Educational Technology in the UK

8/27/2012 12:00:00 AM
Terry Freedman looks at the general state of educational technology in the UK.

First, just a note on the scope of this article. The UK is made up of four countries, and they are all very different in the way they run their education systems, so it will be more useful, I think, to focus on England only.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum, so it makes sense to look at the educational technology scene in an historical context. For a couple of decades the educational technology sector has enjoyed the largesse of various governments who were convinced that it would benefit the economy in the long term.

Not all of these “gifts” were entirely useful, such as the scheme to send a modem to every school before most people really knew what they could do with it. And then there were various iterations of a laptop for teachers scheme, which sadly did not provide every teacher with a laptop, or exempt teachers from the sales tax incurred when buying their own.

Nevertheless, all of these provided, if you will, a statement of intent and a statement of philosophy. From 1997 until recently, the drive towards making Britain’s schools “e-enabled," i.e., using educational technology as an integral part of everything they do, became more systematic and more relentless, with money allocated to schools for switching to broadband, targets for pupil:computer ratios in both elementary and high schools, a national strategy designed to beef up the teaching of ICT (information and Communications Technology), as it’s called here, a building programme for schools, and goals for the implementation of VLEs and online reporting to parents.

Then a couple of years ago the new Coalition government came to power, the funding was cut (to zero, for the most part), new builds were cancelled, and the ICT community as a whole took to wringing its hands in despair.

But by that time, of course, ICT had been fairly well-established, and you can see the evidence of this in many, if not most, English schools:

  • Very few classrooms are without an interactive whiteboard, or at least a projector
  • More and more schools are experimenting with 1:1 programs involving tablets
  • Just about every school has a VLE, with many using it to actively engage parents
  • A plethora of other equipment is to be found in classrooms, especially those in elementary schools: digital recorders, pocket camcorders, digital cameras and document cameras to name just a few.

As a school principal said to me recently, “Funding educational technology is not a question of budgets, but of priorities.”

A recent development has been that the ICT curriculum laid down in law has been “disapplied." What that means is that while schools still have to make sure they teach kids how to use educational technology, they can do so how they like, not how a previous government thought they should. Add to that an increasing interest in teaching computer programming, and several national schemes, pilots and initiatives in respect to ICT and programming, and what you have is an almost tangible buzz of excitement about the possibilities.

In England, ICT has tended to be taught for about an hour a week, and then reinforced in activities across the curriculum. Best practice often involves project work, with youngsters working in small groups. Creativity has a big role to play, with students making videos, using web 2.0 applications (or safe versions of them) and conversing with schools overseas via webcam or video-conferencing. There are also a few exciting schemes, notably the Apps for Good scheme, in which students identify a problem and then work on apps to deal with it, and the Digital Leaders scheme, in which students become digital leaders in their school, which could involve anything from putting paper in the classroom printer to being on a committee to discuss the school’s Acceptable Use Policy.

In other words, schools on the whole now take the view that educational technology is essential, and can enhance learning, although not everyone is convinced.

An ongoing problem is how to measure the effectiveness of the technology. By and large, the evidence tends to be through observation either by school inspectors, who want to know if the use of technology helped or hindered the students in a particular lesson, or by teachers and parents. Either way, the evidence tends to be anecdotal rather than full of hard stats. Also, great store is set by self- and peer-assessment.

In conclusion, despite a lack of central funding, the general health of educational technology in England seems pretty good. However, there is also an increasing sense that the times, to quote Bob Dylan, are a-changing. Most schools have invested in huge amounts of hardware and software over the years, but these are starting to seem less and less relevant in a world of mobile devices and cloud-based computing. It will be interesting to see how schools in the UK deal with, and even embrace, these new challenges.

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant. He publishes the ICT in Education website at http://www.ictineducation.org and the Computers in Classrooms newsletter at http://www.ictineducation.org/newsletter, and blogs at http://www.techlearning.com/section/Blogs .

 

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