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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Tomorrow’s World: Looking ahead to the BETT technology expo

This is a big week for technology in education. According to one estimate from last September the total UK school spend on ICT provision is expected to be £716m by 2015/16. (Source: BESA - British Educational Suppliers Association). That's equivalent to over 20,000 teachers or 140 medium size secondary schools. Can this spend possibly be justified at a time of austerity? Last week it was reported that over 800,000 new pupils are entering the system - perhaps the money that’s available needs to be spent on walls and roofs. 

We need to separate out two dimensions of technology in schools: teaching children to use it and using it to teach children. 

The first seems sensible to me: there are good jobs available with these skills, they help people understand some of the forces shaping our world and, taught properly, they can be rigorous and intellectually demanding subjects in their own right, promoting good habits of thought and language. We should not be teaching children to use particular software packages which will be out of date before they leave school, but we should be teaching them the fundamentals - to control technology rather than be controlled by it, to be creators rather than just users. To this extent the changes to the computing curriculum were the right things to do. 

Obviously, you are going to need a certain amount of kit in school to deliver this but the second proposition, the use of technology in teaching itself, seems much more dubious to me so far. It is early days, of course, but an animated presentation on an electronic whiteboard or a lesson plan on an iPad are not transformative in terms of standards. Nice, perhaps, time-saving, maybe, but remember the cost. 

There will be plenty of people queuing up to show me transformative uses of technology in their own practice, and some of these will be genuinely exciting, but I am talking about the average state of affairs. To date, I think we'd be better spending the money on recruiting and training great teachers and sticking them in front of old fashioned blackboards. Even the most successful use of new technology - the use of social media to spread good practice - is usually funded out of teachers' own pockets and deployed by them outside the formal environment of the school. But then, as I expand on below, change often begins at the edges. William Gibson said it better: "The street finds its own uses for technology".

I love technology as much as anyone so this conclusion disappoints me. Where might the transformative uses of technology in education come from?

Firstly, as education leaders, we must guard against fads and panaceas. Technology has no value in itself, only in relation to the problems it solves. We need a reason, a goal, not a glossy brochure or shiny gadget. And preferably not a goal suggested to us by a purveyor of shiny gadgets but one that already existed before we spoke to them. Too often technology is a solution in search of a problem. And none of it works in isolation from the business processes and human interactions - you can't compute your way over cultural or skills barriers, you can just find ever more expensive ways to compound them. 

Clayton Christensen taught us that truly transformational technology often begins at the margins. In its early days it is usually less effective than the old fashioned methods it seeks to replace. It is therefore first taken up by those marginalised or neglected by the current methods, for whom it is better than nothing. As it is refined by these users, it improves in quality and usefulness until it displaces the traditional methods. Established and leading providers are therefore rarely the sources of radical change - this is the 'innovator's dilemma'. We might begin by asking ourselves, therefore, who has reduced access to mainstream educational practice, methods and materials and whether technology might overcome those barriers? Expect the most exciting development in educational technology to come to us from those serving SEND students or the permanently excluded, for example, and from the developing world. 

Finally, it seems to me that one area ripe for development is in formal assessment. This has a heavy workload in processing and communicating information, is often mediated already (rather than relying on face to face interactions) and is clearly broken: A recipe for transformative technology. The potential for adaptive testing and rapid feedback, combined with in-built data analysis, would seem to offer something genuinely new. 

In this sense, we are still waiting for the full benefit of computing technology in education and must remain suspicious of sales pitches. But this is not a reason to give up hope - despite billions of pounds of investment in IT, productivity improvements in business and retail took decades to arrive. But when they did... Well, you can download a good management book from Amazon and read all about them. In the meantime, proceed sceptically. 

What do middle leaders think of technology? Read the latest blog from Louis Coiffait, CEO of NAHT Edge, NAHT’s service for the next generation of school leaders.

16 January 2015