Is failure to use technology to enhance learning failing school pupils?

The format of education hasn’t really changed since Victorian times. Students are still packed into a classroom with a teacher who spends most of their time doing some variation of lecturing to the students, before they then apply whatever they’ve just heard to some real examples. This system treats everyone equally by treating pretty much everyone the same, using the same techniques and the same curriculum for everyone, regardless of their differences. Liberal Democrats tend to challenge traditional policies, and should challenge the current educational system too. We also tend to look solely to teachers for educational policy but it is also worth listening to the perspective of students.

Technology promised a revolution in classrooms, with very little change in the techniques in the publicly funded and conservative education sector. Technology has changed the way in which the teacher delivers the information to the class, allowing a little more interactivity but keeping the key parts of the teacher lecturing to the students on masse. Technology could, and should, be causing a more revolutionary change to education, like a number of charter schools are in the United States.

One charter school chain, called Summit Public Schools, has used technology to revolutionise their teaching. Students mainly learn from online courses and doing project work, supported by a teacher who moves from more authoritarian current role to a mentor, supporting students in their learning and explaining more difficult concepts. These schools save teachers a significant amount of time on marking, allowing teachers to support their students more and removing a significant source of stress. The school still requires students to cover a broad curriculum using a personal learning plan, though they are free to learn at their own pace and choose their topic at the time. 

The think-tank RAND Corporation, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, studied 23 new charter schools around the US that were experimenting with personalisation techniques for student learning. This study can be found here. They found that student achievement in maths and reading had improved faster than the national average since these programs began. The most dramatic impact is in maths for children aged 7 or 8, where personalised learning almost doubled their ranking nationally, on average raising them from the 33rd percentile into the 64th. These programs are not even as advanced as those used by Summit Public Schools, so the gains from using their system may be even more profound.

This radical overhaul of the education system is likely to provide large benefits to students, while not requiring divisive streaming in schools or between schools. Students learn together, supporting each other in a more collaborative while individual environment, teaching every child a broad curriculum while also allowing them to pursue their passions.

* Oliver Craven is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

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  • I have some sympathy with this position as a teacher – but the big problem with this is funding. Funding to ensure students have access to devices at all time, and that they are all of a common standard; funding to ensure that all teachers have adequate and appropriate training (especially if the devices being used are not what the teacher would use at home – how many MacBooks sit in cupboards because teachers use Windows PCs at home and aren’t confident in using Apple?) and funding for the time teachers will need to replan and rewrite courses to the appropriate standard while still delivering and reworking existing courses.

    My current school is doing this for maths, and it has worked well, but I’m not convinced that state schools in the UK would have the money to do this properly.

  • Peter Watson 21st Aug '17 - 11:33am

    “We also tend to look solely to teachers for educational policy …”
    Sadly (as a parent, not a teacher) my impression is that it is a very long time since anybody has looked to teachers for educational policy.

  • Andrew Fitton 21st Aug '17 - 4:03pm

    I think technology and the approach proposed has risks and benefits.

    I think a risk is some school children need human interaction and the discipline of the classroom – I have come across to many people in adult life who get by doing the bare minimum rather than offering and being all they can be.

    In some respects a counter to that risk is that some students (and I speak from personal experience of me thirty years ago) just look to get by to appease others (parents, peers, school, society) because they are not enthused by the subjects that are on offer from schools.

    I don’t think some see the point of Maths, Physics, Biology, Geography and so on as subjects in themselves. I think the people who do well are those people who like those topics and then go on to find actual jobs as engineers, doctors, politicians where those “pure” topics find practical application.

    Come at it from another direction for those people who like being an engineer because of what you can build or business or law because you like the precision of the law or being a pilot because you like being in the sky. You need to know physics or history or humanities but seeing the practical application of the pure topic enthuses you to strive to be better.

    I hated maths and was an average maths student a best. I scrapped into a poly to do a business and economics degree. To be better in business I needed to understand statistics and I really enjoyed my statistics modules on my degree as I could see how statistics could be applied effectively in business. I am still interested in stats to this day.

    I think using technology to better tailor education to the specific goals or aims or passions of the pupil, especially as they approach adulthood would be a good thing but it is not one size fits all.

  • Agreed it’s not good teaching all children at a certain pace: too fast for some, too slow for others. But this isn’t a new concept (just new tech). Maths lessons in my school were ‘learn at your own pace’; follow a topic you chose, in any order. Room full of kids, all doing their own thing, teacher at the front to help if asked…
    In practice, it was a very easy way to skive. You could drag a topic out almost endlessly. The only collaborative element was my boyfriend and I spent maths lessons in the 5th year quietly messing about together and doing virtually no learning at all!

  • The web page you link to states, “The basic concept of personalized learning (PL) — instruction that is focused on meeting students’ individual learning needs while incorporating their interests and preferences — has been a longstanding practice in U.S. K–12 education”. Therefore it seems likely that UK schools are already using the methods of the American charter schools. The report seems to conclude that those at the top and bottom benefit most but it is not statistically significant.

    A mixed approach is always going to be best, because children are different, one size does not fit all. Teachers know this and are taught to use different methods to engage pupils.

  • Philip Knowles 22nd Aug '17 - 8:57am

    As a teacher, one of the issues is the disincentive to innovate because one gets penalised for doing so.
    Teaching is driven by ‘contact hours’. If I came up with a way to use technology to better educate a class it would almost certainly reduce my ‘contact time’. I would then be given more hours to maintain my contact hours.
    Schools and colleges need to move away from contact time (a blunt measure of output) to income per teacher (input). That would give the teacher flexibility to change teaching methods without having to worry about being ‘short of hours’.
    FE Colleges, in particular, are driven by turnover not profitability. A group of 16-19 year olds might generate income of £70k but they are in 16 hours a week (£4375 per week hour) and need lots of support from various parts of the college. A group of adults coming in on an evening will generate £30k but they are only in 3 hours a week (£10000 per week hour). I know which groups I would be trying to recruit more of.

  • Geoff Hinchliffe 22nd Aug '17 - 9:21am

    How often have we read, on LibDem Voice, complaints about politicians constantly proposing changes to the education system ? Now, it seems, we are joining the circus

  • The use of technology to support learning is something which is attracting attention in many areas. I have particularly in mind what is referred to as blended learning, that is using both technology and human interaction. There are a number of courses on the internet – free – from the University of Leeds. The first one is Blended Learning essentials – getting started. It can be found via

    The programmes in themselves are interesting in helping to consider how best technology can be used at any age to enhance learning.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Aug '17 - 9:50am

    “Technology has changed the way in which the teacher delivers the information to the class,” Students learn to think if they are interested enough to participate. They should be ready to be thinking individuals before they become 18, or maybe 16?

  • As someone who works in education (albeit HE not schools) I’m rather skeptical. Even during my short time I’ve seen one technological fad after another. People don’t need screens to learn.

    At least it hasn’t gone for the “learning styles” myth though!

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