Making marginal gains with technology

Author:  Mark Anderson, ICT Evangelist

One of the greatest opportunities technology provides us with is the chance to do things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. We can travel to the moon or delve deep into the inner workings of the human heart within virtual reality. We can even use virtual tape measures to measure a room in augmented reality – and then import those measurements into Computer Aided Design applications to create mock ups of room designs. IKEA now even has an app called IKEA Place which allows you to place their furniture into your home using augmented reality to see how the items would look.

The reality is though that for how amazing all of that sounds (and certainly there are plenty of early adopters that are looking at some amazing ways of using all of this cutting-edge technology), the best use of technology for learning still comes from capitalising upon the simple things you can do with it. The simple things are often the elements that aren’t necessarily cutting-edge. They aren’t the sexy apps that make everyone go ‘ooooh’ like they are at some kind of edtech firework display of awesomeness.

Making gains…

Many will be aware of the work of Sir David Brailsford, ex-team GB coach and proponent of the idea of marginal gains. Following on from his groundbreaking work with the GB Olympics team, teaching and learning guru (and fortunately for me, old colleague) Zoë Elder came up with this idea of marginal learning gains. These are small tweaks that by themselves don’t make a big difference to teaching or learning, but when combined, the cumulative effect can lead to a big difference, both in terms of the work you do as a teacher and the learning that takes place as a student.

It is well known (or it should be!) that edtech in and of itself does not make much difference to learning outcomes. Edtech is not a magic bullet – magic does not exist! However, small purposeful, well-considered uses of technology, applied consistently in the classroom can work well to improve standards in terms of your teaching and their learning.

Making good use of edtech activities such as file management, collaborative working, sharing, creating flipped learning resources; these can have an impact. By themselves they won’t. However, by being more efficient, utilising an anytime/anywhere approach to access to learning materials and files (and for those files to be always live, always up-to-date, always available), accessing self-testing quizzes to check knowledge and to enable ease of interleaving topics… These are the types of things that can have an impact and, when you tie all of them together, you can start to see the cumulative effect and improvements across the board.

Previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of teacher confidence around using technology. A good framework to hang off this to help teachers make informed choices about their use of technology is the TPACK framework:


TPACK looks at combining our content knowledge (CK), our pedagogical knowledge (PK) – together, these two make for Schulman’s PCK model. When we then think about how technology can improve our learning activities based upon our content and pedagogical knowledge, TPACK is formed.

Tools and confidence hand in hand

By carefully thinking about the learning topics and how they might be taught (as any teacher would), when you are a confident technology user, you will be able to effectively think and then apply simple techniques to your learning activities to give them more power.

A simple example might be the use of the free Post-it Plus app available for iOS on the App Store. Many teachers use Post-its for their versatility in application. They’re good for recapping keywords, exit tickets, idea formation; lots of reasons. Teachers love Post-its. Teachers also, however, hate Post-its. They lose their stick. There isn’t any central record of where they are or who has said what. They get lost from one lesson to the next. For, as brilliant as they are for the activity, their longevity is questionable. The Post-it Plus app is great for ensuring these things can be kept one lesson to the next by digitising the Post-its. You can add to them; you can easily share the curated ideas; you can annotate them; you can rank them; you can turn them into keyword revision notes. You can, in essence, do an awful lot with them, despite the simplicity of the app. The most important thing is that they can act as a great aide memoire to the learning that has been taking place. You don’t need the app to undertake activities with Post-its but, with it, you can add value to the learning activities and make better use of the time using them in the classroom.

The problem is however that in order for this type of tool to make a difference, you need the right conditions for success. You need to have received training on the tool, you need to have been given support with access to decent technology, you need to have a decent infrastructure upon which to set out your ideas and use your technology. You need a firm foundation: decent Wi-Fi, managed devices, a strong back-office technical team, good behaviour for learning, and confidence from you in your belief that the technology will work.

This is where tools such as NetSupport School can help massively. Not only does it help provide you with the peace of mind that your technology is going to work (because the technical team at your school is able to easily manage devices); in fact, you can take on some of that work yourself in the classroom. And with NetSupport School, you don’t even need the Post-it Plus app. You can orchestrate learning activities – collaboration, testing, checking, recapping: all of these things – from within the program.

So sure, technology is awesome. I wouldn’t call myself the ICT Evangelist if I wasn’t a fan. It is very important however though to see it for what it is. A tool can have great potential, but only when the conditions for success are correct. Sound thinking about teaching and learning alongside a technology-confident teacher can make for some real in-roads into development of learning with technology.

As is often heard in Spiderman films, “with great power comes great responsibility”. It is our responsibility as educators and school leaders to ensure we get a strong return on our investment in technology. So, don’t leave it to chance; get a good infrastructure sorted using tools such as NetSupport School to allow teachers to easily focus on the marginal gains they can make to their teaching (thus reducing workload and making them more efficient) and student learning (making them more effective in their studies to have an impact on their outcomes).

Contact Mark Anderson here.

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