Tablets, blowing budgets, and more. In this episode, Andy, Emily, and Adam are joined by special guest, Dr. Rachel Ralph from The Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, Canada. What's the purpose behind technology in the classroom? Does technology add engagement? Plus, discussion on rote learning and memorisation.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marret.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
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Welcome back to another podcast episode. And this one is a way bit special because today we've got a really special guest with us, Dr. Rachel Ralph from the center for digital media. And we're going to start things off talking about the role of digital media in education, which I'm fascinated about. And I think that we're all really looking forward to hearing Rachel's view on this and everything that she's found out about it, and probably ask some questions that I hope start a conversation that keeps on going. So, Rachel, welcome. Welcome. Do you just want to just start us off just by just telling us a little bit about the work that you do, is that okay?
Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to chat with everybody today and yeah, so like you said, I'm Rachel Ralph. I have a PhD in curriculum and pedagogy. So for fanciness that's how we teach and learn and how we do it and what we do with it. And in particular, my focus was on digital media and technology studies. And through that, it's quite a big term when you ask people, what is technology? What is digital media? I think I've had long in depth conversation on how a pencil is technology with people if you think about what it is.
That's right up our alley, by the way, that's the kind of stuff we love to talk about.
Awesome. And so, yeah. I think I got into the space working through my prior career where I was a middle school teacher for about 10 years. And I worked in a lot of different technology spaces. I was the technology leader for our school, a digital ambassador for the district. I trained students to become technology mentors and it was great. And then I'd have a teacher ask me, "Can you put this really cool addition math app on to the iPad so that the kids can play it after they finish their math homework?" And it was super disappointing because I see technologies being so much more and we should open our creative minds and there should be creative spaces. In my district they bought ... I'm trying to remember. I think it was over 10,000 devices, which is pretty big for a small district.
That's a lot of money. That's a lot of devices.
Yeah. It's a lot and it's not cheap. The investment was strong, so they had hired people to do this, put all this energy. And then I attend a workshop, said, "We have the devices, so now what?" Which is completely backwards, it shouldn't be the way you approach technology. And it led me to my PhD where I was like, "You know what? I can do so much more in this space." I know there's so much more than here's some laptops and as all the right type, which is a typing program that I took when I was very young and woo, we're learning how to type. And I'd question teachers on that. I said, "Why do we need to teach people how to type anymore because so much stuff is touch screens?" And there was a lot of interesting conversations. And now I work at the center for digital media and it's an amazing space because it is project based learning first. It is students first. It is about people first and not digital media first. And I think the really interesting part.
So that's quite like both a huge area but also very specific, right? So what I'm interested in knowing is, if we flip it around just for a second and Adam, sort of, I'm going to put you on the spot here. So Adam, you used to be a head teacher, right? How did you approach digital media in your school? Like what...
I found it tough. I want to go back to just a step before, I think maybe when I was a deputy head. So on leadership, making some decisions, but not ... I'm rewinding say 10, 11 years. And I remember there were schools that were going big buying iPads or tablets. And I thought, I really want to know the research first, because we're about to drop a lot of money and my school didn't have a lot of surplus cash and I found it really tough. I found it 10 or 11 years ago, I couldn't find very much research that supported the impact, but I think the difficulty was is that I'm not convinced many people they knew sort of how to use it. So many in the school you've got a wide range of people who might like the extent might be checking their emails through the people who are developing their own things.
But then also there weren't like pilot studies done, there tended to be people who would drop a whole lot of money, put the devices in schools and then kind of hope and assume that something marvelous was going to come out the other end. So the biggest struggle I had was justifying the spend and in the end we didn't do it because I couldn't find enough, not initially anyway and so I found it a real struggle. Now I'm hoping that Rachel will be able to tell me now, "Ah, the world's changed and there are pilot studies all over the place. And if you were back in that job, you would be all over. We could tell you how to spend it, where to spend it, and what to spend it on." That's what you're going to tell me here Rachel.
Right. I have all the solutions, all the technology solutions.
