Okay, I’ll admit it, my post has an intentionally provocative title!
The answer is ‘yes’. Or ‘no’. ‘Possibly’? As ever, it depends on who you ask.
During my teaching career – in Sixth Form, Further Education (FE) and Initial Teacher Education (ITE) environments – the working landscape has been transformed from an entirely local, paper-based one to a mixed economy of analogue and digital technologies with huge amounts of collaboration and sharing of materials and ideas.
To put this into perspective, I trained as a school science teacher in 1990, around the same time that Windows 3.0 was released and just a year after the creation of the World Wide Web. It seems a distant world.
A veritable list of digital technologies that have come and gone since then have been described as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘game-changers’, and yet as far as teaching and learning is concerned, would it really matter if we turned it all off?
Undoubtedly, digital back-office systems are nowadays essential to the running of a school, college or training provider, yet from a trainee teacher’s perspective, the requirements to use digital technology within everyday activity are often at odds with their understanding of effective teaching and learning. The lived experience of trainees often shows a disparity between the use of digital technologies in everyday life and that featuring in their teaching, learning and assessment practice. Notwithstanding specific and specialised teaching environments such as those that advocate blended or fully online situations, or those that actually teach technology as part of their subject matter, the usual, everyday practice of many teachers in FE does not require, or often even consider, digital technology beyond Word and PowerPoint for materials production and viewing. Is this really an issue?
If all of that revolutionary and game-changing technology has really had an impact (a quarter of a century on), then new teachers should surely by now have clarity on their use of technology, underpinned by robust theoretical perspectives and pedagogy?
So what are the key messages that (trainee) teachers are getting?
We are variously and regularly exhorted to develop and use digital technologies within daily practice (BBC News, 2015; Britland, 2013; Hancock, 2014) and there is an abundance of advice, guidance, software and training purporting to help. There is also a specific push towards the increased use of technology from various pressure groups, NGOs and government bodies. (Attewell, 2015; ETAG, 2014; FELTAG, 2013).
The push towards technology use in education is often overt, whilst the rationale for doing so is frequently opaque.
Is it that technology is necessary for learning support and pursuit of successful learning outcomes? Is it the development of workplace-ready twenty-first century skills (whatever they might be…)? Or is it perhaps the need to become responsible digital citizens and lifelong learners?
Maybe it’s because someone has something to sell? A quick scan of the advertisements for any educational or learning technology will quickly turn up examples promising to make learning or exams easier, more fun or more efficient, for example.
‘With their innovation and practicality, many of these [gizmos and gadgets] are poised to enter the classroom and change the way students and teachers learn permanently’ (DeNeen, 2013).
Whilst it may be relatively easy to see beyond the marketing and the hype, the notion that learning technologies are somehow integral to modern teaching and learning contexts, and therefore essential, is a powerful one that is readily exploited by the tech industry to drive sales. They use positive language, the language of success.
Such ideas permeate formal documentation as well with the term ‘digital skills’ placed much more overtly in government papers. The 2016 white paper, The Post-16 Skills Plan (2016) has the underlying theme of ‘digital skills’ as a key element of all courses. ‘Each programme will include a ‘common core’, which applies to all individuals studying that route and is aligned to apprenticeships (including English and maths requirements, and digital skills)’ (p.28). This document was preceded by the 2015 Ofsted Common Inspection Framework where there was an ongoing focus on English and mathematics and a renewed emphasis on ICT (digital skills) and employability skills, ‘including appropriate attitudes and behaviours for work’ (Ofsted, 2015, p.43).
While it is right that confidence and competence in the use of digital technologies should be a given, there is the small issue of context
The impact of digital technology on learning was the subject of a meta-analysis undertaken for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (Higgins, Xiao, & Katsipataki, 2012). The report found that there was a small but consistent positive association between the provision and use of technology and educational outcomes.
However, the report’s authors also note that it is the ‘pedagogy of the application of technology in the classroom which is important: the how rather than the what’. They also suggest that careful and thoughtful use of digital technology ‘can be a catalyst for change… making teaching and learning processes more efficient or effective’. What’s more, the report suggests that the impact of computers on student achievement is not uniform and can be strongly affected by the nature of the students’ access to technology and the control that individuals have in using them, for example, for their own extended learning or for accessing tutorial assistance. As the reported effects on teaching and learning are small, the greatest benefits to student attainment from the use of technology are likely to be found in the most effective settings with the most effective staff, and conversely, they are easily negated in less effective settings (Hattie & Yates, 2014, p.199).
So context is key – digital technologies need to be intrinsically rolled up with everyday practice.
Using digital technology is rarely easy, often a distraction, but just occasionally very useful.
My current role is that of Initial Teacher Education lecturer for the post-14/Lifelong Learning sector. This is a post that requires the use of digital technology on a daily basis, mainly in the back-office processes; planning, assessing and tracking students. My research examines the apparent mismatch between workaday technology and that in the lifelong learning classroom and asks the fundamental question of whether or not we need digital technologies and if so, how do we make them an intrinsic part of trainee teachers’ practice rather than an additional ‘nice-to-have’ element of their work?
The gap between those that do and those that don’t regarding the use of digital technology would seem to be as wide as ever.
The software may be more modern, the technology constantly updated, but the issues around their adoption and use seem to be the same as they were two decades ago, and the revolution seems still to be just around the corner…