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School technology: does simplicity beat variety?

Integrating technology into the classroom needn’t be daunting. Find a balance so that digital tools enhance, not hinder your teaching methods.

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Integrating school technology into the classroom is more and more prevalent in today’s curriculum. While some teachers naturally bring edtech into their teaching methods, others see education technology as a daunting or overwhelming prospect.

While it’s hard to escape digital classroom tools entirely, it’s useful to decide whether tech simplicity or variety is key to student engagement. The answer often depends on the goal, but overall — quality is more important than quantity.

Why use edtech?

In an increasingly global world, today’s children need technology skills as much as language and literacy. Generation Z are the first true digital natives, born between 1995 and 2010, and currently, make up the largest group in our schools. Like every generation, they will face a demanding job market, but with the added expectancy of digital literacy from the classroom to higher education, and beyond.

Unlike a few decades ago, our children will be expected to collaborate locally and globally as they mature. Technology is a universal language that is spoken internationally, regardless of profession or location. Encouraging the use of technology in the classroom, as well as in the home, is the first step to holistic digital literacy

Is technology transforming education?

The use of technology in the classroom is increasingly important, but the attitude towards fitting education and technology together is also crucial. In the future, we may see less of educators and schools adding technology to their existing pedagogy, and more of tech transforming education.

“The relationship between education and technology is changing. Rather than wondering whether it should be technology that promotes change in education or if education should lead the way, there is growing recognition that the relationship between the two is symbiotic; that technology and educational change (whether curriculum, pedagogy, or teacher attitudes) happen alongside one another.” Cisco – Best Practices in Education Technology

This may indeed be the future, but in this transformative stage it is important to first assess where technology could bring the most value in your classroom, and identify ways to easily and seamlessly integrate the relevant digital tools to enhance your current teaching methods.

Does your classroom feature a mixed-ability set of pupils that would benefit from more differentiation methods, for example? Or are some of your students having difficulty focusing on auditory learning with a particular subject? These could be sound starting points for introducing more digital tools.

Time is limited, so start simple

The notion of transforming education can be worrying for established institutions and educators. Time in the classroom and at home is already fully accounted for with planning, marking and preparing for educational standards, on top of teaching itself. If the goal of your school is to introduce technology into your proven teaching methods, then an uncomplicated approach to technology is a perfect step.

“Edtech is not just about using Web 2.0 tools and complicated learning systems, though it can be. For most teachers, however, ed tech will start as a much simpler journey using technology—no matter how small—to make for a better learning environment.” Cary Kirby

As a starting point, tasking students with technology as a topic gets them thinking about the importance of digital tools. Whether it is an instructional piece — how to use a certain device for instance — or the impact of technology on a particular time in history or in science, students will be encouraged to consider technology as an ever-evolving part of modern life. This was demonstrated at Ysgol Y Ddraig school — while building the new innovative learning environment, the students were involved at every step of the planning process. The idea was to encourage them to think about the impact of technology on learning and day-to-day lives.

As a next step, creating a class blog, website or wiki is a straightforward but effective way to bring digital tools to life in the classroom. Working together on such a project promotes collaborative and engaging student learning, and for pupils to gain hands on expertise that will benefit them beyond the classroom.

The use of free, simple digital platforms like ClassFlow enables students to collaborate and store their work in a cloud-based ‘digital backpack’. Students can be engaged through both traditional and technological teaching methods, fostering key skills in the process.

Avoid technology overload

When deciding the learning objectives for the year, teachers often search for the most effective and efficient ways to reach students. Create a list of ways tech can enhance the chosen learning goals, and use this to decide where digital tools can be incorporated. Adding technology to your armoury is an intuitive way to add variety into the existing curriculum map.

Adding technology for technology’s sake, however, is a common pitfall. Ensuring that it aligns with your teaching objectives keeps a streamlined approach to digitisation in the classroom, and prevents app overload. Simplicity allows students to focus on the preferred outcome of a lesson, with technology encouraging them to approach a subject from a number of angles.

Moreover, trying to do too much too soon can be counter intuitive. The result could ultimately be technology hindering student learning, and causing a roadblock for well-established educators. In the way that new subject matter should be slowly phased into lessons to avoid overloading pupils, the same approach should be applied when introducing technology. A gradual approach ensures effective uptake, avoids overwhelming classes and gives both pupil and teacher the chance to get to terms with the technology.

Simple interactive technologies and interactive flat panel displays like ActivPanel are a widely adopted education technology. Their popularity stems from the easy access they provide to digital resources, while bridging interactive group learning and traditional ‘front-of-class’ teaching.

According to the PBS annual teacher survey on media and technology, 68 percent of teachers value interactive whiteboards and 40 percent use them to support or supplement teaching.

Doing more with less

The US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once stated that the “new normal” was having to do more with less in education. This is absolutely true of education in the UK too. With lower budgets in the sector, but increasing demand to engage more pupils and produce specific outcomes, technology is frequently relied on to supplement education goals.

“Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an add-on or for a high-tech reproduction of current practice. […] Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they need to be more successful.” Arne Duncan

Finding neat and intuitive tools that strengthen the core values of pedagogy and promote a variety of skills for the future is the key to incorporating technology into the classroom. This is where variety is as important as simplicity.

Today, there is not a single, preferred learning method but multiple methods to suit various learning profiles. The same can be said of technology. There is not a silver digital bullet that will automatically engage all pupils and improve learning outcomes across the board. Focusing on varied learning opportunities is more important than the applications to deliver them.

When starting out with school technology, finding a focus will give direction to this variety and keep digital integration streamlined and uncluttered to promote the most pupil engagement.

Digital platforms like ClassFlow have plenty of benefits for teachers, from reducing lesson planning time to streamlining reporting and assessment processes. Most importantly, they promote self-management skills and creativity in pupils, and ensure they have accountability for their work.

These aren’t just digital skills, they are holistic life lessons instilled through the use of transparent technology.

Both simplicity and variety

School technology is indisputably important in fostering lifelong digital skills in pupils and preparing students for the post-education workplace. What’s more, technology is a core time-saving exercise for teachers, allowing more scope for planning and assessment.

Use of simple, uncomplicated education technology like ClassFlow ensures that digital tools add value to the learning objectives, rather than becoming the learning objective. What’s more, by keeping resources varied and interactive, teachers can address more learning profiles and provide more differentiation in the classroom.

A healthy balance between simplicity and variety in edtech empowers pupils to learn in a way most suited to their needs, without making the classroom an intimidating or over-digitised environment. Ultimately, pedagogy is not about how much technology we introduce or ensuring we retain our tried-and-tested teaching methods. We should concentrate on the quality of the learning that sits behind this technology. The end goal is providing the best opportunity for pupils to access resources that prepare them for the future, and produce the best results.