Thursday, 5 May 2011

ICT should be about solving teachers’ and learners’ problems, not about creating new ones

In the summer of 2009, my colleague Guy Underwood and I presented a paper to the RITWIT Conference in Cambridge. As I think the issues are just as valid today, I thought it worth reproducing an extract from the paper here.


Many teachers’ reluctance to fully embrace technology in the classroom is due to the failure of local and national government, consultants and advisers to properly analyse teachers’ and pupils’ needs, identify the barriers and problems to effective teaching and then design and apply technology solutions to address them. Throughout the last 30 years the reverse has happened, in that technology developed for purposes other than education has been thrust upon teachers who have been told to change or adapt their teaching in order to fully utilise this technology. This has been accompanied by assertions that if only teachers were properly trained and changed their practice then the technology would bring about improved standards.

One example comes from the early 1980s when teachers could use a low-resolution PC with software they often wrote themselves and a large screen TV/monitor to assist in getting over difficult teaching points with a whole class. The same teachers were then given more modern computers with higher resolution graphics that no longer worked with affordable large screens. They lost the ability to use software with a whole class and instead had to contrive individual or paired work around computers, regardless of the preferred pedagogy. This was the case for many years before projectors became affordable.

The second example comes much later in the form of the Interactive Whiteboard which was hailed by experts as a natural extension of the way teachers worked already. Rather than systematically analyse existing pedagogy to see if technology could solve any of problems inherent within it, the technology merely entrenched existing practices regardless of their effectiveness. Thus teachers were given technology that was difficult to use and which ensured that they had to continually face away from the class, and move in front of a display that was never designed, both in terms of its size and position, to be accessible and viewable by all pupils in a class.

The third example comes from the inexplicable failure in schools to exploit visualiser technology that solves many of the day to day problems that teachers and pupils are faced with and which limit their effectiveness. These include showing something small to the whole class, modelling a skill or technique, exemplifying with pupils’ work, peer assessment and having a shared focus for dialogue.

This paper will draw upon the experience of the ICT Test Bed Project and subsequent investment in Barking and Dagenham in which technology solutions were applied to problems identified within the pedagogy as a result of a thorough analysis and stakeholder engagement. This at least partially addressed the issues of teacher training because technology that is readily seen as indispensable in solving many day to day problems in classroom teaching has a much higher and faster rate of uptake by teachers and pupils.

Finally the paper will suggest that policy makers should in future adopt a much more conventional approach to the implementation of ICT solutions, including a systematic analysis of the problems to be solved.


This paper is a brief commentary on the last 30 years of ICT in English education, where a combination of public policy failings and the inability of the technology industry to address educational needs has resulted in not only much wasted investment but the introduction of a range of new problems for teachers and learners to solve in the classroom rather than the solution of existing ones. This position will be exemplified with three examples: large screen displays; interactive whiteboards; and visualisers. The computer itself and the development of the Internet are beyond the scope of this paper.


Between around 1982 when the first computers arrived en masse in schools until about 1986, RF and AV outputs allowed these early school computers such as the RM 380Z and the BBC Micro to be used with large TVs and AV monitors. As the computers were scarce this feature enabled a whole class to see the display at the same time. Inner London schools were able to utilise the previously redundant (after the demise of the ILEA live cable television broadcasts) large specially made DECCA monochrome monitors with their new 380Zs, and this combination enabled effective whole class teaching with a single computer. Clarity from the back of the class was helped by the low resolution graphics.
However, from around 1986 up to around 2000 the newer computers arriving in schools, albeit in rapidly increasing numbers boasted a combination of VGA output (or similar) and much higher resolution graphics. Large VGA displays were prohibitively expensive and the higher resolution meant that these computers were not suitable for using TVs. During this period almost all schools had few effective means to use a single computer with a whole class. There was a period in the late 1990s when large VGA displays (such as the Hantarex range ) became within reach of schools’ budgets but the increasing resolution of the computer output quickly made these obsolete. For the whole class to see clearly, a resolution of 640 by 480 pixels was the highest possible, but 800 by 600 pixel displays and higher were fast becoming the norm.

It was not until about 2000 that large projected displays finally became affordable, allowing the higher resolution screens to be visible clearly from the back of the class. Thus there was a an interval of 20 years during which it was extremely difficult to use a single computer with a whole class, but this had nothing whatever to do with pedagogy unlike the early computers which were designed for use in education, and everything to do with education having to adapt to the equipment developed for business and other non-education spheres. It is not disputed that the increasing availability of computers in schools allowed pupils to develop their own ICT skills, but whereas this was a gain, the ability to teach the whole class with a computer was lost.

