Edtech: Making better use of what we already have

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is frustration that the DfE’s approach to edtech continues to focus on finance and standards rather than teaching and learning. Fiona Aubrey-Smith says we should be thinking about getting better use out of what we have already got

In September, the research report Implementation of education technology in schools and colleges was published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2022). If the brief was to research the procurement and implementation of technology in an education context, then this report is a superb set of guidelines about successful project management.

There have been some within the edtech industry who have (understandably) praised the report for its encouragement for buying additional technology and implementing it thoughtfully.
However, as we look ahead to 2023, with budgets under immense pressure from rising energy and employer costs and with fewer staff to share the operational workload, is this really the right place to be focusing our attention when it comes to edtech?

Should we be thinking about buying more products or about getting better use out of what we have already got? Many have read the report and voiced frustration that the DfE’s approach to edtech continues to focus on finance and standards rather than teaching and learning.

Yet perhaps this is not a surprise if we look at the leadership of edtech across our sector – it is predominantly led by technologists and project managers rather than pedagogical experts (i.e. teachers and school leaders).
Let’s just take a look at the current landscape. As reported in Headteacher Update in September (Yusuf & Aubrey-Smith, 2022), triangulated data from the DfE and BESA suggest that nationwide there are now around six million laptops, computers and tablets currently in schools. At the same time, there are nine million students.

Even with a bit of a margin, these figures suggest that we ought to be seeing at least a 1:2 device ratio in schools. Yet most of us do not see this at all.

Instead, we see an increasing number of “one-to-one” schools, an increasing number of schools with classroom laptop trolleys with varying levels of usage, a smattering of schools still dependent upon old ICT suites, and a small number of classrooms where technology is conspicuously absent.

It is very much a mixed picture, but even so – those six million devices seem to be playing an excellent game of hide and seek.

In attempting to explain this, it is helpful to reflect on aggregated school data (unpublished) that I was recently involved in analysing, which shows that schools which have one-to-one device provision only appear to use between 60% to 70% of in-school devices in any given month.

So even if we had a beautifully procured and skilfully implemented edtech ecosystem, a central problem would remain – that the technology itself is not necessarily being used.

This finding is of little surprise to anyone working in (or with) schools. It is also a finding that is embedded in the findings of research around edtech (e.g. Aubrey-Smith, 2020).

A number of reports reveal the reason why technology is not yet being used in some teachers classrooms – namely the teachers’ lack of awareness about how and why they should use it. At this point, edtech enthusiasts usually leap up with excitement, offering training about how to use popular tools as a quick and easy solution.

But training teachers in how to use edtech tools – however fantastic they are – treats the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The problem in fact was neatly summarised by the huge NP3 – New Purposes, New Practices, New Pedagogy – study: “The purposes underpinning digital technology use in school were (unfortunately) almost always the school’s or teacher’s purposes rather than the children’s.” (Twining et al, 2017)

So the problem is about “who” is being encouraged to use the technology. Edtech enthusiasts often promote technology use where teachers become the primary user or the gatekeeper of its use. But this approach to the use of education technology in school makes little sense.

The whole reason schools exist is because of children. So surely technology in school should be about directly meeting the needs of those children. In order to see maximum impact of the available technology, it needs to be in the hands of the children, not the teachers.

The reason that those six million devices are not being actively used by those nine million students is because we have been focusing on the wrong things. The research, the dialogue, and the action relating to edtech has focused historically on the technology, and then shifted to a focus on education. But there is one final step to go before we see widespread and meaningful impact, and that is the shift to focusing on the detail of pedagogy.

Retaining an edtech lens on education focuses on systems and processes, procedures and management. They are our household utilities – functional and useful to keep the operational aspects of life running.

But if we want to see technology make a difference to learningthe aspect of education that we are all ultimately here for, then we need to focus instead on the details of pedagogy.

This means using technologies to support and enhance teacher-learner dialogue and relationships, technologies which streamline real-time formative assessment so that teachers can provide instant intervention, and technologies which allow learners to take responsibility for their own next steps by accessing individualised materials. But importantly we need to start our thought processes by putting pedagogy first (i.e. which aspects of teaching and learning we want to focus on).

We know from the research evidence (e.g. Twining & Maher, 2017) that when technologies are used in this way, students become more discerning about their learning activities – improving their metacognition which we know has a direct impact on raising progress and attainment.

We also know that placing technology into the hands of learners brings meaningful inclusion to those who struggle the most with traditional classroom barriers (e.g. handwriting, text-based resources, English as an additional language, and sensory difficulties). When technology is used to support our pedagogical priorities, it plays a role in raising standards, embedding inclusion, and ensuring meaningful equality. But it must be pedagogically led.

This fresh perspective on edtech has inspired a whole movement of teachers, school leaders, industry partners, academics and policy influencers to adopt a new phrase – pedtech. Pedagogically led technology use, and you are encouraged to reframe your own thinking about technology in school as part of this global shift towards more impactful uses of edtech.

We can begin to do this practically straight away by asking ourselves simple questions, such as:

  • What is my role in relation to this student’s learning?
  • What role does this student believe I have in relation to their learning?
  • What is therefore possible for this student if I support them effectively?
  • What do they need to do to achieve this?
  • What can I do to support them to do that?

The first three questions are about pedagogy. The final two are where technology starts to offer meaningful, purposeful, practical solutions.

Put simply, when our starting point is pedtech (pedagogy), rather than just edtech (education processes), it reminds us to think about specific aspects of pedagogy – the detail of teaching and learning. That means that we are thinking about teaching and learning first, and then being open to technology solutions to support us second.

As Professor John Hattie found: “If teachers and leaders are able to choose tools that help them to be the teacher or leader that they want to be, then both the tool and the person become more effective, and that leads us towards greater collective efficacy which we know trebles the impact on student achievement” (Hattie, 2020).

To find out more about pedtech, visit pedtech.org – where you will find links to free online support and resources from teachers, school leaders, academic researchers and supporters who have all freely given their time and expertise to share insights and ideas.

  • Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith is director of One Life Learning, an associate lecturer at the Open University and a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via http://bit.ly/htu-aubrey-smith and follow her @FionaAS

Further information & resources

  • Aubrey-Smith: An exploration of the relationship between teachers’ pedagogical stance and the use of ICT in their classroom practice, EdD thesis, The Open University, October 2020: http://oro.open.ac.uk/75001/
  • DfE: Implementation of education technology in schools and colleges: Research report, September 2022: https://bit.ly/3SRNfqo
  • Hattie: Visible Learning: Collective Teacher Efficacy, 2020: http://bit.ly/2RU3W7F
  • Twining et al: NP3 – New Purposes, New Practices, New Pedagogy: Meta-analysis, Society for Educational Studies, 2017: https://bit.ly/3H6JwQJ & www.np3.org.uk
  • Twining & Maher: Bring your own device: A snapshot of two Australian primary schools. Educational Research (59, 1), 2017: http://oro.open.ac.uk/47546/
  • Yusuf & Aubrey-Smith: Closing the Digital Divide: What can schools do? Headteacher Update, September 2022: http://bit.ly/3RflQgr

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.