EdTech: Blending the virtual with the physical

This is a series of occasional blogs by BESA members and is part of their paid membership service. These views are not necessarily those of BESA and a published blog does not constitute an endorsement.

Education in the 21st century has witnessed a paradigm shift in learning from teacher-centred to pupil-centred, textbook-driven to research-driven, passive to active, fragmented to integrated and isolated to collaborative. This summer, Education Secretary Damian Hinds called on tech companies to revolutionise how technology is used in classrooms. Schools are increasingly utilising technological solutions to support various aspects of teaching and learning, spending over £900 million a year on education technology. One such school is the Shireland Collegiate Academy in Birmingham, which uses technology to relieve the burden on teachers and it supports other schools in doing the same. In the Netherlands, some schools have completely replaced notebooks and blackboards with tablets. Indeed, EdTech can increase organisation and efficiency at schools, create collaborative networks, improve communication and reporting, help plan lessons, assist with marking and assessment, support children with different needs, provide learning resources, enhance engagement levels and offer greener solutions.

Predictions on how education technology will reshape teaching and learning paint varying images of the future classroom. Many schools already implement games, or gamification, to develop participation and engagement. Building a city within a budget in Minecraft provides valuable opportunities to develop artistic and design skills, strategic thinking, problem solving and communication skills. Automation technology can save precious time teachers spend on manual tasks, including marking and creating resources, allowing more teacher-pupil interaction time. Another trend in technology is the “internet of things”, where devices in a smart environment “talk to each other”. Connecting “physical” and “virtual” worlds can improve visibility and control over the environment and provide real-time insights. At schools, the internet of things can potentially record pupil attendance and simplify classroom management.

While the pace of technological change accelerates faster than ever, movements in education can be slower for numerous reasons from budget constraints, adaptability and training, to safeguarding considerations and existing capacity and infrastructure. Furthermore, attitudes towards new technology, which widely vary across schools, can act as barriers to adoption. One school in America, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, does not have any tablets or computers in its classrooms. Its educational philosophy emphasises hands-on experiential learning to develop creativity and imagination. Other schools question the reliability and validity of technology for learning, how rigorously these systems adopt pedagogical methods and the volume of research and evidence supporting their benefits.

Research suggests that while children can be highly engaged with content on tablets, they struggle to concentrate without technology. As toddlers spend more time interacting with a screen, they spend less time manipulating traditional toys that stimulate hand-eye coordination skills, spatial awareness and physical development. More recently, paediatricians and orthopaedic therapists warned that children are losing the fine motor skills needed to learn writing. This is due to the increased use of tablets and screens which replace traditional methods of writing and drawing. Research shows that while children spend more time connecting the letters physically through laboured handwriting, they develop their attention, their mental memory of the words, and their vocabulary and understanding of text compared to quickly typing words on a screen. When it comes to reading, studies indicate that students reading passages from both screen and print, score equally on subsequent standardised comprehension questions. Yet, when testing for deeper understanding, students achieved better results after reading from print. Interestingly, the publishing industry saw a drop in sales of e-books and increased sales in print books last year, and this was driven by the younger “digital native” generation.

The ongoing debate on the role of technology in education swings from bots replacing teachers to blackboards reclaiming their place. Within this spectrum, can both traditional tools and modern technology harmoniously coexist in the classroom so that pupils can benefit from each? Can the “virtual” successfully blend with the “physical” to create tools that promote learning without compromising key skills? One successful example is the Kaligo app, developed by the French startup Learn & Go and localised to British English with the expertise of British teachers. WordUnited is currently trialling Kaligo in the UK. Kaligo supports children to learn writing, starting from pre-writing skills to the cursive script. Instead of touching the screen, children use a “physical” pencil-like stylus to trace and write on the “virtual” app. Here, pupils and teachers glean the benefits from both working in harmony: a traditional tool and modern technology.


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