Running parallel to these hardware developments was a marked shift in the type of software that was produced and its relationship with the pedagogy it was designed to support.

During the early to mid 1980s, as software could be used with whole class it was often written by teachers to aid teaching difficult concepts . This was alongside development of software for individual or small group use as the numbers of computers in schools increased. However, by the mid 1980s until about 2000, almost all software was written for individual or very small group use. There would have been little point in producing whole class teaching software as few schools would have had the ability to use computers with a whole class as the larger displays were too expensive. Those teachers that did persevere by crowding the class round a small screen suffered the double whammy of difficult classroom management and inappropriate software.

2000 onwards saw a resurgence of software for use by the whole class as projectors became less prohibitively expensive and the interactive whiteboard gained in popularity. The launch of Easiteach by RM in the autumn of 2000 represented a significant turning point.

The relationship between the technology and pedagogy proved to be different in primary and secondary schools. Before the national strategies took hold, the computer fitted moderately well into the ‘carousel’ system prevalent in most primary classrooms. The ‘computer timetable’ ensured all pupils ‘had a go’. However, it was difficult to integrate the use of the computer with the rest of the curriculum owing to the amount of time it took for the whole class to complete an activity and pupils would often have benefited from more effective teacher intervention at the time they needed it. In a sense this was no different to any other aspect of the way the teaching was organised, leading in part to the re-thinking of primary maths teaching in Barking and Dagenham and the national numeracy strategy that followed.

Once the national strategies were adopted by primary schools a single computer (often at the back) of a classroom was difficult to utilise alongside the increase in whole class teaching. Pupils using the computer, often out of context, would be missing out on what the rest of the class were doing. Teachers were often unable to intervene at all.

It was only when cheaper display technology allowed the computer to be brought to the front of the primary classroom for the first time that it could be used to support and enhance the whole class teaching. The fewer opportunities for individual or small group use started to be addressed by timetabled ICT-suite lessons or by using class sets of laptops as funds allowed.

The situation was different in secondary schools, where whole class teaching was the predominant pedagogy throughout all of this period. The single computer at the back of room was always seen as difficult to manage and many teachers saw it as disruptive. IT suites were difficult to book at the times they were needed, as they were often monopolised by ICT and business studies lessons. Teachers proved reluctant to change their teaching methods just so that they could integrate the use of a computer into their lessons. Something that was a reality as far as availability of the computers allowed in the early 1980s didn’t return as an option for teachers until the recent uptake of interactive whiteboards and low cost projectors, although these are only in just over half of all classrooms with penetration outside the core subjects particularly low.

However, positioning the computer at the front of the classroom with access to whole class teaching software and broadband Internet access provides the opportunities to support and enhance what teachers and pupils want to do. It is worth noting that this is a good 20 years from when the first computers were deployed in secondary schools.


‘Traditional’ teaching technology such as blackboards and more recently dry-wipe whiteboards enable teachers to do the following: writing and re-writing; drawing and re-drawing; highlighting, and annotating. However they have always been a backward facing technology in that the teacher and pupil has to keep turning to face the board in order to write or draw on it. The class has always suffered from interrupted sight lines due to the teacher keeping moving in front of the board, and the restricted visible area because the user has to reach all of it. In this latter respect the dry-wipe whiteboard was a poor replacement, in some respects, for the roller blackboard where the ‘active display’ could be rolled up for everyone to have a clear view.

Many innovative teachers, prior to the onslaught of computers, switched to using an overhead projector (OHP). This had the same benefits as the white and blackboards in that the teacher and pupil could write and re-write, draw and re-draw, highlight, and annotate, and had the added benefit of being able to re-use the content as the acetate sheets could be saved. However, it had some significant advantages that made it a much better match to effective pedagogy. It was a ‘forward facing’ technology in that the teacher and pupils could use it while facing the class. It was easier to ensure uninterrupted sight lines as the teacher and pupils remained static instead of moving around in front of the screen, and there was a large visible area on a projection screen that was usually mounted high enough for those at the back to see all of it. In the light of these advantages, few of the teachers using one regularly would have seen any reasons to give it up and go back to using the traditional boards, other than issues with power leads (which shouldn’t be underestimated).

The interactive whiteboard was only a partial improvement upon the OHP in pedagogical terms in that it re-introduced many of the undesirable characteristics that the OHP had eliminated. We saw a return to interrupted sight lines due to the ‘backward facing’ technology, a restricted display size and poor visibility of the lower part of the board (unlike the old fashioned roller blackboard). It even managed to introduce a number of new disadvantages when compared to the OHP, in that there were health and safety concerns around the projector beam , accessibility issues for disabled users and a high price tag. It would be reasonable to ask why, in the light of all these negative characteristics, whiteboards should have been adopted in schools at all.

