Monday, 9 November 2009

Lies, damn lies and quantitative analyses of teachers' perceptions of technology use.

Both BESA and Becta have released reports in recent months which present statistical evidence of how technology is used in education. Putting aside the validity issues surrounding reporting respondents' perceptions as reality, I've been struck again by the (annual) message that change in the national profile of educational use of technology only ever inches forward. Will the pace of development be fast enough to meet the challenges of the next few years?

Purely looking at kit, the growth of desktop PC numbers has slowed (and fallen in Primaries), whilst the number of laptops that schools own continues to rise steadily (BESA report). This may indicate a shift to more mobile models of access and a gradual abandonment of the concept of ‘going to the ICT room to use computers’. It may simply be that laptop prices have fallen to a level where, compared with the associated infrastructural costs of putting in fixed machines, this approach makes financial sense first and foremost. Either way, I’m pretty sure that laptops will soon be regarded as the metaphorical ‘phone box’ between the ‘landline’ of ICT suites and the ‘iPhone’ of, er, students’ iPhones. None the less, if the growth of laptops is enabling schools to experiment with agile spaces and student agency over learning style and outcome, this can only be a good thing.

Combined with improving ratios of computers to pupils (now 1:4.2 in secondaries), the ‘average’ school is now not far away from achieving a theoretical ‘virtual 1:1’ ratio, where quantities/ mobility of devices mean that a computer is available whenever its use is appropriate for learning. The 12% of secondaries that don’t have a wireless network yet must also make this leap before personalisation through ICT can be equably extended to all.

An interesting side point from the BESA evidence; a decreasing number of schools are indicating that their Internet access is 'good' (dramatically down to 41% of secondaries, compared with 73% in 2008). This, in the face of ever-better infrastructure and RBC offerings, can only mean that practices are changing and contention is increasingly an issue. Now, the challenge is to ensure the shift in practice that has seen more kids with laptops accessing video/ Flash on the web is actually focussed on genuine learning activity, rather than edutainment.

BESA’s reported drop in teacher confidence (down by about 10% across the Primary and Secondary sectors) is worrying. What does this represent? Is it that the warm glow of NOF training has finally worn off and teachers now feel in need of further high quality ICT training? I guess that’s an extreme possibility, but I suspect this issue has more to do with a growing realisation of the scope and scale of the digital reality; once you’ve peeked over the cliff edge at Web 2.0, handheld learning and student-driven anywhere anytime access to learning experiences, the height can be truly dizzying. In the words of Douglas Adams, it scares the willies out of me, so it wouldn't surprise me if many teachers felt anxious about the rise of increasingly in-your-face technologies.

Workforce issues have been the consistent Number 1 barrier to change I’ve encountered in any of the schools I’ve worked in and alongside. If we are ambitious for the ‘creeping change’ mentioned in the first para to turn into transformational strides, teachers’ exposure to new technologies, their willingness to experiment with them and to take the risk of using them in anger will be critical. I wait to see the full offering from Vital, but I’m fairly sure that until each school takes a structured, colleague-led approach to both sharing best practice and coaching teachers in the use of ICT, this problem will persist. For some evidence to back up this assertion, have a look at Davis, Preston and Sahin’s article on an ‘ecological approach’ to developing technological pedagogies (British Journal of Educational Technologies, 2009 Vol. 40, No. 5 pp861-878) if you have access to a University library.

Moving on, the growing use of ePortfolios seen in Becta’s research is encouraging, with 1 in 5 respondents reporting that all learners are encouraged to use this type of technology to record their achievements and capabilities. To me, creating a culture across our schools where evidence is routinely gathered, commented on, used to explore next steps and shared between staff, learners and their families is an absolute precursor to the long-overdue overhaul of England’s assessment paradigm. If we are ever, as a nation, to move away from summative measurement of the regurgitation of hastily learned content towards a process by which capabilities and soft skills are evaluated and accredited, schools’ successful practice with ePortfolios will be one of the tipping points.

Less positively, Becta’s analysis of Web 2.0 type stuff is characterised, I think it’s fair to say, by cautious pessimism; “Web 2.0 technologies and learners’ own devices such as mobile phones are used only infrequently in classrooms – there may be scope to further develop their use” (p11), “It may be difficult to reach the target for all schools to be making full use of learning platforms by 2010” (p12) and, commenting on the fact that the majority of teachers do not encourage the use of social software (and that 12% did not know what a Wiki was) “These findings will be somewhat disappointing to those who advocate the importance of the learning potential of social software and social media” (p22). Considering that almost all discussion of innovative practice centres around the use of social media, this is indeed disappointing.

The standout ‘must try harder’ area in my opinion is around Parental Engagement. The broad range of respondents to Becta’s surveys identified this as improving but also as having the greatest potential to have a positive impact if fully embraced. I suspect, however, that additional levers will be required if schools are to make the most of the ambition summed up in the concept of ‘live reporting’, such are the challenges of policy, practice and technical integration required to put meaningful information (e.g. more than raw numbers straight out of the MIS) into the hands of parents in a way which they can easily, intuitively and securely access. On a related note, when you consider how powerfully communicative a relatively low-maintenance web presence can be, I’ll admit to being stunned at the statement that 86% of schools now “have a website”. So that’s just 1 in every 7 which need dragging into 1997 then...

A further (and possibly sunnier) analysis of Becta's numbers can be found in Bob Harrison's piece for the NCSL; well worth a read.

Dominic Norrish (follow me on Twitter: @domnorrish)