EEF in the TES

In an article that was published by the TES, EEF Chief Executive Kevan Collins discusses the importance of how technology is used within education.

View the full article below:

"I love ( and loathe) technology. On the one hand, it’s fun, makes life easier and gives me access to a plethora of information on the other, I am rarely out of reach and bombarded with irrelevant and distracting noise. Like 60% of adults in the UK I have a smartphone and also use a tablet. Since August I’ve taken things a step further, wearing a jawbone - a bracelet that constantly monitors data about your body including how much exercise you’re doing and how well you’re sleeping. It stores the information online where I check it using my phone. The idea is that I adjust my behaviour according to what it tells me.

I came across the jawbone through a project the Education Endowment Foundation is running with Oxford University examining whether sleep education and changes to the timing of the school day can improve GCSE results. It’s one of six projects we’re funding with the Wellcome Trust investigating how the latest research in neuroscience might boost educational attainment, particularly for disadvantaged students. Like many of the 93 trials we’ve funded since 2011 the sleep project makes use of technology – in this instance to monitor the physiological outcomes of the trial on a subset of pupils.

Other projects we are currently running use technology more directly. One trial involving 100 schools will investigate the impact of Scratch, a free online coding programme on pupils’ computational thinking ability and attainment in maths. Thousands of teachers are already using Scratch in schools and whilst there is some evidence of programming improving pupils’ higher order thinking and mathematical reasoning there’s no robust evidence on the specific impact of Scratch available.

Our aim is to rigorously test the programme by running a randomised trial in which half the schools participate in Scratch and the rest act as a control group. By carefully designing the trial and getting independent experts to evaluate it we can try to isolate the impact of the scheme and assess its merits.

As Scratch demonstrates technology is an increasingly important part of the curriculum in its own right. It can also be used to measure, monitor and administrate. Many teachers have found access to the internet, shared drives and interactive resources invaluable for administration and lesson planning. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, technology can be used to deliver teaching and learning in new ways.

It’s this last use of technology that is of particular interest to the EEF. Our mission is to narrow the attainment gap between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers. All the evidence shows that it’s good teaching that makes the biggest difference to narrowing that gap. Our interest in the role technology has to play in improving teaching stems from what is already happening in schools.

The latest research from the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) finds that schools are projected to spend £623 million on ICT in 2015-16. That’s an increase of 3.2% from 2014 for primary schools’ and 5.8% for secondaries. According to Ofcom’s latest study a third of children aged 5 – 15 in the UK own their own tablet and BESA’s research finds schools are equally keen with increasing numbers purchasing them.

It’s great to see schools embracing technology and seeking to innovate. But we should offer a cautious welcome. Too often schools adopt new technologies and, in the ensuing excitement, erroneously attribute improvements in attainment or motivation to their introduction. In some cases impact is not even measured.

Over the next few years we will be publishing evaluations of projects like Scratch that have technology at their core as well as those that use technology to facilitate traditional learning.

One of our most innovative projects is “Flipped learning,” where pupils use technology to learn about new concepts outside the classroom, for example by watching a video clip at home. The idea is that it allows the teacher to focus on more useful classroom activities, like providing formative feedback and or giving personalised support to struggling pupils. It also aims to give pupils more control over their own learning.

We’re assessing flipped learning through a randomised control trial of 24 schools which started in September this year. The project is one of seven co-funded with the Nominet Trust looking at digital technology. We’re expecting an evaluation of flipped learning in 2016.

Another project that will have results available rather sooner is Accelerated Reader. It’s already used by over 200,000 children in around 1,200 schools in the UK. Although it’s been tested in the US with mixed results, it hasn’t been independently evaluated here. It’s a web-based programme that aims to increase the number of pupils who read for pleasure by recommending books based on reading ability, offering quizzes to check understanding, and providing teachers and parents with detailed information on pupils’ reading habits and progress.

The EEF is testing the scheme in four schools which serve disadvantaged communities and will publish the results of the trial in January 2015.

As with all our trials we do not know if the results will be positive. But our system of independent evaluation and randomised trials means when we find that projects work, and indeed when they do not, we know this is a result of the actual intervention, not exuberance about a new initiative or post-hoc justification for expenditure on expensive kit.

For, as I’ve learnt from my jawbone bracelet, it’s easy to get excited about technology. It can facilitate change, giving us access to valuable information quickly and efficiently. It can offer new ways of interacting with knowledge. But it is up to us as individuals what we do with that information. On its own technology won’t get me off the sofa and onto the treadmill. And the same can be said of schools. Perhaps they can work wonders with new technology, but only within the context of a clear, evidence-based goals facilitated by motivated individuals."

Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation

This article was published in the TES on 16.1.15