Harnessing technology to raise attainment – curriculum integration, aligning with the needs of teachers, improving accessibility within schools and at home, and improving students’ digital skills.
Emily Guille-Marrett, Chief Content Officer at Pickatale shares her thoughts from the Westminster Education forum.
I have worked in EdTech and publishing for the schools and home learning market for over 20 years, in both print and digital, with Maths - No Problem!, Collins Education, Oxford University Press, Pearson Education, Nelson Thornes, Ladybird books and many more. My driving passion in all that time has been the belief that every child needs and deserves access to engaging, meaningful educational content – and that advancements in technology can now make this a reality.
There has always been great content out there. Just where to find it? The problem has been access or selection rather than availability. And each new EdTech breakthrough, from the printing press to digital textbooks, has opened up further the world of learning. I remember being that girl in the picture weighed down with a mountain of books: libraries were an “all you can eat buffet” that allowed to keep on eating with impunity! But, with less reliance on paper, digital can lighten the load – literally.
I’ve always loved the idea of the “Penguincubator”, the Pengin vending machine, installed in busy train stations across the land in the late 1930s. It served up short, potted, pocket-sized books, in essence providing the reading experiences we enjoy today when we dip in and out of articles online. As you are now.
Our founder Sig Dugal at Pickatale, is equally passionate about ensuring that there is content for everybody. Harnessing technology can provide that.
But we’re not there yet. So how do we get there?
The gap between the digital haves and have-nots was much discussed at the Westminster Education Forum. Schools need more equipment. Provision is currently so mixed. Some institutions provide every child with a device. Others offer nothing at all. And while some devices are brand-spanking new, others are not fit for purpose. Furthermore, strong infrastructure, with internet access (connectivity: regional and local), is imperative, as are trained staff. We need to review how best to finance all this, along with ensuring schools get value for money.
There is a plethora of content out there, but that can lead to paralysis. Just how do you choose? How do you sift and select? How do you sort the wheat from the chaff? Content-saturation means that it’s hard to find even the best!
Or to flip it, as providers or curators, how can we find the best, yet still ensure choice?
Familiarity or going to trusted brands and partnerships can help with this. As well as creating content, we partner with and license trusted brands such as Oxford University Press and Disney.
For schools and teachers, confidence can be a sticking point. They need assurances, so they can find stuff that actually works! Robust evidence is needed to inform choices. Evidence, research, reviews, and recommendations all help massively, with EdTech Impact, Bett, EEF, and Reading for Pleasure Hubs all valiantly playing their part.
As well as being trusted by educators, content needs to be engaging to students. It needs to engage and motivate students to want to learn. Getting this technology into the hands of people – technology that is easy to discover and use – is hugely impactful.
I love the fact that the Pickatale app is mobile friendly, so children in deprived, disadvantaged areas can access fiction and non-fiction. This has led to more reading outside school, in homes where there weren’t many paper books.
We also want to ensure that the content that we create is diverse in terms of representing a wide range of experiences. Young readers want to explore new worlds and cultures in books. They also want relatable characters and stories. They also want to see themselves and their own world reflected back to them.
Engaging young readers, through fun, familiar games to facilitate practice with immediate feedback, is also powerful, impacting both behaviour and learning outcomes. With the likes of Classcraft, Hit the button, and TT Rockstars, there is a lot out there to get excited about. No doubt VR will only make this learning even more immersive. Piggybacking on the popularity of existing games, using Minecraft for storytelling, for example, is also proving successful.
Pickatale offers book quizzes, which increases engagement and comprehension, but we’re always exploring other ways to gamify our own content, so that children can play and learn more deeply.
There’s a lot of data! It can be overwhelming. But this is where tech can help us the most, by collecting, collating, and shaping information which can then support schools and inform learning. Managed well, data can provide key insights that support every child’s learning journey.
Take SoapBox Educate’s speech recognition technology. We’re now at the point where the tech is so advanced it can assess not only fluency and speed, but also prosody, so we can gauge reading comprehension.
And then there’s adaptive learning, which delivers individualised content matching each child’s exact needs, as Oxford Smart Curriculum does for Key Stages 3 and 4.
Teacher dashboards are also critical, going forward. We’re really proud of the Pickatale Teacher Dashboard, which offers an overview of student engagement, understanding, and performance. Educators can see, at a glance, students’ reading progress, quiz results, book levels, last login, the number of books read, and daily reading time. Spotting gaps or joining the dots, the tech allows teachers to easily identify those who need more support. Plus, teachers are always interested in which books are popular with their classes.
Knowledge and expertise are imperative. It’s the foundation for supporting those using the tech: educators, students, and their families. Continuing staff training and the sharing of good practice, both within and across departments and disciplines, move things forward. It is also increasingly vital to get science teachers and those in science to talk to students in schools where perhaps there are staff shortages in those subjects.
I’d like to commend Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith for her work as Director of One Life Learning, providing strategic education consultancy services to schools, trusts, professional learning providers, and edtech companies. She is now moving from edtech to “pedtech”, with its greater focus on pedagogy.
Online safety and mental health are issues that concern all of us. We need to guide children in their own relationships with their devices, so that they know how to use them well and when to turn them off. A big shout out for all those who are supporting digital literacies, skills not only for now but the future. For instance, copywriters and content creators are increasingly using AI to create marketing materials, so let’s equip students with the skills to use this sort of technology in everyday work.
I’d finish by saying, we live in exciting times. Technology has so much to offer educators, students, and the world of education. Now is the time to lay the foundations and fully harness technology to raise attainment.
It was a real pleasure to speak on the panel at the Westminster Education Forum alongside my fellow panellists:
I’d like to thank Peter van Gelder, Director of the Westminster Education Forum, for inviting me.
Emily Guille-Marrett, Chief Content Officer, Pickatale
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