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Towards equity-focused EdTech
A socio-technical approach

Unpicking a school’s technology “culture”

Habnd Up
Habnd Up
Published: 18 January 2024

Laura Hakimi

Whilst we are only a short way into our extended period of fieldwork, and it is too early to discuss findings, we have observed stark differences and disparities in the overall technology ecosystems of secondary schools across England.  

We are reminded of the way in which particular socio-political influences, intertwined with media discourse and wider societal concerns, determine an individual school’s culture and its orientation to the digital sphere: these all have real implications for the opportunities and experiences of a school’s pupils. 

Differences in a school’s technology use have traditionally been presented in terms of economic and human resource, dominated by questions of access, purchasing power and teacher expertise to acquire and incorporate EdTech into everyday practice. Policy framings have explicitly addressed the extent to which EdTech (which our project is defining in a deliberately broad sense) is ‘embedded’ in schools, in an apparently linear progression towards ‘digital maturity’ (DfE 2022). 

What we should also take into account is that there are fundamental and shifting ideological debates that take place within and between schools relating to technology, teaching and learning, which move beyond questions of access and possibility and how we should create “technology-rich” environments. These new questions relate to the particular pedagogical and moral cultures that school leadership teams and teachers wish to establish, the agency of pupils and parents in their enactment, and the use (or conspicuous absence) of EdTech in this process. What, for example, are the expectations for pupil conduct, and how is technology involved in monitoring and responding to pupil behaviour? How is learning progress conceived and measured? Is particular software involved in this process? Which technologies support, mediate or disrupt the architecture of the school timetable, of pastoral care, of assessment practices, of parent-teacher communication, of reporting systems, and of extra-curricular activities? And what are the technologies that are promoted or restricted or banned or viewed as obstructive to the school’s learning culture, or viewed as problematic in the development of pupil identities?  

It is not appropriate to give examples from the schools in which our research is currently situated. However, we can illustrate these points from wider academic, commercial and media debates. 

The governance structures around a school, and the high-level decision making around resource allocation and strategic priorities, appear enormously influential. The Leo Academy Trust, for example, has invested heavily in a one-to-one Chromebook scheme across its nine primary schools in Sutton and Surrey and, with the support of Google, Lenovo, Texthelp and academics, has not only established and promoted a PedTech brand but a distinctive culture of technology use that fosters multi-media, ‘personalised’ learning for primary pupils from the get-go. This combination of strategic prioritisation of a technology rich environment, and commercial sponsorship and endorsement, has been packaged as a distinctive and leading approach to be showcased across other schools in England. 

There are a series of influential educational philosophies, such as The Power of Culture: The Michaela Way, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh, or Tom Bennett’s Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour, which place emphasis on standardised educational routines and experiences, core knowledge as king, and strict expectations of pupil behaviour that go hand-in-hand with minimising the ‘distractions’ of technology that detract from learning.  

These powerful educational philosophies that inform and evolve within and beyond the governance structures of UK secondary schools are influential in determining pupil experiences, and the role that technology plays within them. 

As a final example, there is some pushing back against an over-emphasis on technology use in the classroom. In Sweden, for example, politicians and educational experts claim a hyper-digitalised approach to education, including the introduction to tablets in nursery schools, has led to a decline in basic skills. There is now a new emphasis on printed books, quiet reading time and handwriting practice, and less time devoted to tablets, independent online research and keyboarding skills (Guardian, September 2023). These ideas are mirrored, to a degree, in other contexts (see, for example, this reflective essay by Antero Garcia from a US perspective) which have been quick to digitise and are now reflecting on where (and why) it might be more appropriate to return to more traditional methods for teaching and learning.  

In the meantime, schools must strategically navigate a whole range of different changes and challenges: the pathway between paper-based and digital exams, the ways in which to strategically manage pupils’ use and orientation to generative AI, and the practices self-discipline and self-regulation that pupils need to develop to effectively use generic hardware safely. These examples hardly begin to explore the complexities of the relationship between secondary schools and the digital sphere. What is important, however, is to try to understand the ‘embedding’ of technology in schools not as distinct to but as an integral part of a school’s culture and its vision of what a secondary school education should be. 

Image by pch.vector on Freepik.