ETAG: Eight months and still waiting...

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
Photo: iStock

The government-appointed Education and Technology Action Group (ETAG) published its recommendations in January. Eight months on and there has still been no response from ministers. Bob Harrison explains

In her speech at the Bett Show in January, secretary of state Nicky Morgan opened by saying: “British businesses are leading the world in education technology, but I sometimes fear that the fruits of that success are not yet being shared by every school in the country.”

Since then, the minister and the Department for Education (DfE) have remained remarkably silent.

Why has there been no response to the recommendations in the report from the government-appointed Education and Technology Action Group (ETAG), published to coincide with the minister’s speech and which set out wide-ranging recommendations to ministers and provided Ms Morgan with a clear route map to address her concerns?

Ms Morgan welcomed the work of more than 20 experts in the field of learning technology, who had been commissioned by her predecessor Michael Gove to advise on how schools, colleges and universities could make more effective use of technology for teaching, learning and assessment.

Chaired by Professor Stephen Heppell, ETAG was joined by three other professors of education (Diana Laurillard, UCL Institute of Education, Angela McFarlane, College of Teachers, and Peter Twining, Open University), and including teachers, heads, governors, awarding bodies and industry. The group came up with recommendations for government in three major areas.

1, Connectivity

The report made a powerful case for government intervention to ensure that “no child would be disadvantaged by not being connected”.

Backed by international evidence, ETAG called for joined up thinking and action by the DfE, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and the Cabinet Office – all responsible for the government’s digitisation agenda.

2, Leadership and CPD

There is no point in educational institutions having up-to-date infrastructure, equipment, superfast broadband and highly resilient wi-fi if there is no leadership vision or the teachers and support staff do not have the appropriate confidence and capability.

3, Assessment/accountability

Directly addressing the accountability point made by Ms Morgan in her speech, this theme made several recommendations to address the use of data for accountability purposes and, most importantly, the perceived obstacles that the current assessment system places on innovation in teaching and learning. Some commentators suggest that the “assessment tail still wags the teaching and learning dog” – yet still no response from the DfE.

ETAG meets again

Recently, as promised, the ETAG members gathered again at the Open University to check on progress. The results are bitter sweet.

Group members reported amazing progress on the ground in schools and colleges, largely by visionary heads and governors, innovative teachers and support staff, and creative and collaborative efforts by the learners.

On the ground and at the “silicon face”, the spirit of the ETAG recommendations have licensed and empowered teachers to do exactly what Ms Morgan urged in her speech: “I am keen to ensure we do more in our own schools to harness the power and potential of educational technology.”

Blind-spot in the DfE?

BIS has made great strides in the further education sector by implementing the FELTAG report (ETAG’s sister group set up to focus on further education). Higher education has also made significant investments in infrastructure and staff development through JISC.

But when it comes to the DfE, do we have a political and policy blind-spot? To date, at the time of writing, the DfE has failed to respond to the ETAG report and the group has yet to receive any acknowledgement of the work done (for free), other than the mention in Ms Morgan’s Bett speech.

Has she studied the report as she said she would? Have the civil servants put it in the recycle bin? Has it got lost in cyberspace? It is difficult to understand why the words in Ms Morgan’s speech are not matched by any sort of response or action in policy circles when there is so much activity by schools and colleges.

The OECD headlines

The ETAG recommendations were brought into focus recently with the publication of the OECD’s report Students, Computers and Learning: Making the connection (or not if you believed the headlines that the report created in the national press).

At a superficial glance the headlines in the report (as in the media) suggested that “computers make no difference to test scores”.

However, most informed commentators who took the time to read the whole report recognised that what it actually said was that we need more and better professional development for teachers (and perhaps our pedagogy needs to catch up) to get the best out of current and emerging technologies.

Indeed, what the OECD really said was that there is a need for a new pedagogical approach to make the most effective use of technology for schools – and that is why the DfE needs urgently to respond to the ETAG report.

So what next?

It will not be long before the next Bett in January 2016 and no doubt another speech from Ms Morgan. It will be interesting to hear what she has to say about the inaction within the DfE and the lack of leadership on this issue.

ETAG members have agreed to continue their work (for free) and gather as much evidence from schools and colleges of the progress they have made, despite the lack of interest from DfE ministers.

That evidence is being gathered to create a strong narrative – a narrative that was summarised by Gary Spracklen, a school leader and ETAG member: “As a school leader, I am getting on with the spirit of the ETAG report but I am disappointed that the report has been with the minister for eight months now and still we have had no response.

“I have a responsibility to make sure my learners take advantage of the learning opportunities technology presents and I cannot wait for the DfE’s response to continue their progress. While my learners continue to break new ground and use cloud technologies, augmented reality and 3D printing to expand their horizons, I will leave the DfE to continue burying their head in the sand.”

Irrespective of the political inertia on this issue, a number of things are guaranteed:

  • Technology will continue to disrupt our lives and that includes why, how, where and when we are taught, learn and are assessed.
  • Learners will increasingly have expectations of using their own technology for learning inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Teachers will need to continually update their skills to make effective use of technology for teaching, learning and assessment.
  • School leaders will need to continually scan the horizon for changes in technology to make informed decisions and adapt their vision accordingly.
  • Connectivity is vital to ensure equity and fair access to knowledge and collaborative opportunities for learning.

As Ms Morgan herself said: “We must be prepared to innovate, to break the mould, prepared to change.” A bit of leadership and encouragement from the DfE would be very welcome.

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