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The future of technology in the education sector

Last week, I read with interest as it emerged that a 'rogue marker' had leaked a SATs test for 10-11 year olds online, just one day before the exam was due to be taken. Answers to the test had been published on a password-protected website for test markers, and an opportunistic individual then tried to share them with a journalist. This news appeared just weeks after the government was forced to cancel a spelling and grammar test for seven year olds after officials accidentally uploaded it to the Internet.

It wasn’t the question of responsibility or blame that I was thinking about when this news reached me through my morning dose of BBC Radio 4. Instead, it was the reminder that while digitisation of the education system has many benefits, investment in technology will only be worthwhile when employees are trained to use it both securely and efficiently.

Education technology – what’s the big fuss about?

The fact is, education technology is booming - whether that’s for application in the classroom or the back-end systems that support educational establishments. Since the government put digital transformation firmly at the top of its agenda, £900m was spent on technology in British schools in 2015 (Gartner), and new technologies continue to proliferate all the time. A recent YouGov poll found that 76 per cent of teachers across the UK use some form of technology in all or most of their lessons, and this figure is likely to reach 100 per cent in the next few years.

It’s not hard to see why, when we consider the advantages that technology can bring to an educational setting. As schools up and down the country are realising, technology lends a level of personalisation to learning that traditional methods simply cannot compete with. Each student can have their own smart device-based development plan and teacher and parents alike can track progression over time. If a child is particularly advanced or behind compared to the rest of the class, they can view homework plans tailored to their level with a click of a button.

Contrary to popular criticism, technology also makes education more inclusive. Consider a physically impaired or unwell child who is unable to make it to the classroom; technology enables them to work remotely with access to a full suite of course materials anytime, anywhere. This is something that Hopwood Hall College near Manchester knows all too well, having seen a rise in independent learning among its student body as a result of its new virtual desktop environment.

Addressing the concerns

Despite this explosion of investment and interest in education technology, there are still lingering doubts about the digitisation of the classroom. To what extent is technology a worthwhile investment in a sector that’s already facing serious funding challenges, and are we really using it to its full potential?

What better way to find out than to ask the people on the receiving end of these modern pedagogical practices? Last year, 1,000 A-Level students were questioned about their attitudes towards technology at school. The results were insightful, with 73 per cent of the teenagers saying they felt frustrated at the inability of their teachers to use the technologies available to them effectively.

Herein lies the crux of a problem that we are all too familiar with: digital training must not be overlooked. Yes, investment in technology is a step in the right direction, but return on investment can only come when we learn how to use it proficiently.

The same fundamental principles that we apply to the enterprise space are also relevant to the education sector. Think about how big business works: IT departments, led by the CIO, are champions for digital change, assisting employees in training, helping them to use the devices they’ve been given with ease, and updating the organisation when systems inevitably change. The same must start happening in schools, where IT professionals should clearly communicate how technology can enrich their school or university, and empower teachers and support staff to deliver a better educational experience.

As the recent exam leaks have shown, this is as much about getting value for money from the technology, as it is minimising the risk of ‘insider threats’ within the education system – where employees breach IT policies and place company documents at risk. The vast majority of data breaches come down to innocent human error rather than an employee maliciously stealing data, so the education sector needs to recognise the risks posed by the careless handling of sensitive information. It is the role of IT to enforce best practice within their educational establishment, and mitigate such risks.

The education sector is at a critical point on its journey to embrace innovative technologies, but as recent news has highlighted, there are going to be pitfalls along the way. With clear leadership and training, however, we might just be able to develop an education system that can flourish in this new age.

Alasdair McCormick, National Sales Director, Ricoh UK