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Opening doors
Michael Conlon of XMA believes digital tools can enhance pedagogical approaches. XMA/Supplied
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Opening doors 

How a device for every child will change the culture of learning and teaching

“I was about eight years old, and I had finally plucked up the courage to ask the music teacher if I could learn to play the piano. I’d been thinking about it for so long and worried I’d not get the chance. She was really enthusiastic, and that got me excited until she asked the fatal question. ‘Do you have a piano at home?’. I shook my head. And that was it – conversation over.”

For Michael Conlon, education transformation consultant at XMA, it was a lesson that fuelled a lifelong passion for equity that has run through his 28-year career as a technology educator and leader in schools, local authorities, and Education Scotland.

“I was just a wee boy, desperate to stretch that creative muscle, and the door was closed for me. It left quite a deep impression because I’m still talking about it all these years later. So technology for me has always been about its potential to open doors for young people, whether it is for music or physics or art or writing, whatever that ‘thing’ is for you, and that every child should have access to it wherever and whenever they are ready.”

Conlon joined XMA at the start of 2020 at an exciting time for the company. As a sole supplier on multiple Scottish Procurement frameworks and already helping drive 1:1 projects across Scotland and the UK, including Glasgow’s 1:1 Connected Learning project, XMA had rapidly gained experience in helping local authorities and schools nurture their vision for learning in the fourth industrial revolution.

As Dennis Fox, director with XMA for Scotland and Northern Ireland attests, “Even before the
pandemic, the direction of travel for education has been moving towards 1:1, not just here but across
the world. It simply accelerated the need.

“We know that digital skills will play such an important part in helping young people secure their future, and so our job is to help local authorities and schools plot a path to making their strategy and
vision a reality. That involves coauthoring solutions for infrastructure, device management, deployment and training that combines our mutual passion and change for
education.”

Dennis Fox

Established in the 1980s, XMA has grown to become one of the UK’s top ten largest value-added resellers. Today, it is an award-winning, independent, UK-wide company, serving a diverse customer base across the public and private sector.

In the education sector, it has built a team with strong sector knowledge and experience. ”When you add the kinds of perspective and domain knowledge that people like Michael have with the solutions knowledge that we have in the business, you bring together the added value and outcomes
focus that XMA is renowned for,” says Fox.

”It means our conversations with customers go deeper, our solutions are more tailored and that we maintain our focus on those desired outcomes rather than technology”.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdown exposed a digital equity gap for many young people and
families, locked out of the opportunity to connect with their teachers and peers in a meaningful way.

The discovery that many of their young people lacked a suitable device and access to data, with families sharing technology for work and home learning laid bare the reality of a situation that could not be ignored.

XMA worked in conjunction with the Scottish Government and local authorities to secure devices to remedy the situation, but that has only been the beginning of a shift in thinking about the role of their children’s screen time or getting rid of traditional pedagogy, Conlon is quite clear. “Like everything else in life, it’s about balance, and it’s the responsibility of all of us to keep talking about that balance, and I include myself as a parent.

“We should all be able to agree that broadening how we teach, learn and assess is of value. It’s
about adding new and modern tools and enhancing our pedagogical approaches, not taking them
away.”

Pedagogy is a driving force behind the education transformation projects that XMA is helping to build.

What’s critical for people to understand is that devices don’t teach children; teachers teach children,” says Leigh Milligan, digital learning lead at XMA.

“So unless there are significant and sustained professional learning opportunities for educators, we’re unlikely to see the kinds of benefits we know are there. There’s a real chance to shift the needle in terms of how technology is seen and used by young people, moving away from consumption and into creativity, entrepreneurship and lifelong learning. And for our educators, it is about exploiting how technology can reduce workload, support learners and model ideas and concepts in a relevant, meaningful and engaging way.”

This understanding has led to the development of a learning platform for teachers which will launch after the summer. “Not every teacher can get to the professional learning sessions that we offer,” explains Milligan.

“There must be a place and space for them to learn ways to integrate technology for learning at a time that suits them best. As a team of former teachers, it’s the kind of thing we would want, online training that’s not just about what buttons to press but how it connects to how children learn. We like to think you’ll be able to use what you learn in your class the next day.”

Last year saw Fox’s team respond to the unprecedented need for technology across all sectors, including the Connecting Scotland programme that was rapidly spun up to provide digital devices, data and training to those who needed it most. Working closely with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations has proven to be one of the most satisfying projects the team has ever undertaken.

“When you hear stories of the difference technology has made to some of our most vulnerable citizens and families, it’s just so moving,” says Fox.

“You get such an insight into how you can start to remove that isolation and connect families to services and learning, and that makes it really inspiring. That’s why we’re so excited at the potential that a device for every child could bring. It’s about opening up worlds for them, their families and for being more connected with their community and the things that matter most.”

Conlon believes that Scotland can be a lighthouse for other countries looking at similar projects. “We believe in equity for young people. We believe that if there are accessibility features that can help young people overcome their learning challenges, they should have them.

“We believe that if they want to explore their creativity, then they have the tools to do that. That if
there are apps that help reinforce their learning, they can use them. It’s reflective of the kind of world
we want to help build. It’s about the kind of world that I’d want that eight-year-old me to live in.”

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