Partly this is due to the ‘wow’ factor of what could be described as an illusion that teachers and pupils can actually write on the board and move objects around as a result of some special technology, creating the impression of a ‘magic’ surface. In reality the interactive whiteboard is merely a larger version of the tablets or slates that had been used for computer graphics for many years. The interactivity is a property of the software running on the attached computer, which would update the display in the same way in response to a wide range of input devices. The ‘magic’ effect is produced by doubling up the touch sensitive surface as a projection screen, but this leads to both being unsuitable for the task of teaching.

A far more pedagogically appropriate solution would have been to keep the touch sensitive surface and the projection screen separate, allowing both to be fine tuned to the needs of teachers and pupils in a classroom. By using large projection screens and wireless slates, the teacher could have remained forward-facing, the display area could have been much bigger and positioned where all of it was clearly visible from the back of the classroom, and there would have been fewer interrupted sight lines as the slate could be used anywhere in the classroom, not just by standing in front of the display. The interactivity remains the same in both cases, the cost becomes substantially lower, wheelchair users (for example) can use the technology with ease, and there is less chance of anyone entering the path of the projector beam. Not only that, but the slate can be passed easily and quickly around the class, enabling more pupils to take part in moving the lesson forward.

The rapid adoption of interactive whiteboards owes much to Government pump-priming grants for this specific technology, enthusiasm from LA advisers and consultants, and blanket marketing by manufacturers and suppliers. Throughout most of this decade there has been no interest at all by Government, LAs or (understandably) industry for a much cheaper alternative that eliminated most of the disadvantages.


It is evident that there were, and still are, misunderstandings at every level – from Ministers and government departments to local authorities. To give just one example of many, the Science and Technology Select Committee reported in 2002 that “they [the DFES] give interactive whiteboards as an example of where developments in ICT "allow teachers to access data and images and share [them] with the whole class, in a way not before possible" In fact, this is an example of the use of a large display screen and has nothing whatever to do with it having a touch sensitive surface. Charles Clarke, as Secretary of State for Education and Skills, professed a personal interest in the application of ICT in schools , and in a speech at the BETT exhibition in 2003 he singled out Robin Hood School in Birmingham as an example of effective embedding of ICT. However, this was based upon the school using large projection screens in place of interactive whiteboards in the majority of their classrooms. In the same speech he went on to describe the use of whiteboards in science, quoting from a teacher at Dixons CTC in Bradford: links to a computer model of an electromagnetic wave; an animated view of an endoscope travelling through the body; X-ray pictures of injuries to a skull; simulations of different forms of radiation; and photos of scientists. What he was describing was the use of a large display screen, not an interactive whiteboard, but he went on to say “the power of the imagination unleashed by the technology in this area is remarkable and takes you to a different league of what can be achieved.”

A few months later, Charles Clarke gave a speech to the NAACE conference in which he said, “...we have to shift away from the actual technology itself, to take the best practice that is being developed and establish it right throughout the curriculum.” However a year later, also in a speech at BETT, he said that “[whiteboards] enable teachers to enrich their lessons interactively with a whole variety of different methods, whether it’s a video clip, use of the internet, multi-media presentations, colour visualisations and even use of their traditional blackboard skills in the way that it always used to be.” Again he made specific reference to interactive whiteboards by describing their use as large displays as a build up to a major funding announcement. Later in the same speech he said, “So today I’m announcing new funding to further extend access to interactive whiteboards” and “this money will enable us to expand the schools’ interactive whiteboard expansion project”. This significant grant funding specifically for interactive whiteboards was in spite of asserting less than a year earlier that we should not focus on the actual technology. The terms of the grant were so specific that it was very difficult for LAs to propose alternative technologies, regardless of the pedagogical considerations.

When the evaluation report of this IWB Expansion Project in secondary schools was released in 2007 it was found that “IWBs are mainly being used: as a data projector which can navigate to multiple screens; as a surface which can generate a dynamic rather than static form of display; to enhance presentation from the front of the class”. Furthermore, “in a secondary classroom the full potential of the IWB does not necessarily rest with its touch-sensitive surface, but rather with the size of the screen and the various ways in which the screen’s contents can be manipulated. This kind of manipulation can be enhanced through judicious use of peripherals”. Throughout this comprehensive report, in the majority of cases, the use of the term “IWB” could be synonymous with “projection screen”. Similarly, in an equivalent report on the primary schools whiteboard expansion project , a number of examples were given of the use of interactive whiteboards throughout the report that were actually about having a large display screen, although this is unsurprising as the authors pointed out that “at present only a small number of teachers have the skills to use a wide range of the interactive whiteboard’s facilities”. These and other reports have failed to properly address the real questions around the appropriateness of the actual technologies employed. These include: “why would a relatively expensive technology with so many disadvantages be specifically promoted instead of much cheaper and potentially more effective technology?” and “how can so much public money have been spent due to a minister’s poor understanding of the technology he was actually talking about?” Ofsted, in their recent report on ICT in primary and secondary schools , commented “There was investment in resources, particularly interactive whiteboards, but this was rarely the result of evaluated need.”


