DfES Technology Benefits Realisation Workshop

Oct 08, 2006

Miles Berry

I spent a few hours up in London on Wednesday with a number of folk from the DfES, some other ‘practitioners’ and a few industry folk for a workshop exploring ways of getting, or at least measuring, a better return on the investment into ICT in schools, facilitated by Becta’s Vanessa Pittard.

Vanessa started off with a survey of the landscape here. Vast amounts of money seem to be heading into ICT procurement in schools, with £741 million set aside this year, and probably half as much again being added to this from school’s general funding, with ICT spending accounting for typically 6-7% of school budgets and rising. There seems some concern from bodies such as the OGC that the return on this investment is patchy to say the least, with only 11% of schools identified as “e-enabled”, although Vanessa maintains that Becta’s research indicates that there is correlation between ‘e-maturity’ and such measures as:

“lower absence rates; higher KS3 scores; higher points and percentage of A*-C grades at GCSE and better KS3-KS4 value add scores.”

There also may be benefits following from the technology reducing (or at least changing) teacher workload. Vanessa indicated that there were clear benefits to be gained in such educational processes as attendance, progress, teaching, support or coaching and assessment, and that whilst some schools were seeing benefits in one or two areas, very few were realising the full range of benefits.

At present schools or LAs are able to use this funding as they see fit, and thus benefits can only be realised through local decision making rather than national policy and interventions, but Becta are now interested in understanding what specific interventions will result in better realisation of the benefits. This, it seems, isn’t simply about resources and funding, since there are many schools that have the technology but are still not reaping the benefits.

The other dimension of this work is about how one can go about measuring the effect of the technology. There are gains at school level that can be quantified, such as test scores and staffing requirements, and other data becomes available through learning platforms, such as indicators of quality and variety, and of course, some subjective data could be obtained through surveys.

The three industry representatives gave brief presentations, starting withPromethean on interactive whiteboards – apparently its about 20% of classrooms that have IWBs at the moment. Interesting stuff about teenager’s bedrooms as the learning environments of the 21st century, digital divide notwithstanding. Most of the stuff Promethean focused on was about their voting devices and the use of these to “engage the children in high quality talk”, improve lesson pace and increase engagement:

“Teachers should talk less and listen more”

We also had the argument about teachers not wanting to create their own resources “Why re-invent the wheel”, which came up from, I think, both the other presenters, and was echoed by Vanessa. Not sure about this myself, as providing teachers with the right tools to create online resources seems one of the things which the IWBs and VLEs like Moodle do bring to the party, and are, to my mind at least, a way of reprofessionalising teaching and allowing teachers to personalise learning to an extent that textbooks and online content cannot. Despite receiving a considerable slice of the IWB funding pie, Promethean were bemoaning the lack of funds set aside for “training”, although they did acknowledge the power of online forums in providing opportunities for mutual support, but seemed to think there was some reticence to these amongst UK teachers. Over lunch, I got into a somewhat heated discussion about the pros and cons of tablets vs IWBs. A big part of the IWB case seems to rest on the need to stand at the board in order to command attention.

Next up was the Guardian’s Learnthings, as a good example of education content. Having played with some of this stuff over the summer, I must say I’m fairly impressed by the quality, and the relatively straightforward way in which the 80,000 pages of content are made available to schools, and significantly pupils, for them to use as they wish. Lots of stuff about saving time in planning and delivery (there was a claim that you could teach maths 40% quicker this way!), benefits of interactive media for teaching challenging topics, and how useful online resources are for supply or cover teachers. Most interesting though was the ‘news desk’ feature, which provides a starting point for discussion of current affairs in the classroom.

Finally, the learning platform industry was presented by Azzurri, showcasing their “TALMOS” product – “teaching and learning management open system” – don’t you just love the use of the word open there? Interestingly this doesn’t include any content authoring tools but does have “a shared database of proven teaching resources”, and again is presented as a way of saving teachers’ time – not only do teachers no longer need to prepare resources themselves, but even the burden of finding resources is eased, as others have done that work for them now. Given their presence at the seminar, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them on the list of approved LP suppliers, and yet the core product doesn’t even include discussion forums, although these do appear to be available in the ‘gateway’ module. I’m astonished that something like this might make it through the approval process and yet Moodle, as open source software, can’t.

