The government has rightly identified that improving education will help ‘level up’ Britain. Higher-quality teaching is one tool to get there, but with roughly a third of teachers leaving the profession within five years of qualifying, better teacher training won’t be a quick enough fix to turn things around within its eight-year target. What’s needed is a massive roll-out of educational technology to provide teacher support.
When I was a schools minister, I oversaw an agency that advised and procured technology. We had a school rebuilding programme that embedded effective technology in its design. We also managed to get half a million of the most disadvantaged children online at home with the Home Access Scheme. This was more than a decade ago, though. These programmes were all subsequently scrapped by Michael Gove when he was education minister.
The Department for Education published a research report last year on the use of education technology to support teaching and the effective day-to-day management of schools. Its survey of 900 headteachers found that almost two-thirds had introduced or increased technology in the classroom because of Covid. More than half of teachers and heads told the survey that this technology had already contributed to improved grades.
One particularly good example of technology that can aid education is Google Classroom. The app, which had 600,000 downloads in the UK last year, allows teachers to start video meetings with students at home to create and manage assignments. This dynamic and interactive tool provides greater engagement with pupils, thus ensuring children don’t fall behind when outside the classroom. It should continue to be rolled out.
Then there is Century Tech, which uses AI tools to equip teachers with the data they need on individual students. It allows learners to progress through maths, science and English at a challenging but personalised pace. The route through the learning is also tailored as the AI learns what areas of knowledge are more of a struggle for each individual child. Why continue with standardised textbook homework when the technology exists to tailor workloads to each child’s individual needs? It also gives teachers the chance to know when they need to intervene, as they can see what their pupils might be struggling with in real-time.
As children navigate the minefields of social media and the rise of anxiety and mental health problems, it is more important than ever that teachers are able to focus on the wellbeing of their students. With the technology existing that can help tailor assignments, and AI that can mark them in real time, teachers could be freed (if it is rolled out) from the constraint of old-fashioned marking to spend more time on pastoral care.
Why continue with standardised homework when technology can tailor workloads to individual needs?
A mass roll-out of education technology will also have big benefits for parents. Take, for instance, ClassDojo, a platform that allows teachers, pupils and parents to share photos, videos and messages showing what is being learned in the classroom and at home. As a parent I would hate to lose the engagement with my step-child’s teacher that we have gained since the pandemic began. The daily feed of pictures of her learning has connected me in a way that is incomparably better than when my older children were at the same stage 20 years ago.
Then there is SchoolCloud, which allows parent-teacher evenings to be conducted online, thereby ensuring efficient use of teacher time as well as making sure sessions don’t overrun and time is allocated fairly and equally. I sincerely doubt anyone would want to go back to the old way of doing parents’ evenings after using this.
What’s the point of a teacher spending their May half-term writing annual reports when we get feedback all year in real time through apps like this? This, again, would free up teachers’ time for better use.
Despite the clear benefits, the roll-out of technology in the classroom has been underwhelming. Out of the 897 schools questioned in the government’s education technology survey, 58 per cent of secondary schools didn’t appear to have an active education technology strategy in place; it was even less for primary schools (62 per cent). Academies (54 per cent) were also far more likely than local authority-maintained schools (34 per cent) to have one, while urban schools (41 per cent) were more likely candidates than rural schools (31 per cent). If the government is serious about levelling up education, then a massive roll-out of such tech is needed.
The survey also revealed that teachers were most comfortable with software that supported remote learning — which tries to replicate the classroom experience at home — and much less comfortable with technology which promoted independent online learning. Without school chiefs showing them the alternative, teachers will inevitably replicate existing practice rather than seizing what the new technology could allow them to do differently.
But trying to replicate exactly what is learned in the classroom — in the same style — when learning remotely is futile. It will always be a poor imitation of face-to-face teaching. By contrast, using technology to individually tailor learning creates possibilities that are simply impossible when teaching a class of 30 in the traditional way. This is the sort of technological solution all schools should be utilising.
The political and moral case for accelerating the use of technology in the classroom is compelling. If the government is serious about levelling up, then there is no better place to start.
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