News and Media

Roundtable: Technology in schools

To what extent has blended learning been incorporated in mainstream education?


Darren Frearson: I think you've always had blended environments — it's nothing new. I think the advances in technology and the mobile devices, and the ease of connectivity has made it more present in the class, it makes it easier to work on things — that's what's made it blended, so to speak. You can mix it with multimedia, you can check stuff, you can use different portals.

Mario Ross: It's a mind-set — it has always been there, but it's partly driven by the leadership as well. And it's not just the substitution. If you look at established educators, they are really redefining learning with the use of technology.

Fadi Khalek: Blended learning does seem to have gained more traction. Technology in the past four years has probably overshadowed technological advances over the last 20 years.

The question is how, and what shapes and forms it is taking. And when you look deeper into it, you'll see it's very fragmented in the way it is being approached, and in most cases, as it was with e-learning, it's taken a technology-first approach in most cases, which, in my opinion, has always been the wrong approach to take.

How are schools working with technology and how are companies helping schools integrate more technology in the classroom?

Radwa Salem: It's not a one-man show — it's 100% teamwork. This is why all the high tech platform providers have focused on education. Apple has been in the classroom for a very long time, Google is now focusing on the classroom, Microsoft has changed its whole strategy and everything that is being produced is created while considering students and teachers.

Mahmoud Batrouni: I agree; the enhancements we have made to our platform came from working with the educators. We don't come from an education background, but we learned the tools and assessment criteria from working with the educators. You see technology not only in traditional classrooms, but also for special education needs — for children with autism, children with dyslexia; it enhances their capability.

Fadi: Access is a very important part of providing education. I think the key element in the use of technology to empower teachers is data. Even superb teachers, without the tools and aid of technology, cannot do their jobs completely, not only in terms of differentiated learning and individualised learning, but also to address a higher order of thinking in the classroom, rather.

Darren: The children don't really know how they want to learn yet — it's about facilitating their choice. I look at technology in terms of an expression. Discerning use of technology — that's the key; that's what we want. It's not about the technology, it's not about whether you've got Apple or Microsoft – it's 'Can you decide or justify why you've decided to use a certain programme or app?' There's your higher order thinking. Historically, it's been death by PowerPoint, then it became death by Smarta, now it's death by Prezi — it's about breaking that cycle. It's about doing the right thing for the learning.

How are schools and ICT heads picking the app or technology they use?

Darren: My role is leading technology and IT across Taaleem, so I look at kindergarten all the way through to Year 13 and make the connection between departments, between grades, and share that between everyone. It's about trying out different things.

Radwa: This is why companies need to go into a class and learn what teachers need, instead of just pitching the latest solution. Whenever we do a training, we always tell the teachers to assess what they like or dislike, because it's a personal choice, and you have to also build this choice for the children too. We push teachers to learn about everything that's out there, which I know is a challenge, but we need to put this idea in our students' heads that it's all about productivity — if it's not letting you be productive enough, then forget it, dump it, and go look for something better.

Darren: For me it's about opportunities to experience as many different platforms and as many different methods of doing the same thing so that they can make that choice.

Radwa: You'll see how students are really exceeding their teachers because they have this curiosity, and they have the time, while the teacher is so overwhelmed with lots of things.

So teachers are slower when it comes adapting to technology?

Radwa: Yes, definitely. It's because you have to follow a lot different rules and work on school inspections, etc, while the kids have the device and the time, and they learn.

Darren: It's got to be down to the school and the support it provides as well. In several of our schools, we are creating senior leaders for education technology — so my role is to work with those teachers and facilitate those lessons. I'm a secondary teacher, but I've been in kindergarten, I've been in primary, still using the technology alongside them. I've never met a teacher that doesn't want to do it — they're concerned it will all go wrong on the day. If you can take that unease away and provide that support in the lesson, the kids also get consistent experience.

Mario: The ultimate goal is to raise the bar. It's important to do things in phases. We don't just push out new technology. That's why at institutions like Taaleem and GEMS, we have dedicated roles for people to evaluate new technology, test it, and then roll it out in phases.

Moustafa: We need to look at educational technology in terms of content, and content management and creation. Another component is the managerial and analytical tool for teachers and administrators.
Darren: The content — sort of how do you get this content together and share it – is the next step, but the initial bit is just changing that mind-set.

Fadi: I don't think I've ever seen an ideal way of implementing technology in education so far. It's a journey we are all going through. There are some doing it better than others. Where it's done better, I've seen is where there is a more holistic approach, and part of it is actually how teachers are evaluated, incentivised; it needs to be systematic.

Radwa: When it comes to one-to-one devices, the most important thing is that the teacher is comfortable enough managing the other devices in the class. When they feel empowered, they get behind it. So I would say the movement is there, it's happening, but it takes at least five years to say that a teacher has changed the way he is delivering his lesson. Anything less than that – we are still adapting to the technology.

What are the things schools should watch out for when choosing or upgrading technology?

Fadi: One thing to consider is why are we doing all this? Do we believe that education is not producing the right people into society and is failing us? It's because education has to produce better results — that's what it should aim at.

