Why apps won’t replace teachers in London’s schools

eSchools staff. Photograph: eSchools
eSchools staff. Photograph: eSchools

Everything is smart these days: smart phones, smart watches, smart TVs… But what about the places that are supposed to make us smarter?

It may come as a surprise that one of the biggest technological booms of recent times is happening in classrooms.

The use of education technology – or ‘edtech’, as it is known – is on the rise in UK schools.

Last year, former Mayor of London Boris Johnson helped launch Edtech UK, a body charged with promoting one of the fastest growing areas of the digital
economy.

A report by London & Partners found that the global edtech sector was worth £45 billion in 2015, with that figure set to reach £129 billion by the end of the decade.

There are currently 350,000 educational apps on the market, and that number is increasing by thousands every month. For mathematics alone, there are 20,000 apps.

The number of schools adopting new technology to help with administration is also swelling, and teachers are increasingly using apps to quiz pupils, mark tests and manage lessons.

It’s less chalk on blackboard and more swipe on screen these days.

But what are the benefits of this new digital environment for both teachers and pupils? And what could it mean for the future of education?

According to the experts, teachers have nothing to fear – for now, at least.

Justin Smith, who founded the Battersea-based Educational App Store (EAS) in response to the growing supply of software, said: “Technology will always have a place as a learning tool, but it won’t replace the killer app – the teacher.

“Communicative, collaborative and creative skills cannot be learned by using a tablet. Technology can’t understand the emotions of pupils, but it will enhance their understanding of a subject.”

The glut of apps on the market can make it hard for teachers and students to sort the wheat from the chaff – which is why curation, according to Smith, is so important.

He added: “These little packets of software can have a big impact on pupils, and the aim of EAS is to make sure these apps are organised according to learning outcomes by qualified teachers and academics.”

One tool that EAS recommends is MasteryConnect’s Socrative, an app that allows teachers to test their pupils and get immediate feedback.
MasteryConnect’s CEO Cory Reid said: “We believe that teaching is a complex series of human events – it’s about building meaningful relationships between teachers and students.

“New technology can provide teachers with the tools they need to support their work, however, it cannot on its own evolve instructional practice.

“The greatest thing that technology can do is to facilitate more informed decision-making and provide educators with what they need to build upon the relationships with their students.

“Edtech solutions like Socrative give teachers access to the formative data immediately and easily, helping them identify student levels of understanding in real time, target students for enrichment or intervention, and reflect on their own teaching practice.”

Like Smith, he thinks technology will have an increasing impact on learning, but agrees that teachers are irreplaceable, adding: “Teachers are the single greatest source of innovation in the classroom.”

Schools ‘behind the curve’

Another benefit of technology is the information it can provide. Reid said: “Data-driven instruction will help educators gauge student mastery against any set of standards, promoting a constant refinement of teaching practices and personalisation of learning.”

Smith concurs: “Look at the gaming industry – its products are adaptive. There are levels to them, difficulties you can set. That’s what we will see in time with educational apps – more personalised learning.”

Despite the benefits and availability of edtech, eSchools chief Jon Coleman says educators can still be slow to embrace technology.

He said: “The edtech sector is fast-moving and vibrant in terms of development and investment. But schools, compared to commercial companies, are behind the curve when it comes to adopting new technology.”

And Coleman warned teachers that they risk “falling behind” if they fail to adapt to their practices.

“Children are growing up in a digital world – it could be argued that we are still in the midst of a digital revolution – and teachers need to adapt.

Coleman describes eSchools as a “virtual learning environment”. The platform, which is already used in schools across Tower Hamlets includes a mobile phone app for parents, a portal for governors and a variety of management tools for teachers.

But schools’ attitudes towards new technology are still a “very mixed bag”.

Coleman said: “A school might have one or two teachers using new hardware and the latest apps, but in the classroom next door there’s a teacher using none at all.

“It is something the Department for Education needs to address – improving teachers’ skillsets when it comes to grasping new technology.”

He thinks the inconsistency is partly down to the lack of clear, national guidelines on edtech.

MasteryConnect’s Socrative
MasteryConnect’s Socrative

“In England alone, there are 21,000 schools. In the past five years or so, these schools have been allowed greater autonomy. They govern themselves more than ever.

“There needs to be a national plan for the up-skilling of teachers. Even if it is one member of staff per school who can be a point of contact when it comes to new technology, they can then disseminate that knowledge to other teachers.

“That is just one idea, but the DfE must do something to address the IT skills shortage in schools.

“Technology moves so fast that it is hard for people in the commercial world to keep up, let alone teachers. Their job is to teach children, after all,” he added.

Despite his criticisms, Coleman was adamant about one thing: “Technology will not replace teachers.”

On that point, all the experts agree.

But while they think there is a long way to go before robots are in charge of the classroom, they make one thing very clear: digital tools can help with learning, and embracing edtech is smart teaching.

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