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Making technology work in schools

In the first of three articles for The Literary Platform, Charlotte Avery, Headmistress of girls’ secondary school St Mary’s School, Cambridge, considers the challenges faced by educators attempting to inspire their students to embrace technology.

In the age of interactive technology, and within a school, there are three main hurdles to overcome: one is the huge concern about the general abuse of digital technology including data protection and cyber-bullying; the second is about enabling girls to see the potential of digital technology as a fulfilling employment prospect (alongside computing, physics and engineering in all its branches) and the third is the so-called ‘disillusionment gap’, on which I will focus now.

The “disillusionment gap” is the term used to describe the differtence between young people’s experience of technology outside and inside school. The former experience is generally perceived to be fun, fast, informal, active and essentially flexible – ‘cool’ – whereas the latter is often perceived to be the antithesis: dull, boring, formal, passive and ultimately constraining. This gap arises in my mind for two reasons: first, the quality of teaching and learning about technology and second, the ‘kit’ which schools are able to put in front of their students.

The problem of teaching and learning about technology inside schools is that is that it is generally controlled, and therefore often limited, by teacher expertise – or lack of. Many teachers would say that they do not have the wherewithal to ‘keep up the pace’ either through a lack of time or interest or a genuine fear of not being in control in the classroom context and the repercussions that might follow on. This is an attitudinal constraint.

The second constraint is financial. For many schools, ICT budgets, like marketing budgets, are mysterious black holes which only get bigger in terms of huge, and apparently ever-escalating, costs of infrastructure, hardware, software etc. What this means is that invariably the digital technology available in schools is generally behind the curve of that owned and manipulated by individual students.

Despite these challenges, and no doubt countless others, it is my contention that schools must do all they can to bridge the ‘disillusionment gap’, and indeed many – including St Mary’s Cambridge – are undertaking a positive exploration of new technology for the benefit of teaching and learning as well as encouraging respectful and safe use of new technology (to counteract cyber-bullying and data protection fears etc). If schools don’t do this, they will go to the wall, modelling Darwinian theory of Survival of the Fittest.

I recently heard Sir David Bell on the subject of “The Digital Age: Permanent Revolution”; his key message was that change is not going to stop – it has only just begun, that web-based interactive programmes are already changing the way we teach, and so what we need to ensure is that great educators work with inspirational IT which together have the power to satisfy the world’s thirst for learning.

This merging of classroom learning with interactive, online learning is already happening and the opportunities are out there to seize. I mention two examples. The first is that traditional print and paper textbooks are being supplanted by interactive textbooks available on tablets which enable text to be animated by the use of video, for example to bring scientific experiments to life.

The second example is what is being done via the Khan Academy’ s model of ‘flipping learning’ where the exposition or discovery is undertaken as the homework prior to the lesson where the activities of consolidation take place. It would appear that hundreds of students around the world are benefitting daily from this online learning platform. It certainly makes maths and science understandable, even ‘cool’ and the lessons are free to download and use, thus brilliantly overcoming two of the free challenges. The fact that Khan established the Academy as a result of teaching his niece certainly goes some way to addressing the third contention with regards to engaging girls with benefits of technology. Moreover, I have just finished reading Salman Khan’s ‘The One World School House’ which was inspirational.

At St Mary’s Cambridge we are doing all we can to think through both the challenges and benefits of integrated technology and moving along an exciting path of digital innovation using a variety of different resources.

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