The ed-tech strategy: A great leap backwards?

Written by: Bob Harrison | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The government has finally launched its long-promised strategy for the future of educational technology. Bob Harrison looks at the ‘critical welcome’ it has received...

The Department for Education (DfE) published Realising the potential of technology in education just as teachers broke up for Easter and it was immediately under fire – a “great leap backwards” according to influential ICT educator Tony Parkin (2019).

The critical “welcome” it received was typified by the Open University’s professor of education Peter Twining, who spoke at the strategy’s first real public airing, a Westminster Education Forum (WEF) seminar last month: “I was optimistic – until I read it,” he said.

He delivered a withering comparison between the strategy and its forebear, created by the Education Technology Action Group (Etag), the independent advisory group set up by ministers in 2014. He demonstrated how the earlier Etag strategy intended changing education practice and was aimed at those who could change pedagogy, curriculum and assessment regimes, whereas the new one merely supports current practice with no focus on the change required to realise the full potential of ed-tech.

The DfE’s document runs to 48 pages and much of it focuses on infrastructure and services, with a strong theme of reducing workload for teachers and schools. It tackles issues such as connectivity, pre-negotiated buying deals for solutions and services, privacy and data concerns, and support for ed-tech companies.

It launches 10 challenges for ed-tech companies, covering administration, assessment, teaching practice, CPD and life-long learning. It has set aside £10 million to drive this forward. It also includes plans for a “test-bed” of schools to support development and piloting and “demonstrator” schools to show how technologies can be used.

There is nothing wrong with any of this in principle, but it is all about infrastructure and products, rather than learning and pedagogy.

Prof Twining told the WEF: “The recommendations in the strategy are a sad reflection, a shadow of what Etag supported and recommended. The ambition seems to be to enhance UK plc and support 19th century models of practice, a lost opportunity (that) may be counter-productive – it may lower the bar.

“There are schools out there doing way better things than the strategy seems to support, and it may disincentivise schools who are investing in IT to do the sort of things that we say are important because they are not the sort of things that this strategy is going to support.

“We have got to do better folks. We really need to think about what school is for – how do we help prepare kids to live in the world today and the world of the future? This strategy is not going to do it.”

Also at the WEF event was Deborah McCann, head of ed-tech at the DfE. Her view was that the strategy was the first part of an on-going conversation. However, she astonished many attendees when she admitted that the term “learning” was deliberately excluded from the strategy.

She said: “We have focused on attainment. There’s a view that ‘learning’ is a bit of a weak term really and there is a lot more that we are talking about – attainment and outcomes. That’s why you don’t see it in the strategy. ... learning is the process, obviously, but what we want to see is attainment.”

Ironically, virtually every other presentation and conversation that followed at the WEF seminar referred to “learning” rather than “attainment”.

It is more than two years since the then education secretary, Justine Greening, asked civil servants to explore how technology could support the work of schools.

However, the definition of “ed-tech” now put forward by the DfE in its new strategy has raised eyebrows. It states: “Education technology refers to the practice of using technology to support teaching and the effective day-to-day management of education institutions.”

It is a narrow, restrictive definition with no reference to the most important element for students and educators – the learning, whether in or out of school. It is old hat for many schools. The definition is a severe constraint on what teachers and learners are already doing with technology to enhance and extend teaching, learning and assessment.

Most importantly, it fails to acknowledge the potential digital technology has to engage and empower learners and extend and enhance learning beyond the classroom. Current politicians seem unable to embrace the language and practice of educators and the central role of pedagogy.

Mike Sharples, professor emeritus of ed-tech at the Open University warns that learning and teaching has to be prioritised because technology cannot solve the deep problems of education. He said: “We need to focus on how teachers make good use of technology to enhance learning, not just the technology itself. The key to this is pedagogy.”

This kind of feedback is already commonplace in education forums like MirandaNet and on social media. Concerns about the strategy include:

  • Recognition that investment in infrastructure is needed is welcome, but industry is invoked without reference to the old RBCs (Regional Broadband Consortia), which should be revisited.
  • The £10 million to support the strategy is welcome, but is a trifle compared to the money allocated to support other initiatives.
  • The DfE allocating funding for the BESA ed-tech school roadshows when schools are so strapped for cash that many cannot afford the basics let alone new technology. The driving force for any strategy should be people and pedagogy, not products.
  • There is no commitment to CPD. As teacher trainer Professor Andy Connell (University of Chester) writes on his blog: “Ed-tech is also about supporting learning and this has been ignored. The research is there, the practice that can be shared is there, the will from teachers is there. Where is the political will?”

So where does this leave us? Well we are far from the heady days when schools in England were seen as ICT trailblazers – but at least ICT and digital technology are back on ministerial agendas. Some suggest the strategy “is better than nothing”. I am not convinced. Happily, I have more faith in the creativity of the children and my fellow educators than the myopic vision and definitions of the DfE.

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