Whilst, and this may surprise some, I’m all in favour of work-life balance, I don’t think this focus on making teachers’ lives easier is right. Our goal shouldn’t be about getting through our work more quickly, but should be about doing our utmost to provide the best quality education to the children in our charge. I’m happy with the technology assisting us and easing some of the administrative burdens – using Moodle to mark homework was a definite gain for instance, but this has to be so that teachers can use their time more effectively – teaching children, one to one support, creating the right resources or lessons for their classes which they know uniquely well, using assessment data to inform individual targets and lesson objectives etc. This talk of quick pace and efficiency brings to mind a fast food education in which:

  • “All the preparation is done for you by someone else
  • The instructions for use are simple and laid out in steps
  • It is superficially attractive but turns out to lack flavour
  • It does you little good; it tends to pass through quickly
  • All the real nutrient is removed and substitutes have been added” 1

I suspect that transformative education might perhaps have more in common with Italy’s wonderful Slow Food movement, in which quality is emphasised, time is made to enjoy both production and consumption, the contribution of each individual is valued and there’s a recognition of family, community and society. Perhaps Jamie Oliver ought to broaden his sphere of influence!

The bulk of the meeting provided opportunity for us to break into small groups to work through the key questions here: what are the key, “top 10” benefits of the tech, or approaches to its use, what are the barriers that prevent the benefits being realised and how can they be overcome, and how can the benefits be measured. Although there was some chance for feedback from the groups, the DfES folk are writing up our collected ideas for a report on the meeting, so my notes here are more to do with our group than the whole gathering – from the looks of others’ flip charts, their perspectives were quite different.

We saw a range of benefits, including letting teachers make better use of their time (see above), enriching the learning and teaching process, providing far greater opportunities for collaboration, access to a whole wealth of knowledge and information previously inaccessible, facilitation of both independent and group learning and gains in student motivation and engagement. I pressed for individual responsibility to be added to this last one, with my colleagues much amused by my notion that making learning fun wasn’t really the point, and that hard work and studiousness were qualities we should be aiming to encourage! I also talked about the knowledge management gains that could be realised at school level.

The barriers we looked at included the digital divide itself, and its use as an excuse for not doing things, resistance to change, perhaps particularly technological change, from some teachers, resourcing, of course, and also a need for the technology to be more reliable than it is at present. In overcoming the barriers, there seemed a crucial role for school leaders, and the need to establish a collaborative culture within, and ideally beyond the school. The issue of IP rights came up in the subsequent discussion – apparently it’s the local authority that owns the rights to the work of maintained school teachers, and thus they could insist that resources and lesson plans be shared authority wide; use of e-learning credits to incetivize schools and teachers to share resources was an interesting idea – as a number of places have already done, eg Thomas Telford.

The final area, of measuring the benefits, divided our table, and I suspect some of the others. There was a feeling that qualitative techniques would be most appropriate, with case studies and exemplars of best practice as most valuable. That said, there was a reasonably positive reaction to my description of the control-group study we did back at St Ives in the Moodle pilot, although this would require some modification and more complex analysis to allow measurement of more than one intervention at once, still with the number of schools that the DfES has, there are ways of doing this. There also seemed some interest in the datamining possibilities that VLE log files open up, although I don’t think the Becta tech. spec. provides a standard for this, and so it would be harder to do this across multiple systems. That said, with unified provision in Scotland and NI there are avenues worth exploring.

Post meeting, and as it was a glorious day, I strolled though St James’s Park to the National Gallery, and enjoyed the re-display of the impressionist collection in the Sainsbury Wing basement, not quite as if seeing these old friends for the first time, but wonderful nevertheless. Very tempted to head over to the newly re-opened Orangerie in half term…