That's what we want to hear.
Well, I think you're right in the sense that 10, 11 years ago, when the iPads first even came out, yeah, of course there wasn't a lot. And a lot of the content that was on there doesn't even exist. So if you have an old iPad and you try and update it, you'll say delete this app, delete this app because it just people stop developing certain things. I think there's kind of the two markets, I think you're right where you talk about the people who are checking it for emails or using it for productivity purposes versus entertainment purposes. And I think it depends on what you're trying to achieve with it. I think a lot of earlier things that were on it were really rote to memorization pieces, so I think people took what they did on paper and then just made an app and that's supposed to be the solution.
And so of course, early research and early things didn't indicate whether it was successful or not because it was also, "Oh, look at this cool trendy thing." So is it just a trend? Is it going to stay? We don't know because technology changed so rapidly. I would say from the beginnings of the first iPhone, which is also interesting because the center for digital media opened right as the first iPhone came out. And so technology rapidly changed after that. So I think what they had planned really, really changed a lot of things. And then iPods came, went, came back, kind of stayed, kind of didn't and so I think when that was happening, people were like, "Well, this tablet, what is it going to do?" And so I think I understand the hesitation. I think I didn't even buy one for a very long time because I said, "Well, why do I need it? I have my phone or I have my laptop. I don't need it now I use it every single day."
It's very interesting to see the shift, but I think in education, in particular, you have to make that decision because you know that the next five years, whatever that thing you buy is what students are going to have to use or longer because you're not buying the latest, whatever pro version, that things are on for schools that doesn't get purchased it has to have longevity. And so I think that's a lot of early stuff like, "Well, is it worth it?"
What do you think Emily? Is it worth it?
Yeah, I was just listening to what both Rachel and Adam were saying. And so having worked on like creating various bits of technology over the years at different times, I'm really fascinated by the fact of what you were saying that sometimes people just had the equipment so they might have the smart boards for example, but they were just utilizing them. They might as well have had an old chalkboard, frankly, because it was just being used with the whiteboard pen to write on the board, doing what they used to do rather than ... And sometimes that's a training issue. Like not just about having the technology, but it's about the training. So people can utilize the equipment effectively. And I often think that when new innovations are used in education, there's a lot of money put into the infrastructure. There might even be times when they actually do invest in fascinating technologies and some of what would've been called the software behind it, but actually the training it is an issue.
And then the other thing that I was really fascinated by that, I've seen time and again, I remember there was a lot of ... In the UK, there were certain areas about 15, no 10 years ago, sort of 12 year. Looking at sort of emerging handheld technologies with the view on education, there was some really interesting little mini projects going on and lots of it looked at engagement. And so people were able to sort of prove if you like from an academic perspective and more people were engaged. And I remember thinking about projects of kids going home. This is going to sound stereotypical, but there was one particular time I remember going to school and they got really excited because more dads were getting involved with their kids reading at home because they'd all been given these handheld smartphones to go home and to do some of their reading tasks.
And I think there was an element of sharing the physical sort of techy thing and that had kind of created something. But then I'd love to know what you think about this. I don't know if this has changed a lot because I haven't looked at much research more recently, but engagement could be proved time and time again and like NESTA Futurelab did loads of research on, "Oh yeah, this many more people were engaged. This many more students were engaged." And the question that came back time and time again, which was really hard because it's like how long is a piece of string, but are children actually ... Like they're engaged, but is their learning better having invested all this money and got all their stuff? And that's the multimillion dollar question. And within that, I'm sure you're going to say engagement often means that you're more likely to be potentially open to learning, but I'd love to know from an academic research perspective where things are on that side.
I think you're right. And I think with engagement, I've looked at a lot of that as well, related to motivation. If I have this device, will they be more motivated? So then they'll be more engaged, so then they'll learn? That's the ideal. I think this every teacher aims for every piece of curriculum you create. You're right, I think the biggest challenge I think for me is how do we measure learning. I think that a lot of research they have pre and post knowledge tests, how many research papers I've read and they that's ... Oh, endless, endless. I think every single one focuses on that. And then I said, wait. Then it goes back to the initial problem, like the rote memorization. And then are they really learning or are they just memorizing? And so I think for me I always try to look at engagement as something positive.
