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LEARNING technologies: developing a technology-enabled profession

Dr Chris Yapp, NACE Patron

First, may I say thank you and best wishes as the return to school starts. The process will be uneven and difficult. Over the last few weeks many of you have been experimenting with technology to try to maintain access to education for your students during the lockdown. I recently ran an online forum for a group of NACE members to discuss what they were doing. It was good to see good innovative practice in the schools involved, but also a willingness to share ideas and practice between individuals and schools.

I have been involved in technology in education for more than 30 years and reflecting on the NACE online forum discussion, I would like to offer some observations that I hope will help us all move forward to whatever the “new normal” may turn out to be.

The most important lesson for me is that the best way to develop teaching practice is through teacher-to-teacher communities of interest. Learning from peers about what works for them and adapting it to your own circumstances stimulates personal development and innovation. Tablets of stone from the great and good are at best blunt instruments.

Second, different teachers and different schools have for 30 years found themselves in quite different stages of development when it comes to using technology as a tool in teaching and learning. The crisis that we are living through gives us a chance to “level up” and enhance the profession to support our learners. It will not be quick, nor cheap.

A common mistake throughout the years is to believe that the children are so much more confident with the technology compared to the adults. Some teachers are reluctant to use technology for fear of looking foolish. Around five years ago I was in a presentation of a study on first-year undergraduates that came to an important conclusion: just because young people are very comfortable with technology, that does not mean that they are comfortable with learning through technology.

Learner confidence is best developed by thinking about “LEARNING technologies”, not “learning TECHNOLOGIES”. That is true for teachers too. My own experience is that three to five years’ experience is required for most teachers to develop full confidence in deploying technology as a learning tool, both in the classroom and increasingly beyond the school. That is why building teacher confidence lies at the heart of creating new practices that will be needed now and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let me illustrate part of that challenge, which came up during the recent online discussion.

My first schools conference on technology in learning was over 25 years ago, in Hull. With a local telephone company, Kingston Communications, despite being a poor city, Hull had better connectivity than elsewhere in the UK at that time. After my talk, a young primary teacher came up to me and gave me an example of what I had talked about. She had a shy eight- or nine-year-old girl who was nervous in class and sometimes difficult to engage. She had been off ill while they had been doing a project on a topic (from memory I think this was the Egyptians). The girl returned on the final day of the work. Much to the teacher’s surprise the girl volunteered that she had done the work while she had been off sick. The teacher asked if she could see it. The girl said sorry, it was on her home page. The teacher said that is OK, bring it in tomorrow. The girl instead offered to take the teacher to the library, which had a few internet-connected terminals. The teacher discovered a multimedia project of rich detail, beyond what she thought the girl was capable of, sitting on the girl’s home page in her dad’s work room. So, she asked if her parents had helped. She got a firm no. Her dad was a computer engineer and they had a significant set-up at home that the girl could use, while her dad was away. Her mother was not interested in computers.

The teacher had become upset because she saw it as her failing that she had underestimated the capability of this pupil and wondered how many others she had “let down”.

Over the years I have heard many similar stories. We had examples during the NACE online discussion. Online learning and online teaching are quite different. Some children thrive on the autonomy and others need much support, as is true in the classroom setting. You may have had surprises yourself recently or will encounter them over the coming weeks and months.

That is why I argue for building teachers as confident learners with technology as a precursor to students becoming confident learners. When you encounter such surprises: IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

To build teaching into a confident technology-ENABLED, not technology-driven, profession my takeaway message is that we need to build communities of teachers on- and off-line to share peer-to-peer the development of new and innovative practice at scale.

I hope as a patron of NACE to be able to play a part in your journey. Best wishes. Stay safe and well.

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