They’re just not that into you

This post is the first follow up to this one, “Eleven Billion, Eight Hundred And Eleven Million, One Hundred And Sixty Thousand And Sixty Four” which looked at the change in technological capability over the past forty years. This one looks at some of the reasons why that change has not translated into the classroom. Or maybe it’s just a self-indulgent memoir….

When I left university I trained as an accountant with KMPG, then the largest accounting firm in the world. I worked there for six years. When I first started there every letter that went out of the building was typed by the secretarial pool. By the time I left we drafted our own on our own laptops. At the start all audit documentation was written by hand on printed forms. When I left documentation was completed on Apple Macs. I never had a personal email address when I was there.

I then joined a start-up publishing company. I worked there for four years. We had no IT systems – that was one of the reasons I got the job, I was to install one! Communication in the office was initially via printed memos (or sometimes we even left our offices and spoke to each other). We implemented a network (ethernet, of course) and installed (at a cost of £22k) an accounting system. Eventually, after a couple of years, we ran internal email. Towards the end of my time there we had personal email addresses and conducted most of our by now multi-national business via email. We didn’t have a website, but most everything else we did was computerised in some way. The efficiencies that technology brought enabled a ten-fold increase in turnover with a three-fold increase in staffing. That was all over a period of four years.

By this stage, after ten years working as an accountant, I was in grave danger of turning into one, so stopped all that and I re-trained as a teacher. It was 1994, WWW Year One.

The school I joined was technologically like most others of its time. We had one email address. One. The very thought that we would want/need more didn’t cross anyone’s mind. There were forty computers in the whole school. One hundred and fifty staff and thirteen hundred students. Forty computers and one email address. And a dial-up internet connection. It was 1995.

Over the next 15 years schools spent billions and billions (and billions) of pounds on hardware and software, and the only ubiquitous technologies we have to show for it are interactive whiteboards and bloody SIMS.

By this stage the banks (like many other industries) had shed hundreds of thousands of jobs and re-engineered their businesses to take advantage of the use of technology. Robots were building the cars that our fathers once laboured on and even Microsoft had realised that the internet was going to be a big thing. We are on the cusp of a world filled with driverless cars (probably built by robots).

Why has education not benefited from technological advance in the same way that industry has? Why, for example, is there so much paper in a school when in most businesses it has disappeared? Why is communication between students, teachers and home still less than seamless? It is necessary to understand the industry a bit more in order to answer these questions.

Apple annual sales for 2013 were £105 billion. For Microsoft it was £48 billion. Google, a paltry £36 billion. Total sales of these three technology giants was £189 billion. To purchase a tablet for every student in England and Wales, from Year 1 through to Year 11 would costs less than £2 billion (or £700m a year spread over several years). I say this for one reason only, and that is to point out just how insignificant education is to technology companies. Whilst Apple, Google and Microsoft do some really great stuff for education (and I name check just iTunes U, GAFE and Office365 to make that point – they do much, much more) in terms of their business the income they receive from education is insignificant to them.

That is not to say education has no value for these global companies. There is a clear marketing benefit from being seen to be involved in education (again, I state this not to belittle the contribution, just to classify it within the organisations). It is also the case that the battle for hearts and minds (and wallets) of consumers begins young these days. I suspect that a child who has an iPhone or an iPad will be locked into the Apple eco-system for life. It is also true that these companies would not turn down these extra sales. But you get my point.

What does this mean for education and the impact of technology in it? Simply this. The use of technology in education has generally been a by-product. Little of it has been designed for education. For none of it was its design intention to be used in schools. And this goes to the heart of one of the main reasons technology doesn’t get used in schools as often as it should. Schools operate very much in the here and now. A lesson happens, then it is gone. It is very difficult to postpone and delay and come back to. This means that technology has to work, and it has to be workable by the least technically minded. This has not been the case with most technology used in schools.

My relationship with technology has been a long one. I enjoy working with it. I’m quite good at getting bits of tech to work. Not everyone is, nor should they need to be. Technology should all be like a TV. How do I turn it on? Press the on/off button. How do I change channel? Press the channel up/down button. How do I change the sound? Use the volume button. There is near universality in the design of TVs, down to the icons on the buttons. They all have these simple capabilities. Compare this to some of the contortions we expect teachers to go through to get their laptop to display on the whiteboard. And that’s before we want any software to do anything. We take software designed to enable accountants to communicate with their clients and expect it to help the education of children. Then we are surprised that it is not efficacious in every way. Where there has been technology created specifically for schools it has generally been by smaller companies who don’t have the resources of the tech giants and consequently find it harder to deliver the foolproof experience required. So we end up with little pockets of things working.

This is why many of the benefits seen from tech use in pilots fail to scale. The pilots tend to involve volunteers, i.e. people who want to work with technology. People like me. Then the tech is scaled to people who aren’t as comfortable with tech use and it fails to have the same impact. Or the cost of the impact is disproportionate to its benefits. People get blamed. People swear never to get involved with tech again. Or the pilots involve small companies who just don’t have the resource to scale nationally.

For the avoidance of doubt, this failure is not the fault of the user. Nor is it the fault of the tech. It is the fault of whoever put the particular tech in their hands.

There is no doubt in my mind that education can benefit from better use of technology. Or more correctly, “the use of better technology in more appropriate ways”. This post, which is now way too long, has been about why I think that has up to now failed. The next will look at how I think it can succeed.

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