Just before they all got reshuffled last year, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, education and skills minister Matt Hancock, and universities minister David Willetts invited a group of education professors, teachers, technologists and industry people to come together and advise them about the future of learning technology across schools, further education and skills, and higher education.
Two significant factors prompted this decision. First, the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG), established by Mr Hancock, had reported after 16 months’ work, making recommendations designed to address the urgent need for further education providers to make more effective use of technology, especially online and blended learning.
Despite millions of pounds worth of investment in former quangos, such as Becta and LSIS (now defunct) and Jisc (now a charity), research from the Association of Colleges showed that less than 30 per cent of colleges were using technology effectively. Surely lessons could be learned across all sectors?
Second, it appeared Mr Gove had had a Damascene conversion about his “schools know best policy”. Indeed, at the inaugural meeting of the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) he surprised us by saying: “When it comes to the use of digital technology for learning, it is such a fast-moving area we now realise that ‘getting out of the way’ is simply not enough. There is a role for government to support innovation, disseminate what works and remove any existing obstacles to teachers innovating.”
He then stunned the group by adding “...and learning with technology should be fun”.
So the ETAG, chaired by world-renowned digital technology evangelist Professor Stephen Heppell, started work – and although this was an independent group of volunteers, it had ministers’ support with the backing of a team of civil servants from the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
The group published its recommendations on the opening day of Bett 2015 last week, and following last summer’s reshuffle, it will be the new ministerial team that considers the findings. It has also fed nicely into the pre-election campaign.
The recommendations are believed to have cross-party support, as which political party would not want to be associated with improving learning and ensuring our learners are prepared for a competitive global digital economy?
The three working groups of the ETAG each made its own set of recommendations.
1, Access, equity and funding
Connectivity is vital. It cannot be right that a child or an adult learner’s access to the world of knowledge and learning is restricted or dependent on where they live.
It is essential that all education providers have a fast broadband connection and a resilient internal infrastructure to cope with the number of learners who will be demanding increasing amounts of upload and download capacity. Among the key recommendations are that schools, college and universities should:
Provide learners with an entitlement to a substantial minimum level of fast broadband connectivity which is based on number of learners and a rising expectation of increasing, institutional and personal use.
Provide learners with a minimum entitlement to a safe, secure, resilient and robust organisation-wide wi-fi system for all their devices with access to both use and contribute to all learning resources when learners are not on the site.
Build BYO (bring your own) approaches into their immediate and medium-term digital technology strategies.
Have access to an independent, objective help/advice/support service for technology procurement and deployment.
2, Leadership and CPD
Do governors, principals, headteachers and senior leadership teams have the right knowledge, understanding and skills to plan strategically for education’s digital future?
Do teachers and support staff have the confidence and capability to use technology effectively, to improve teaching, learning and to empower learners? Is there sufficient evidence and practitioner research and time available to make informed pedagogical choices? Among the key recommendations are:
Set up an expectation of “online learning CPD”, linking to current organisations and associations, with perhaps an overarching CPD directorate as an organisation to collate and share the teaching community’s knowledge of research and effective practice with digital learning technologies, and to reward, showcase, celebrate and recognise high-quality and effective teaching innovations across all sectors.
Define a “digital experts’ programme” to inspire students to develop their digital skills across the curriculum, with the successful Digital Leaders initiative at its heart. We could imagine something like a nationwide “digital Duke of Edinburgh scheme” with collaborative and mixed age digital student leaders at its heart.
Does the assessment system have too much influence on the learning? Does the assessment tail wag the pedagogical dog too much? Why are we not using on-screen and online testing more? Does the inspection regime mitigate against risk-taking and innovation? Are Ofsted inspectors sufficiently aware of the issues of online, blended and virtual learning? Among the key recommendations are:
A statutory requirement for all education providers to describe and justify how they use digital technology to enhance learning across the curriculum (including for assessment) as part of the teaching and learning policies on their website by September 2015.
It should not be possible to obtain a rating of good or outstanding from Ofsted without having provided a good or outstanding justification for your use of digital technology to enhance learning across the curriculum from September 2015.
The DfE should set a strategic goal for general qualifications across the majority of subjects, including English, maths and science, to move towards utilising digital technology-enabled assessment.
The debate begins
When Mr Hancock received the recommendations from the FELTAG report, he accepted all 35 and there is now an action plan and a coordinated implementation plan gaining traction in the sector.
I wonder how the new education secretary Nicky Morgan and education and skills minister Nick Boles will react to the ETAG recommendations? Similarly I hope!
In her speech at Bett, on the same day the ETAG published its report, Ms Morgan said: “I would like to thank the chair Professor Stephen Heppell, the members of the group who have given their time, and all those who responded to the call for evidence last year. I look forward to studying the group’s report.” Watch this space!
An ETAG debateThe chairs of the ETAG working groups will be on the ETAG panel at next month’s Education Innovation Conference and Exhibition (EICE) to give delegates an up-to-date view of their recommendations. EICE runs on February 26 and 27 in Manchester. The ETAG panel debate is at 11:30am on February 27 and a FELTAG panel discussion will take place on February 26. For free registration, visit www.educationinnovation.co.uk The ETAG reportFor more details on the work of ETAG and to download the report, visit www.etag.support Photo: iStock
Bob Harrison is a school and college governor and education advisor for Toshiba Northern Europe. He was a member of FELTAG and chaired the Access, Equality and Funding ETAG group. You can follow him on Twitter @bobharrsonset