Between 1998 and 2002 Barking and Dagenham LEA set out to find ways of supporting and enhancing successful pedagogy with technology and trialled some solutions in a local primary school and at the City Learning Centre. Fortuitously, the Borough was chosen in 2002 to participate in the DfES ICT Test Bed Project which provided £12m of investment in technology and training would be used to transform three secondary schools and six primary schools between 2002 and 2006. The council was under pressure from the DfES to install interactive whiteboards in all classrooms but the earlier work had produced sufficient evidence that there were better alternatives, given the embedded pedagogy. As a result, all the classrooms were equipped with very large projection screens, wireless tablets and visualisers, together with the same interactive software that was supplied with interactive whiteboards.

Visualisers were included because they solved many of the day to day problems teachers and learners encountered in the classroom. For teachers these included showing something small to the whole class at the same time, demonstrating a precise technique (such as a brush stroke, a stitch, soldering) and annotating real objects. For learners these included sharing work with peers, and modelling practice. Teachers and learners will always look for, and use, the most effective ways of solving these problems which the blackboard and whiteboard, interactive or not, have been unable to address.

Through the evaluation of the ICT Test Bed Project in reports commissioned by Becta, case studies undertaken with teachers and an analysis of the Ofsted reports of ICT Test Bed schools it became clear that including a visualiser as part of the interactive technology package had brought many benefits.

However, in spite of the universal praise for visualisers from all the teachers who used one, there has been relatively little support for them from government or relevant agencies throughout most of this decade. There has been no specific grant funding, and visualisers were excluded from the whiteboard expansion projects. Nevertheless there has been, belatedly, some official acknowledgement of their existence, with a reference creeping in to the Gilbert 2020 Report and an example of using a visualiser appearing in two of Jim Knight’s speeches in 2009: “[pupils] are getting hands on experience of specialist digital resources and equipment, having had techniques demonstrated by the teacher on a visualiser.”

The authors’ firsthand experience in delivering the ICT Test Bed Project in Barking and Dagenham and working with very large numbers of teachers revealed a rapid adoption of visualisers by teachers with little or no training. There was an incentive in that it solved so many real problems, and the devices were exceptionally easy to use. This contrasts with the high levels of training and support needed to fully exploit interactive whiteboards.

Although this was less than clear from the ICT Test Bed Evaluation Reports, visualisers are a complementary technology and can be used with both large projection screens and, albeit less effectively, with interactive whiteboards. The extra cost of adding a visualiser to an interactive technology package can be more than covered by swapping an interactive whiteboard for a large screen and wireless slate.

Whiteboard manufacturers have started to address some of the disadvantages of their technology: using short-throw projectors to limit shadow on the board, and mounting these same short throw projectors onto fixed beams above the boards so that the whole apparatus can be raised up to improve visibility. Both are belated and incomplete solutions to problems caused by the technology in the first place.


It is the authors’ contention in this paper that the last thirty years have seen many lost opportunities to improve teaching and learning with technology, partly due to public policy inconsistencies and failings and partly due to technology being employed in education that was designed for a quite different environment. Throughout this period there have been many attempts by academics to carry out research on the effectiveness of technology and whiteboards in particular . Much of this research has yielded disappointing or inconclusive results. Invariably the research takes place after the technology has been installed, rather than before, or in cases where it has been possible to take a longitudinal view the choice of technology has been a fait accompli rather than a deliberate attempt to solve problems identified through research as barriers to effective teaching and learning.

The research community has a role to play in informing public policy, not just attempting to validate the effects after the event. We should be employing the same systems analysis processes in education that other sectors use: namely a thorough analysis of problems, issues and barriers to effectiveness, and then design technology solutions to address these. Barking and Dagenham LA alone lobbied the ICT industry for a wireless slate to provide the means to interact with a computer display from anywhere in a classroom but it was three years before the first one was manufactured. Had there been some academic research in this area which influenced local and national public policy, it is likely that manufacturers would have responded more quickly. Similarly with visualisers, a greater uptake would have increased competition in the market. There is still much improvement needed in our education system, and technology undoubtedly has a role to play. However it should be first and foremost fit for purpose. To achieve this, we must ensure that the purpose is clearly defined.