James Garnett, EdTech Demonstrator Programme Lead, United Learning
Schools, Colleges and Trusts who make effective use of technology will create a digital advantage for their staff and learners and, as a consequence, improve pupil/student outcomes versus those who ignore or under-invest in technology. This creates what is sometimes summarised as the ‘digital divide,’ compounding other factors which impact pupil progress. This divide can occur at three levels; an organisational level where coherent use of tools and data analytics will, for example, drive school improvement and support narrowing the gap; at the classroom level where effective use of educational technology will amplify the effects of good teaching and deliver better knowledge acquisition; at an individual level where access out of the classroom allows learning to continue for longer.
• Organisational Digital Divide
The extent to which an organisation utilises technology to improve its operations will strongly influence what it feels like to work or to study there. Organisations can harness technology to create a more efficient and flexible working environment or to use data analytics to effectively assess pupil progress; done well, this can improve teacher retention and deliver improved learner outcomes. Delivering CPD online enables more staff to attend, reduces the time commitment (no travelling), recordings can be made available for part-time staff, and it makes high profile keynote speakers much more accessible. The use of a single or a core set of applications improves efficiency and internal communication, as there is only one place to look for information and supports better collaboration and shared planning, reducing teacher workload. Also, technology makes it easy to generate and, with the right tools, analyse data to gain actionable information. This can be at the macro level by looking at attendance across a group of schools to target support for individual pupils/students or identifying spending patterns and looking for savings.
• Classroom Digital Divide
The appropriate use of technology in the classroom can amplify the effect of teaching; done badly or without a clear strategy, technology can waste money and time and negatively impact learning. However, schools and colleges with a clear understanding of how teaching and learning can be amplified through technology and which have a well-defined digital strategy can develop a clear advantage for their pupils/ students. The use of well-targeted digital tools (e.g. visualisers to model techniques more effectively; teacher tablets that enable teaching from anywhere in the room; software that automatically records and shares key learning points for repeat viewing, low stakes quizzing to inform planning) all add value to lessons and enable teachers to explain complex ideas better, target gaps in understanding and extend learning beyond the classroom. Due to the groundedness of these enhancements in effective teaching and learning, those teachers that exploit technology well will see improved learner outcomes and create a digital divide with those who do not.
"Delivering CPD online enables more staff to attend, reduces the time commitment (no travelling), recordings can be made available for part-time staff, and it makes high profile keynote speakers much more accessible.”
• The Individual Digital Divide
The pandemic brought into sharp focus the inequality between those who had good access to the right technology out of school and those whose access was inadequate. This was perhaps the most discussed digital divide during school closures and brought the inequality of technology use in the education sector to public attention. This ability to extend learning beyond timetabled lessons through the use of adaptive learning tools and online revision platforms with close links to the school’s curriculum provides a distinct advantage for those whose schools enable it and the pupils who have access. It is therefore imperative that schools make sure that they mitigate against the inherent disadvantage some may have because of an inability to afford devices or where schools choose to eschew technology. There are clear benefits for SEND pupils (and others) with access to the tools built into the standard Google and Microsoft platforms—dictation and narration, spelling and grammar checkers, translation tools for EAL—to the more specialised software applications or hardware peripherals to meet the specific needs of individual learners. Providing ubiquitous access to devices and connectivity, often via a 1-to-1 scheme, enables pupils/students to leverage a variety of tools to better support and extend their learning.
The digital divide is not just about access to devices; it is a whole school challenge that needs, from the very start, to focus on the benefits to teaching and learning. Online platforms bring no benefit if staff and pupils/students are not trained how to use them; collecting data that is not easily interpreted by individuals has limited value; technology in the classroom that does not support teaching and learning will be a hindrance, and the wrong device will not support or extend learning.
To bridge this digital divide will require a coherent approach encompassing school improvement with an embedded digital strategy extending for multiple years to enable change to happen, budgets to be set, and benefits realised. The EdTech Demonstrator programme has been created by the DfE to support schools in just such an endeavour with schools, colleges and trusts able to support you begin or continue on the path to bridging the digital divide and realising the benefits technology can bring to support raising educational outcomes for all.