I probably had a louder class than most of my colleagues and they probably didn't like that very much. That's okay. I come from running day camps, so I'm used to loud. But for me when they're loud and excited, and then I walk by and they're talking about the table they're measuring for their math, I'm like, "Oh my gosh, they're excited about what they're doing." So I'm going to take it. But I think, K to 12 systems and pre university systems and even in university, they're very still focused on that test that memorization at the end. And it's really hard to break away from, it's much more challenging to assess. And I think for research purposes, but even teaching purposes to give that evaluation and so it will always default back to the knowledge test and to see if they learned and so did they truly learn something if they memorized it? That I think is one of the big questions as well.
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Yeah, I think assessment is an interesting one because I think people and including a lot of teachers could do with a lot more support and information on how to carry out good assessment because it's both an art form and a science, right? And you really need to know what you're doing in order to assess properly. And I don't think we equip teachers anywhere near enough. I don't think there's enough professional development around continuous after they've done their degree, there's not enough support and not enough training available, good high quality training on assessment. But it's so critical. It's so critical. Writing good test questions is a real art form. So when you look at technology in education, digital technology in particular not pencils, the thing that's kind of interesting to me is ... Well, there's a couple of things, but one interesting thing is you can largely split it into two categories, right?
There's teacher tools. So what do teachers use? I think it'd be hard pressed to find a teacher that doesn't use a computer nowadays. I think that's pretty much standard, maybe not throughout the world, but certainly in the Western world, almost every teacher has a computer and uses a computer as one of their tools. Some form of interactive whiteboard, smart board, whatever you want to call it, that's almost in most Western schools you'll find one in the classrooms. And I think that's pretty well understood like we have a good idea about how that supports and helps teachers.
Sometimes it doesn't help and support them, sometimes it does hinder them, but without going down that rabbit hole, but what it seems to me, and I don't really know is we haven't really cracked the learning tools, like the tools that the learners interact with. It's almost like we don't really know what to do. So it is like what Adam was saying about, "Well, should we blow our budget and buy a whole bunch of iPads for everyone? And if we do, what are we going to do with them? And how is that going to help the children learn what they're supposed to learn?" And I'm not convinced that we have the answers for that yet.
Andy, one of my favorite things that I've seen recently was actually at university. So it was with students and the person taking the class. It was at Canterbury Christchurch University so that's not far from where I live in Kent and they were looking at careers and I said, I would go in and talk to the students. And I was really fascinated by the way that they were using some of what I would describe as sort of voting tools, the teaching tools behind the scene. And the thing that I really noticed was how learners can give answers and state questions. This would work more for older students and pupils to be fair that are literate and can write and so on. But actually it's the quieter students that perhaps were less confident to speak publicly would interact more.
I guess it's a bit like Rachel's nodding, but I guess it's a little bit like we've learned with the pandemic. It's amazing how many kids were engaging in ways that perhaps they weren't in the classroom before there've been benefits to that where it has worked well because they're able to use the chat where perhaps before they didn't feel that they were going to publicly put up their hand in front of the other kids. And I really was fascinated in this lecture hall where there's like a lot of students in there and the way that some of them were happy to ... There were anonymous buttons as well. And all the way through the lecturer was able to do a vote, to check understanding and make sure that everyone had understood what they needed. So just at the touch of the button, able to really change the learning and just say, "Is everyone clear about where need to go back to get that information?"
And if she's got like 98%, she's like clearly that's great or does anybody need more support from the university on X, Y, Z before you leave? And it's like 90% of kids, like I want to do more on CVs or something. You know what I mean? It was just great because it that was incredibly reactive, responsive, but in a meaningful way. And I just wondered Rachel, whether those sort of way of learning is that becoming more commonplace in education, in your experience?
