The never-ending challenge of getting education technology ‘just right’

By Sarah Henkelmann-Hillebrand

Education is arguably the single most important investment a society can make in its future. And most people only get one chance at it.

As a result, there’s a huge weight of responsibility on policymakers and teachers to get it right. The quest to find the ideal approach, particularly regarding technology’s role, has sparked passionate debates and extensive research into the best way to run an education system.

On one side there are people who extol its virtues almost without exception. On the other, those who point to the detrimental effect of excessive screen time and social media, suggesting that fewer digital systems should be in teachers’ and learners’ hands.

Amidst this ongoing battle, Sweden’s recent shift in perspective on technology in classrooms, thanks in part to their Minister of Education performing a sharp U-turn, highlights the need for a nuanced approach.

So, who truly holds the key to unlocking the right path forward: the proponents of edtech or the sceptics? In answering this question, it’s important to understand both views.

The positive case for edtech

Advocates of continuous improvement in edtech believe it has made life easier for everyone in the sector. They point to the fact that instead of using pen and paper, students now use laptops to take notes and create work. When compared to a stack of notebooks, an iPad is relatively light. Instead of a weighty book, searching through the internet or an e-book is even easier.

The positive case suggests that times have changed, people have evolved and technology has advanced. It says that ensuring technology is embedded within education better prepares students for a more unpredictable future where technology will play a critical role.

And there’s plenty of evidence to support this. Using computers and other devices in conjunction with digital tools allows students to play a more proactive role and be at the centre of that process.  With over 65 per cent of the world’s population predominantly being visual learners, technology also offers a way to better cater to this demographic and enhance the quality of learning for all through the likes of digital visual aids.

Technology such as interactive displays, monitors or projectors provides educators with a powerful platform for creating a visual and interactive learning environment that helps those visual-spatial learners, surpassing traditional tools like whiteboards and blackboards. Teachers broadly agree too; nearly 78 per cent said that having more interactive and better display technology would help to engage pupils more effectively.

As a result, many proponents say it’s vital to continue embracing the transformative potential of technology in education. It provides a new way to display and interact with visual elements that enhance the learning process. This view is reflected by many administrations. The UK government recently announced an additional £150 million investment to ensure that all schools and academy trusts can make the most of the benefits digital technology can have in the classroom.

But Digital Technology in Education is Not Just Screens and Visuals.

There are simple technologies that enhance the lives of educators, such as scanners to collate written work and online marking platforms to better manage the process of grading students. In fact, a trial of an online marking platform at a university in New Zealand resulted in significant time and cost savings for lecturers, as scanning documents into the system enabled faster marking, reducing the feedback time for 1,000 papers from two weeks to just two days.

The Sceptical View of Edtech

Those who are less enthusiastic suggest the impact of technology within education has been somewhat lacklustre.  Regardless of advancements, edtech in schools is often criticised for being isolated from students’ personal digital media experiences, instead prioritising institutional needs over individual students.

What’s worse, test scores in the US have continued to decline despite predictions that technology would revolutionise education and academics themselves have said that these digital tools might be “slowly poisoning us.”

This kind of evidence, combined with the pressure that educational institutions are under to not make mistakes or waste valuable resources, leads to the notion that perhaps deprioritising tech in education is the right way to go. After all, excessive screen time results in emotional dysregulation and negatively affects mathematics and literacy in school-age students.

Instead of drinking from the poison chalice, Sweden’s Minister of Schools Lotta Edholm has taken action, expressing that the restoration of textbooks in schools over digital alternatives is crucial, as they offer “advantages that no tablet can replace”.  If technology runs rampant in schools, soon machines may take jobs and teachers could even be replaced entirely with AI.  The implications for students of the future could be worrying.

Yet, despite all this, perhaps stripping technology completely from the classroom and reverting to the dusty depths of chalkboards and cumbersome overhead projectors may not be the right approach either. Especially when digital transformation is all around us. The world is full of technology and innovation of all types. Heads, teachers, students and parents can’t attempt to turn back the clock, operating in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the economy.

Thankfully, there is a third horse in this race.

It’s Not so Black and White 

Like most things in life, moderation is key. We can learn from both sides of the argument.

Maximising the positive impact of technology in education and mitigating the negative requires a fundamental principle that must be embraced: boosting interactions between educators and learners around educational materials.   This is known as the ‘instructional core’, a concept that highlights the crucial factor that many school reforms often overlook.

Put simply, edtech is most successful when it complements and enhances these interactions. Moderating the right kind of tech is key to ensuring learners get the most out of their education. Technology can be strategically used to promote effective interactions among learners, educators and educational materials and shouldn’t substitute the work of teachers.

In fact, data shows that to students, it matters more who is using the technology rather than what that tech is.  Educators should not simply add devices to the classroom without thinking and instead consider the specific needs of their staff and students, choosing technologies aligned with those needs.

Too often, schools and universities feel pressured to make investments that aren’t right for them, leading to wasted resources and frustration for all involved. Just like Goldilocks searching for the perfect porridge, chair and bed, educators must navigate the vast array of technological options to find the solution that is “just right.”

In doing so, teachers also need to receive training and embrace life-long learning to ensure they’re ready to make the most of the technology they’re adopting. They need time to discuss different approaches, while taking part in peer groups to share ideas, gain inspiration and learn best practices.

This quest requires careful consideration of the unique needs, preferences and limitations of each educational institution and its students to support and enhance learning rather than seek to revolutionise it. Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this dilemma.

Deprioritising technology in the classroom may prove beneficial in some instances but recognising that each educational setting is starkly different, and the needs of learners are equally complex is the key. The right technology can, of course, simplify matters but educators, like Goldilocks, must carefully select the right tools that align with their teaching styles and student needs.

The most crucial aspect to remember is that while every politician, researcher or parent may weigh in on the debate of technology in education, it’s the teachers and the students that must use it and its their opinion that matters most.

So, let’s use technology to better support the instructional core. For the students of the future to truly succeed, it must never just be about the technology.

(The author is European Market Development Manager for Education, Epson).


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