With over 25 years of experience in EdTech, Gary Henderson looks back on what worked and what didn’t and how we should approach new technology.
I have recently been reflecting on my technology journey working in schools for over 25 years, including my time as a trainee teacher. Although schools themselves haven’t changed that much, I think we have gone through several technological changes, often with big promises of impact, but with a lesser albeit positive impact being the reality. So, what has my technology journey looked like?
It was back in the mid 90’s I did my training as a technology teacher and the predominate technology in the classrooms I taught in was a nice big roller blackboard and a box of coloured chalk. I remember getting home, taking my suit jacket off and dusting off the chalk dust from my right hand side, from when I had inadvertently leant on the board while writing or when turning to address the class. I also had access to a traditional OHP (overhead projector) although at that stage it didn’t see a whole lot of use. At home, I would produce worksheets on my personal PC, before photocopying these in school using the school copier ready to issue to students, or occasionally I would print slides onto acetates to use with the OHP. During my training, I remember getting hold of an LCD panel, which was a device that sat on top of an OHP, being the precursor to the data projector. The students and staff were particularly impressed by this new piece of, albeit borrowed, kit although the price tag made it clear it wasn’t something the school would be investing in any time soon.
Qualifying as a teacher I initially taught technology subjects in Scotland, but soon I found myself towards the end of the 90’s looking at Computing and IT positions in colleges in England. So, there I was interviewing for a post with a floppy disk with my lesson slides on, and a set of slides printed on acetates ready to use with an OHP. From memory, I think I taught an introductory lesson on Microsoft Visual Basic programming from the acetates, getting the job as a Lecturer of Computing/IT.
Having moved to England and started teaching in Further Education before then moving to a secondary school, I think this was the period in my life where I saw the biggest changes in technology in the classroom. First, it was the data projector being introduced followed shortly after by the Interactive Whiteboard. Initially, I was impressed by what the Interactive Whiteboard made possible, although looking back now, that seems like a long long time ago (in a galaxy far far away 😉 ). It was now the early 2000’s and Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) were the big thing as colleges sought to introduce them, and as schools eventually were required to have one. Like the Interactive Whiteboard, I was initially very positive and optimistic, however, as my experience of this new technology developed my concerns over the practicality and impact grew. For me, they became nothing more than a repository of content, often just PowerPoints and worksheets, adding little value when compared to the financial costs but more so the time costs of the staff uploading and maintaining the content.
It was at this stage in the early 2000s I saw how students engaged with gaming and sought to introduce it into my school/college albeit as an extra curricular feature. If only I knew then what I know now in relation to esports and how things would grow. I remember the gaming club which ran every lunchtime being very popular and a hive of student activity as students initially competed on Xbox’s, then Xbox 360’s before eventually moving onto PCs.
I also saw at this point the potential for small solutions to have big gains, such as simple random student name selectors or QR code based voting systems or the use of a direct chat solution to support a student with asperges who initially had difficulty interacting with the class as a whole. There were many little bits of software and solutions which could be used in an educational context and could have a positive impact on teaching and learning. You didn’t need to have a device for every student or a complex and costly IT solution to make use of EdTech, often the best solutions at that time tended to be simple and immediate, costing little in resources (financial and time) but delivering on impact within the lesson where they were used.
In the late 2000’s and into the 2010’s, I found myself moving to the middle east and working with schools where the IT facilities at the time were lagging behind where things were in the UK. I, therefore, set about providing whatever support I could provide to get the basics in place plus also to look at how simple EdTech solutions could be utilised where infrastructure and support for technology were limited. I then found myself starting to work with new schools being designed and opened in the UAE and it was here I started to see the benefits of cloud-based productivity platforms, and G-Suite, as it was then named, being the main one I focussed on. I also started to see the benefit of 1:1 schemes and the use of the iPad as the student device of choice. The iPad was really ahead of the game at that time. At this stage for me, EdTech switched from being a very teacher-centric focus to being a more student-centric focus. EdTech had been very much about the tools the teacher used in the lesson but it then changed through Google and an iPad, to being much more about the activities the students engaged in, as facilitated or directed by the teacher.
3D projectors briefly made an appearance on my radar during this period of time. Initially impressive in the demos I saw however my concern was that of the availability of content and particularly the need for new content to be constantly developed. I doubted this would happen so didn’t invest in the technology. Looking back I think that was the correct decision.
It was 2015 when I found my way back to the UK and soon G-suite, for me the only cloud-based productivity platform at the time, was now being challenged by Microsoft in the form of Office 365, the short-lived Microsoft Classroom and then Microsoft Teams. Entering a new school where MS Office was the platform of choice, a move to Office 365 seemed the most logical. And it was in this role, my current role, that esports again came to my attention in the form of the British esports associations champs tournament. I also started to pay interest to the potential of Virtual Reality (VR) and to the potential for improved data analysis through tools such as PowerBi.
The 2020s and the pandemic
And then a pandemic hit and Office 365 became key, and the need for video to be used in supporting the continuation of lessons even where the students were geographically dispersed and remote from one another became clear. For other schools, it was Google’s suite of applications or Zoom which were key, but for us, it was Office 365 and Microsoft Teams in particular. Technology usage and engagement lurched forward overnight where previously it progressed slowly and in irregular steps. The pandemic acted as a sweeping catalyst for change, driving technology adoption forward in a way I had never seen before in my 20 years in schools and colleges.
As I now sit in the early 2020’s, looking forward, there is so much talk about how we might use Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence, at a time when we already use them in our Google searches, transcription and translation of speech from Microsoft Teams meetings, spelling and grammar correction and a number of other areas. In terms of where we go next with this, I am unclear as the terms, ML/AI, continue to be used quite loosely, and this I feel is a problem in our discussion of ML/AI in education. I suspect the reality of ML and AI for the foreseeable future will be focussed use on very limited tasks rather than the more optimistic view of a general AI solution that can deliver lessons and assess students.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are also hot topics, ones which I can see more of an application for certainly in some specific subjects such as the sciences, art, design technology and computer science. My worry here being, is VR/AR just another technology tool which will promise so much yet never quite deliver? Will users be able to develop their own content or will it be reliant on vendors to provide content, and to keep developing new content? Could VR/AI be this decade’s 3D projector? Given I see such potential in VR/AI, I hope not.
Data analysis and the use of analytics tools is also something I see significant potential for although here again, I see a challenge which needs to be overcome in cleaning up school data such that it is usable and generates meaningful information when processed via machine learning solutions or other analytics tools.
Technology is ever-changing and the reality is that schools don’t change quite as quickly. The other reality is that lots of, or even all, new technology is met with a promise regarding its potential however the reality of its potential is not fully realised until some months or even years of use.
As such we need to embrace technology, trial and test solutions, but do so in a measured and careful way such that we don’t invest in the wrong technology. We also need to share our views and experiences among schools and across different contexts, such that we can all learn collectively as to the benefits and drawbacks of different solutions, but tempering this with the knowledge that something that works, or doesn’t work, in one school may not receive the same outcomes in your school. Every school is slightly different.
Looking back, I can’t believe I have been working in schools for over 25 years and the technology changes I have seen during this period. That said, I look forward to the years ahead, and to seeing increasing, new and different technologies being put to the task of enabling, enhancing and redefining teaching and learning.