I would like to say positive. I hope so. Sounds like this teacher is awesome. And I think I am doing stuff like that all the time. I send out something called the Goldilock survey, where am I doing too much just enough or not enough for various things especially for my students in particular, the types of feedback I'm giving. And so I do that all the time, but I think unfortunately I'm seeing places use these kinds of things and I know there's a university here who's using the clickers in the classroom, but it's as quizzes. It's not just ... And so I think the important piece is, "Yeah, we want to not just give it to give them a mark."
And I think students get a percentage of their grade for buying the clicker and then filling out the clicker surveys and so that's part of their grade. And then there's also a quiz attached to it, as opposed to let's see if I'm teaching well? What do I need to go back to as opposed to just piling through the curriculum and giving just a grade. So I think you are seeing more teachers thinking about these things, trying to find the space to do it and then unfortunately some that are just using it as another way of doing some easy grading.
I got a question for you guys now, so we'll wrap it up, right? So you are the minister of education, it's your decision now, right? Somebody gives you whoever, I don't know who gives money out the chancellor of the ex checker or the prime minister, whoever says here's a billion you need to spend on technology in education, what do you do?
There's a few things that I'll do, I'd put disproportionate amount into what I'm going to call training, right? But training encompasses a whole load of things. The first one is a whole host of pilot programs that are safe because I tell you what, I'm a wee bit sick of hearing in education. It was like, you talked right at the very beginning, Rachel saying about teacher assessment. And we've had that just recently. My son just got his GCSE results. And so we're all praising teacher assessment. The day after the results were inflated, GCSE grades, da, da, da, da. Let's get back to exams. And it's kind of like, "Oh, on one hand you have this and the other." So as part of that money, I don't know how I'm going to do it. I'm going to create a force field over these pilot groups, so they're not scared of taking risks, and they're not scared of it becoming something awful.
And I think that in a longitudinal study like something that's going to take time. Put money in there to allow people of freedom and getting the children's voice in there to be safe. Because I think the hardware unfortunately that used to be the disproportionate amount, but we had a lot of really expensive stuff just sitting there. It's like buying, I don't know, 10 racing cars, but only ever using one just to get into the shops to get milk. So I think what we should really have, yes, a disproportionate amount on training and research in safe places to just experiment and see what's going on and then just finance the types of things that can keep going hard just to keep that going. But I think also that the last thing with that is time. I have seen too many initiatives and money go into things and they're saying right, we want to see what happens in six months. Really? You know, how are we going to find things out? There might be some things that we find out in six months, but something that gives time, so that's what I'd do.
I think very similar to Adam, I think investing in some training and what's interesting as I've shifted my role in what I'm working in digital media, I think I've learned a lot more about agile methodologies. And I think it's really interesting that it can really apply to education. Teachers could use it in their practice, even just teaching kids fail fast, fail often, iterate a lot. Let's try a lot of different things. And I think if teachers invest, they had that way of thinking, then they wouldn't be worried about it always being perfect and the best lesson and the best this. So yeah, definitely invest in a lot more training. But I think, like Adam said, over a longer period of time. So I think what happens is they'll go to the professional development, they'll learn these things and then they'll go to use it in their classroom and then something goes wrong and there's nobody to talk to, to come and support.
We don't have the IT people in the school. I was the IT person for my school basically because I like technology and I'd have teachers phoning me up in the middle of my lesson, like I'm still teaching, I have a full class in front of me in the middle of my lesson because their technology isn't working and there's no person to go and help them. And I think what happens is then you just stop. At some point you're like, "Well, I'm not going to do this anymore because it's now interrupted this many times I'm going to give up." And usually it's after the first time and so longer periods of time and then my leftover money, I'm going to go find and just say VR headsets, wherever they're at for everyone.
I would also, I think with the training that has got to happen, I didn't think of the infrastructure, as you were saying support, but also I'm going to be really honest and say sometimes part of the training is turning off the technology as well as knowing when to have it on. So there you go.
Well, there you have it everyone. Thanks for joining.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.