Why techno enthusiasm works for schools

I am a techno-enthusiast. I see digital technologies, including AI and IT, as being essential parts of the educational landscape. Why? Because they are also essential parts of our current lived landscape, and their impact has been enormous and irreversible. From mobile phones and computers to stock exchanges and the media, our world is one saturated with technology. For schools to ignore this would be like educationalists during the industrial revolution refusing to acknowledge the arrival of steam, railroads and industrialisation. The largest and most powerful corporate powers on the planet are intimately connected to digital technologies – and our lives, whether we like it or not, are bound up with them.

Oddly, however, schools and education have taken a rather ambiguous stance towards this new landscape. While on the one hand there has been massive investment in bringing technology into schools, this has often been accompanied by a rather Luddite attitude that has not yet fully welcomed the potential game-changing possibilities that technology promises.

The global pandemic has shown how schools with a culture of embracing technology, of investing in IT infrastructures for educational reasons and therefore eagerly embedding it in their overall ethos and culture, have been able to home school all their students every day without a break. As a techno-enthusiast and leader of a school, I ensured that we had addressed all the potential barriers to allowing this to happen.

Dr Saima Rana, GEMS World Academy – Dubai

The so-called and very real digital divide, which refers to how less affluent families can’t afford to access technologies such as the internet and computers, was addressed years ago by making it our school policy that every child entering the school would receive their own personal computer and the ability to go online remotely. Every member of staff is also given a laptop when they arrive and all schemes of work, lesson plans and resources are online. A culture that prioritises IT ensures we continually strive to research the latest developments in a continually innovating field so that our system remains fully operative and affordable.

In addition, AI has been fully integrated into our data tracking and reporting systems, again based on spending time and resources on ensuring we get the best value for money deals and support. When the pandemic struck, we had no difficulty moving immediately to being a fully online school in all respects. Zoom lessons, efficient attendance tracking, parent/carer communication and so on have continued since day one of the lockdown, meaning no student has lost a day’s learning. The well-being of the children, their parents and our staff has been measurably positively affected by this. Routine, a sense of purpose and continuity, and contact with friends and colleagues in a professional context, soaked in high aspirations and hope, has meant that everyone in the school community has been unanimous in their support for our response.

So why isn’t everyone so enthusiastic and prepared? Deep down there is a Luddite argument: if online schooling is as good as embodied schooling then doesn’t that threaten the embodied version? I think the pandemic has answered this worry with a decisive ‘No’. Our online school is, I believe, as good as any in the world. But it is not as good as our in-the-flesh school. How do I know? Because the teachers, students and parents have all told me so. They miss the interactions that can only take place in the physical world, and the essential learning that goes with this embodiment. IT systems can’t replace embodied teaching and learning. Research shows that IT only improves learning if the teacher is at least good (poor teaching plus IT is actually more harmful than poor teaching alone).

What can we conclude from all this? We must build a digital- and technology-friendly culture in all our schools, remove the digital divide and ensure all teachers are at least good. We must invest in IT for educational reasons, stay alert to the ever-increasing opportunities it affords and build in the usual safeguarding apparatus schools already have in place for embodied risks they face. Digital technologies are powerful friends of all schools if they are utilised within a culture that places the student’s needs first with enhanced learning as an overarching goal.

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