Can technology level the playing field for disadvantaged students?
Promoting inclusion is a key priority for education, so as the new academic year begins, we ask Steve Smith, Director of Learning at Capita Managed IT Solutions, how technology can help.
What are the considerations when introducing technology into education?
First and foremost, technology must be led by the needs of education. It’s not about gadgets and gimmicks. It’s prudent to put significant effort into planning, researching, proof of concepts and piloting to ensure any technology meets the key objectives.
Support and training is also essential when implementing new technologies, as is measuring its impact to ensure it is helping to meet the objectives set.
2. How can technology make education more inclusive?
Technology has transformed classrooms over the years and has always been a key tool in supporting inclusion. For many children with special educational needs and disabilities, adaptive tools such as pointing devices, screen magnifiers or braille keyboards have been fundamental to their learning. It is also powerful in extending and enriching the experience of the gifted and talented.
In one school I know, pupils on the autistic spectrum who found it a challenge to engage with teachers directly could communicate and learn using robots. The advent of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR) devices can put disadvantaged children into situations they wouldn’t necessarily experience too. Using green screen technology, a child in a wheelchair could ski down a virtual mountain, for instance, or a disadvantaged child could explore the Colosseum.
Technology can also bring reluctant learners back into the fold – digital brainstorming tools could help a child who is afraid to put their hand up in class to make a positive contribution to discussions, and technology in many forms can give children lacking confidence or who find the written word difficult the ability to improve the quality of their presentation, find information and collaborate.
3.What software or equipment can help?
Assistive technologies like specialist interfaces, screen magnifiers, text-to-speech and more generic applications can improve performance. For the reluctant reader or mathematician, gamification and challenge-based products introduce an element of competition which can dramatically improve literacy and numeracy.
As an example, in many schools, boys who had never picked up a book before are now reading millions of words a year thanks to e-readers and ‘challenge’ software tools.
Schools have a golden opportunity to get ahead of the curve and provide pupils with access to technologies which are not yet widely available, such as VR/AR or 3D printing devices, re-creating a buzz around technology to engage children from all backgrounds.
4. How do we ensure every student has access to technology, whatever their background or socio-economic group?
Although the digital divide is narrowing, technology moves on quickly so it’s a challenge for schools to give everyone access to the latest innovations. However, schemes such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) can free schools to channel more of their investment into supporting disadvantaged pupils.
These schemes also encourage schools to invest in specialist technologies, rather than the devices which most have at home. A child might bring a smartphone to school to access the internet, but few could bring in a computer controlled lathe.
Another way to extend access to technology is to take learning beyond the school gates and into the community through libraries, family centres and museums. Cloud technologies can help here by making it possible for students to access their resources anytime, anywhere.
5. When thinking about children from different ethnic backgrounds, cultures and using other languages, what’s important?
Technology can be empowering, opening up the world and exposing children to peers from different communities. I have witnessed a Skype call between schools in Northern Ireland and Africa, for instance, during which African children saw snow for the first time.
In one school which has a large intake of children from a travelling community, technology is having a transformational effect on the pupils’ learning. Their first language is Roma, which is entirely spoken with no formal written form, so many children and their families have difficulties expressing themselves in writing.
Using technology to create and share videos has helped these pupils communicate and engage with the curriculum. Achievement levels have risen dramatically as a result.
There can be little doubt that developments in Artificial Intelligence impact here too, as real-time translation services become embedded in familiar productivity tools and communication/collaboration technologies.
6. Given the financial pressures on education at present, what are the quick wins?
Perhaps of greatest significance is the fact that many useful applications are now cloud-based and cost free to education. The cost of accessing technology is generally falling too and broadband access has become considerably cheaper in recent years in many areas.
7. If money were no object for education, what equipment or resource could be provided for students that are disadvantaged in some way?
Fast, flexible and safe internet connectivity is key, as is a reliable, high performing network and wireless coverage throughout the school. These are a school’s gateway to the exciting and ever-expanding world of education technology. And if schools put their resources into getting the core infrastructure right, all pupils will be able to access learning resources quickly and simply, regardless of their background or circumstances.
Extending learning outside the classroom is important too, as we have seen a significant impact flowing from collaborative and ‘Flipped Learning’.