Does tech have a role to play in FE?
Years ago, near the end of term one as an NQT, I was worrying out loud in the staff room about my coming year nine lesson. To give you some idea of why I was worried, my very first lesson with this particular group involved swearing, jumping across table tops and one child mummifying his entire head in a roll of Sellotape before running into the corridor to see what he could stick himself to. In retrospect, this was a class which should never have been given to an NQT, but there it is. Lumbered as I was with foolish ideas about behaviour management, I never quite got control of them, although I did manage to avoid a repeat of the mummification incident. Every time their lesson approached, I felt sick. I was talking about this in the staffroom, and a kind colleague suggested that I give myself a break from planning and poor behaviour. “Have a laptop lesson,” he said, “Get them on Mymaths and say they can play the games on there if they finish all the work in time.” It sounded like a great idea. It wasn’t.
Leaving aside the issue of whether there is educational value in such a lesson, my colleague was coming from the view of someone who controlled their class. Perhaps in those circumstances it constituted a break. For me though, the lesson degenerated into the patrolling of minimised screens containing online games, some of which were highly inappropriate. And that was after we spent fifteen minutes getting everyone online, swapping laptops out when they had a key missing or the wifi was broken or someone from year eleven had changed the keyboard language to Japanese for joke. By the time I had taught for a few years in secondary school I had no interest in the laptop trolley. Even when my classes were behaving themselves it seemed at best like a waste of time. It never worked as a form of homework either, as the excuse of limited internet access was too easy to use. And, for some children, it was a reason rather than an excuse.
However, despite my instinctive distrust of edutech, I find myself increasingly interested in its potential application in FE (although not in the form of initial assessments, as anyone who read my last blog will be aware). This year I am experimenting with a new software platform to encourage our students to do some work outside of the classroom. If it goes well I’ll write more about it and specify which platform I’m using, and I am optimistic so far. But why should it be different in FE? I often hear people say that “people are people,” so the same principles must apply. I think the context of FE dramatically changes some of the principles. Many of our students have large gaps in their timetable when they are not in lessons but are hanging around college. We have a huge library full of computer rooms. They don’t need to come from a wealthy family with more than one computer at home and high-speed internet access to do work on a website. They often want to do extra work outside of lessons but don’t know how to go about it. They come and collect past papers, but when they find they have half an hour to spare can’t remember where they put it. Or they come for extra work and when they try to do it, get stuck and don’t move on. Or they buy a revision guide and just read it without practising, unaware that is an exercise with almost no value. The great advantage of them having just one URL to go to, an easy username and password, and a simple task to continue with, is that it removes from the process the decision making of what to study next and how to revise. Just log in, on your phone, in the library, wherever, and do the next unit. The keen students have already done more work outside of lesson that they had this time last year.
There is another point to make as well. In school we spend five years slowly taking them through the whole curriculum. In college we have eight months to cover two key stages of work and prepare them for an exam. It is not enough time and the only way some of them will get through is by doing extra work independently. “Independent work,” is a phrase that might set off alarm bells if you are a secondary teacher. It’s the sort of thing terrible INSET days are made of – discussions about how to make our students become “independent learners in control of their own education.” In FE, though, that is exactly what some of them want to be. There is a world of difference between a thirteen year-old who wants to impress his mates by doing something even sillier than wrapping his head in Sellotape, and an eighteen year-old who wants to be a nurse and absolutely must pass his maths this year in order to progress. I hope by giving tech tools to the latter, they really can become independent learners. I’ll let you know how it goes!