Darren: This is why it's so important to not rush into these things. A typical example was the electronic whiteboard — within a year, every class across the world had this interactive whiteboard and what did they use it for? Powerpoint! That's the perfect example — it was just pushed out. That is why now we have to be very careful. Even with the BYOD, we didn't a particular type of kit. We just said that all you have to be able to do is go on the internet, take pictures, video, and notes — that covers pretty much any device. And if you plan into your curriculum opportunities to use that for evaluation or a purpose, then you're going to get the rewards. I know some schools have gone out and said every student must only have a certain kind of device like a Macbook Pro — can you guarantee that every single class is going to be maximising the use of that device that you've just told the parents to buy? It's not about that — it's about finding the purpose.

Radwa: How do you make sure there is digital equity in the class? We know the device is not the most important thing in the class, but different devices have different features — and that means less productivity or more productivity.

Darren: But the stuff that I'm planning for doesn't need that. What we are saying is that in order for consistency, I would say the minimum is you can take photographs, you can take video, and you can go on the internet.

Fadi: I think equity comes from defining the purpose — as long as it allows me to achieve that purpose, then we are equal.
Darren: What is great when I see a class with that mix of technology is when you're doing group work, they're sharing; they're exposed to different devices. And the only way I could facilitate that in a class was to not have a minimum spec and to go with a purpose instead.

Fadi: And I think the great value in this is that it is one way to overcome the biggest dilemma in integrating technology — the pace at which technology is developing. So even if it changes five versions in one academic year, it doesn't matter as long as it is achieving the same purpose, because otherwise if you focus on just the latest technology, it's a nightmare to keep up.

What kind of training do teachers receive?

Darren: I don't deliver whole staff training on anything — that's not how I model a lesson. For me it's about working with them on a smaller scale — maybe on a grade level, to see what they're doing and how technology can support their work. We match in what they need and provide the training for them and then it's extended to me or another expert being with them — so it's like a double-pronged approach. Not only do the teachers have the personal device, the kids get a consistent experience too. One of my big things is consistent experience in technology for every single child.

Fadi: Professional development is not something that gets injected over a two or three-day workshop. It has to be a continuous activity, coupled with coaching, mentoring. The way I've seen it done successfully is when it starts with agreeing with the teaching staff and convincing them of the outcomes that you want technology to help them achieve. From there it moves on to getting the knowledge they need in terms of utilising tools as and when they need it. And also, in higher education, we've used action research — so we've had teachers use what they're doing in the classrooms to publish research. That publishing helped them further enhance the learning process.

How are teachers using technology for assessment today?

Radwa: Here's the dilemma everyone is in — technology is really moving fast, teachers are embracing it, students are embracing it, but when it comes to the 360-degree view, it's not yet complete. We have many one-to-one initiatives in the UAE, like the Mohammed Bin Rashid Smart Learning Programme — it reaches almost 146 schools and maybe 42,000 students. They are doing great with the approach, but at the end of the year, the exams are on paper. So all year long, you're preparing students and offering them different tools and interactive content — but when it comes to final assessment it's just a paper and pen.

Mario: Assessment is just one part of education — look at the journey that has taken them to the assessment. Has technology made the assessment easier? Has it facilitated more learning? Has it encouraged the students to be more enthusiastic about his learning? Has it helped the student create his own content? As far as I'm concerned, technology is about how you employ it. For instance, QR codes were once seen only on books in the library, but today, in our schools, we use QR codes on peer assessment sheets. What the teachers do for peer assessment and assessment is to get the children more involved in the learning and the evaluation. So it's about how you employ technology to suit your requirement.

Radwa: I think the assessment is overlooking a lot of new areas that the children have acquired.
Fadi: I think one of the biggest fallacies of education is that we over-assess everything. We have to look at the role assessments play in leading to the outcomes. We've created teachers and learners who only teach and learn for a test. What is more challenging for me is not how teachers use technology to do assessments, but how they interpret assessments and what it tells them, and how they use that interpretation to tailor their instruction.

Radwa: That's where technology is beneficial. We now have tons of data from the schools, but what are we learning from this data? Learning from it and extracting it is a science. People don't have the time or the ability. When it comes to individual classrooms, we must always have this personalised engagement. An A+ or B+ is not enough for a parent. Even when I see my son's report I want to read and I want to understand where is the area of improvement and what is he doing well already? When we look at the Ministry of Education and how they want to understand whether the school is on the right track, we have to go back to the data. It's not always as informative or sensitive to the human factor, but if you're talking about three or four million students in a country, this is how I can judge whether a new curriculum works.

Fadi: We are talking about the predictive or analysis element of assessment — but that's only one aspect of assessment — the other one is the diagnostic capabilities. Education is not the first industry to use this, except the algorithms are new to assess it from an education standpoint versus a marketing or business intelligence perspective.

Radwa: It also helps teachers to see where their class is right now. Sometimes teachers struggle to see where their class is at a certain point in the year. So if this data is accumulating through the years, it can give them an early insight.

Moustafa: With statistical tools you can start setting the benchmark and then correct it through the year or five years to start building the benchmark.

Darren: I don't have a problem with the part that tells me where my class is now — it's the predictive bit that I have a problem with. I just think you have to be careful about how much we rely on these systems and what they're used for.

Fadi: That's a statement that applies to everything in general — you have to be careful about how much you rely on technology in general and what it is for, the teachers role, and all of these need to be defined in the right context. And the context here is what is it for? What is the outcome we are trying to achieve?

Darren: The way I see it is: if you're tracking something and a child is making progress — I just need to know that he's going to continue to make progress. I don't need to know how much progress, I just need to know that there will be progress in his thinking skills or his math.