Is ed-tech actually teaching us anything?

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Do you remember Fuzzy Felt? Little bits of felt cut into shapes that could be stuck onto a background scene — of, say, a farmyard, or hospital? Generations of pre-school children across the world have spent countless hours constructing remarkably similar ‘artworks’, but did they actually learn anything at all through doing this, bar perhaps shape recognition?

Fuzzy Felt may count as an early form of educational technology (ed-tech), but fails where much current so-called ed-tech still does today – too little or no pedagogical foundation.

‘There is some [ed-tech] doing a good job, but we really haven’t changed the outcomes. So, it is over this next decade by moving to a new level of quality, and really understanding the needs, that we can surprise people by making education better’

Bill Gates shocked audiences at the ASU GSV conference in San Diego earlier this year with this view that educational technology hasn’t really improved student learning at all yet, offering a striking contrast to the hype from the exhibition floor.

Gates approach to understanding those needs is highlighted by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s support of Teachers Know Best, who work with educators to ensure technology supports teaching on the basis that ‘technology can be an accelerator of gains in education as long as it’s understood that technology must not be elevated above its purpose.’ Support and resources are required, they argue, to enable teachers to help shape new, pedagogically sound, educational technologies, and then to embed them fully in classrooms.

Most ed-tech suppliers to schools have been focused on unthinkingly pushing new devices into classrooms, on supplying content for particular ring-fenced funding, or on pandering to the establishment’s hunger for data, testing and measurement. The educational results of this are, unsurprisingly, underwhelming, because they start with the tech and not with the education.

Arguably, few technological developments have had much impact in the UK classroom, or on educational achievement. The OHP, photocopier, BBC micro and IWB may have offered new opportunities but each took years to become properly useful, and none fundamentally changed the landscape of the classroom or the teacher’s central role within it.

Sometimes low-tech is just better. One of Teachit’s most downloaded resources ever was called The Sherbet Lemon Game. Pupils sucked a Sherbet Lemon with their eyes closed as part of a creative writing lesson. It was highly effective, loved by teachers and pupils, and widely-used in English classrooms. Technology could never improve on this lesson, and nor should it try. Instead of building on good teaching ideas, too much ed-tech attempts to replace or replicate them for the sake of the technology itself.

Perhaps the chance of collaboration and choice of teaching resources and ideas offered by the internet has been the single biggest influence on teaching practice over the last 15 years. It has certainly put more power in the hands of individual teachers than ever before, and created a new generation of content producers.

The problem may partly be terminology. Most of the displayed products at any major education exhibition are generic; often office-tech, fin-tech, hardware or cloud-tech. While schools do need these products, I would argue they shouldn’t be classified as ed-tech. The bar should be set high and we should question whether ed-tech products are designed with the classroom in mind.

Good ed-tech focuses on enhancing teaching, not replacing it, and the best ed-tech will need the involvement of practising teachers.   Some of the most promising innovators have taken just this approach — including Pobble, BetterLessons and Dream Learners — and truly deserve the ed-tech label. Even some major commercial start-ups, like Blippar, are embracing this model to build sound pedagogy in their approach to the schools market.

Education has a profound impact on future lives, so ed-tech ventures that get traction, investment, and column inches should be playing a part in delivering something special, not simply cramming more bits of tech into classrooms.

Teachers and pupils deserve more than digital Fuzzy Felt, and deserve to expect more from what we term ed-tech.

Garry Pratt
Co-founder of Teachit and digital education consultant
[published in Education Investor, Jan 2017]

 

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