How is tech in schools helping your child to learn?

  • Have you ever wondered how your children actually use computers in school? You might have a vision of all children sitting down with a tablet rather than working on pencil and paper. You’ll have been shown lots of shiny laptops or desktop PCs if you were ever shown around a school. But what happens, and how does it vary among age groups and from school to school? You might be surprised just how different it is from place to place.

When I was at school, we had a dusty, dimly-lit cupboard where three ZX81s, little 1-kilobyte beauties, used to live. You couldn’t really do anything with them other than spend hour upon hour entering laborious code until they inevitably crashed or overheated. One day, they were upgraded to ZX Spectrums – hyperspace! Games! Programming! Life would never be the same again! Except… well, there were still only three. You had to take turns, and take turns, and take turns.

Thankfully, things are a little different nowadays.

Bee bot - small yellow bee shaped robot for educating children in code and logic

A Bee Bot

How young do you think children are before they start coding? Ten, eleven? Maybe younger? In fact, at three or four they will have encountered a Bee Bot a handy little gizmo that is cute and easy to use. You press the buttons on the Bot to get it to move where you want to – by doing so, you’re making simple “algorithms” or sets of instructions.

It gives kids a great introduction to programming by knowing they have to get the steps in the right order and put them in a list. It won’t be long before they’re transferring those coding skills to laptops and tablets. (Believe it or not, Logo and the Logo Turtle, which I remember from that dusty old room back in 1985, is still going too.)

What’s great about learning in the early years is that there’s much more freedom and exploration than anywhere else in school. Children can choose to do some learning with tablets or desktop PCs if they want, rather than learn in set lessons, so they learn organically. Of course the downside to this is, if your child is rather reluctant, they might not be taught how to overcome their fear of technology – and yes, despite the myths, many children find it hard to access technology.

One myth that really needs to be squashed is the idea that “children are just so much better with tech than my generation.” They’re certainly used to navigating their way through technology, but that’s not the same as being fluent with it.

Little learners can be frustrated by tech that isn’t accessible; they can be put off using computers when it’s so much easier to get a pencil on a paper and start creating. It can be so much easier than waiting for hours for a login that won’t work, or a password that they’ve forgotten, or a piece of software that wants to update itself for 10 minutes as soon as you start up the computer.

Children on the floor with iPads using tech for education

Learning with Apple TV – but not all children have their own devices

Most schools sign up to schemes that allow children to progress with their online learning at home and at school – great if you’ve got devices at home, less so if you don’t, but there are usually clubs at breaktimes and lunchtimes too. Schemes such as Purple Mash or Mathletics allow kids to work at their own pace and in their own time, and let teachers set work and homework that’s appropriate for their ability. Parents can log in and monitor progress too.

So what does it look like in the classroom? Well, this is where schools take different paths. At some, every child has their own iPad they bring to school. Classes feature children getting out their tablets and carrying on from where they left off with their assigned work. It’s a surreal sight when you see it for the first time, with no directed teacher input, just learners working at their own pace. It also relies on everyone being able to access the device and the programs, which isn’t always easy if children have additional needs such as special educational needs, language requirements and so on. As well as that, behaviour management at the school needs to be excellent in order for it to work in practice.

  1. Parents are expected to contribute to the cost of the device – but get to keep it, too. The great feature with this is the continuity of learning, with the same device at home, at school and everywhere else – but parents can find it a burden, especially if it gets broken or damaged, and these things do happen.

The other advantage to this approach is that there’s no delay in getting tech to the children in time for lessons. If the school owns a lot of tablets or laptops, that’s a lot of valuable hardware to keep in a building that’s unoccupied at night – so most use secure cupboards or trolleys. It’s fine in principle but in practice it means lengthy and tedious delays at the start and end of lessons getting things out and put away again, unless classes are super-organised.

An ICT suite

An “ICT suite” or computing room

The other option is to have a set room full of desktop PCs, or what was once rather quaintly called “an ICT suite”. It’s great in getting it all ready to use in one place, but can mean that the room is used on a rota basis by classes and you can’t spontaneously use your laptops or tablets as a lesson demands it. Teachers find that they have to plan their use of devices well in advance so that they can have access to them.

As for the most effective strategy, I think there was a time when plugged-in classrooms with Apple TV or all children having their own tablet seemed to be the way ahead, but that doesn’t seem to have made the progress you might have expected over the past 5 years. It doesn’t help that the primary curriculum reboot of 2014 placed greater emphasis than ever on basics such as handwriting, eliminated calculators from maths and changed the role of “computing” to learning simple algorithms.

The other thing to consider is money, unfortunately. With many schools facing a huge shortfall in budgets right now, they are understandably reluctant to invest huge sums in new tech, preferring to make do and mend with what they’ve got at the moment. That might mean your school seeming to stay still while tech moves on in the outside world, but that seems to be the way things are going right now.

So while the digital learning revolution might not quite be upon us yet, there are still ways to keep your children up to speed. Most schools will have a computing or programming club, where little learners can get to grips with Scratch and other packages. The simplest way is to have as fast and agile a tablet or laptop as you can at home that the kids can use – and don’t forget you can always block off certain games or the web, if you just want it used for learning.

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