The battle over technology in schools

(Disclaimer, this post is more of a rant and less of an academic critique!) Every teacher has heard it hundreds of times – there’s this crazy rhetoric amongst school officials that “student to computer ratios” and “number of smart boards” are excellent metrics for evaluating how well a school has “incorporated” technology into the school environment. Yet, the reality inside classrooms is that the technology is rarely shared beyond ICT. English, math and science rarely use computers or labs. Smart boards are gathering dust in the corner of history classrooms. Teachers are too busy to rebuild their curriculum around technology and many are too afraid of technology to try and do more with it. Add to that the fact that technology breaks, becomes obsolete every two years and technical problems eat up valuable instruction time.

So it’s no surprise the European Commission has concluded 63% of 9 year old students are missing the digital equipment they need at school.

Between 50% and 80% of students in EU countries never use digital textbooks, exercise software, broadcasts/podcasts, simulations or learning games. Most teachers at primary and secondary level do not consider themselves as ‘digitally confident’ or able to teach digital skills effectively, and 70% would like more training in using ICTs. Pupils in Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic are the most likely to have internet access at school (more than 90%), twice as much as in Greece and Croatia (around 45%).

Let’s be honest … this shouldn’t be a surprise. Currently teachers are severely undertrained for using computers or any technology in the classroom. Digital textbooks are few and far between, learning games are limited (too specific, too expensive, too outdated). Many teachers have no idea what a podcast is. Existing software is poorly used and rarely implemented. Technology is outdated and inadequately maintained. And I think that’s being quite generous! Decisions about technology in schools is being made by politicians and bureaucrats … and to make matters worse, there’s no consensus on what technology has value and how it can be applied in a standardised way across schools.

But to be fair, and taking a step back, this is not an easy problem to solve. By the time schools get around to agreeing on a strategy, the technology they are considering is already old. Teachers need to be trained and re-trained regularly. Technology needs to be maintained and updated every few months. Despite which, schools will still be years behind the cutting edge … while students are years ahead, already adept at using instagram, whatsapp, facebook and other new apps to communicate online.

However, one possible way forward is by looking closely at teachers. The teacher is the interface between the education system and the students. The teacher is the conduit. So it’s the responsibility of the education system to make sure teachers are able to do that job effectively. But how? Teacher training already has mandatory learning areas for would be teachers. They must learn about student welfare, learning methodologies, social justice, pedagogy and practice, and other areas that relate to effective teaching. Yet, very few universities have mandatory technology training for teachers – including how to use that technology in a classroom. And I’m not talking about smart boards. I’m talking about using Google groups as virtual classrooms. I’m talking about using iphone/android apps to communicate with students, record test scores, share resources. I’m talking about podcasting, documentary making, social media, RPG storylines and other technology areas being core parts of a teacher’s curriculum.

I’ll get a lot of hate for this, but if teachers can’t use technology, they probably don’t belong in a modern classroom. The trend now is BYOT – bring your own technology – and if teachers don’t know how to utilise the technologies they have available to them, then they are doing a disservice to students. Step 1 is start with rebuilding teacher training courses at university. Step 2 is less reliance on gimmicky technologies and more reliance on curriculum writing that takes advantage of student skills, personal technologies (smart phones) and access to hardware (computers) and software (apps) that will help students to achieve their goals.

Today’s luddite test: How many teachers use dropbox or cloud storage for their teaching resources?

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