richer mix of media
- Enhance: encouraging deeper learning through the use of ICT
- Extend: encouraging students to take their learning further
- Empower: giving students control over their own learning
It is not the technology itself that is important, it is how it is used. And this requires investment not just in equipment but in giving teachers the confidence and competence to exploit it.
And it also requires rethinking the way we teach if we are make the most of the opportunities presented by technology.
“It is not about the technology; it is about new ways of thinking. The barriers are in our heads,” Harrison says. “Learning is not about content, it is about creation. Isn’t that our job: to help kids learn how to do things? Our job is to prepare children for the world that exists.”
We have been too ready to accept that a lesson is automatically improved by incorporating technology. Just because children like gadgets and are avid users outside the classroom it doesn’t mean they will be automatically engaged at the sight of a smartphone.
Rather than ask if technology will improve outcomes, we need to ask what it is we want it to do. It is only when we harness technology to the cause of education, rather than the other way around, that we will know if it is worth doing.