Digital Classrooms in Wales
Owen Hathway, Policy Officer for National Union of Teachers Cymru, discusses the Welsh Government’s ambitions for digital classrooms and the problems with such plans as ‘Bring Your Own Device.’
Image: CC-BY-SA Flickr: BarbaraLN
A concern that is becoming ever more prominent for teachers in Wales is how the electronic dream of a digital classroom can be delivered in reality. The majority of teachers in Wales will be able to draw up a list of lessons based on innovative plans delivered through laptops, notebooks, iPads, video cameras and other uses of the latest digital technologies. The idea of a new generation of children falling in love with the written word through new methods such as kindles and iBook’s; or children interacting with the world wide web in their own safe classroom space, cutting videos for YouTube or using social media to bring to life their passion for subjects, is something we would all wish to foster and encourage.
Back in March of this year the Welsh Government commissioned Digital Classroom Teaching Task and Finish Group published its review of digital teaching in Wales; ‘Find it, make it, use it, share it: learning in digital Wales.’
The NUT shares the ambition that is expressed in the report to ensure that teaching in Wales is at the forefront of innovation and use of new technologies. Technology plays an ever more important role in society and the more learning in schools reflects the skills needed to empower individuals as they go into the workplace, the better. Certainly we are supportive of the overarching objectives of the report that the processes of learning and teaching can, and must, take advantage of what digital technologies offer. The report’s commitment to prioritising training and commissioning new resources are particularly welcomed by the profession. Providing the opportunity for practitioners to develop new skills and increase their competence and confidence in using modern tools is a key component for the success of this strategy.
Unfortunately, the reality of what we face in Wales is the ambition to succeed but without the resources to support it. Last year the Welsh Government, in conjunction with local authorities, announced £1.4bn in funding for its school building programme ‘21st Century Schools.’ There is no doubt this is a significant amount of investment. However, this was a scaled back figure from the £4bn that was originally outlined. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Welsh schools to focus on the need to use modern technologies in the classroom when those very same classrooms are in desperate need of repair.
There are anecdotal examples of schools who are already struggling to provide the basic materials such as pens, paper, sports facilities, crafts and even an adequate number of teachers to maintain reasonable class sizes, to name just a few financial constraints. Often these provisions are available only because teachers are spending their own wages to provide them for their pupils.
There is little doubt that the use of technologies in Welsh classrooms is something that should be part of the norm, not an exception. We know the major benefits that digital learning brings to education. It offers a freedom to teachers that is otherwise hard to achieve. No longer are they stuck in a central point as dispensers of information. Instead, they are liberated to act as facilitators, working hand in hand with technology, to empower students to strive and achieve an important skill of working under their own initiatives.
Teachers often report that working with new digital technologies to deliver lessons also ensures greater motivation amongst students; higher levels of self-esteem; greater use of outside resources; development of technical skills and greater levels of collaboration between peer groups. What is more we have some fantastic examples of schools in Wales leading the way on modern teaching techniques routed in the digital classrooms. In many cases it is not the expertise, and certainly not the enthusiasm that is missing, but a simple question of finance.
Welsh students, as shown by the last available figures, are underfunded by £604 per head in comparison to their counterparts in England. That underfunding naturally has an immediate and recognisable impact on education provisions in Wales. While the Welsh Government continue to assert the somewhat flawed view that funding levels do not impact on standards, it is more difficult to argue that they do not have an impact on the availability of up to date and fit for purpose technology. The choices faced by some schools in Wales’ most deprived communities are not ones of iPods or iPads but of pens or pencils. We don’t have teachers who struggle to work with Facebook or Twitter, but those who struggle to work with overcrowding and dilapidated buildings.
While the task and finish groups report suggested ideas such as a ‘bring your own device’ approach to technology in the classroom, many members fear this will lead to the alienation of children who do not have access to expensive devices. This is likely to become a more evident issue for many families hit by low levels of employment and rising living costs. The more deprived communities in Wales will inevitably have greater difficultly in developing a digitally focused learning environment if use of personal equipment is the basis of implementation. Both within individual schools and on a cross-school basis the differing levels of equipment available could detract from the success of the scheme, and in some cases lead to a stigmatisation for individual children and their communities.
The view stated in the report that a digital learning environment helps improve education standards, prepares learners for life and careers, and supports the Welsh economy is one NUT Cymru fully supports. The Welsh Government’s Digital Wales Delivery Plan states its ambition is to ensure that “everyone is able to enjoy the benefits of digital technologies”. This ambition has to be matched by funding. Wales doesn’t suffer from a lack of innovation, inspiration or dedication to delivering learning hubs for the modern generation, but we must provide the physical ability to make use of that good will. Failure to do so will mean we will see yet another well-meaning strategy that becomes no more than empty rhetoric.
Owen Hathway is the Wales Policy Officer at the National Union of Teachers. Having previously worked in a variety of communication and research roles for Plaid Cymru he took up his current position with the union in August 2011. A graduate of the Aberystwyth University politics department, Owen has also studied towards qualifications with the London School of Journalism, Chartered Institute of Marketing and Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
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