Realising the potential of technology in education

In April 2019, the Department for Education launched its first ever, long-awaited, EdTech strategy for the UK.

Signs of DfE support for EdTech had been building over many months, with Education Secretary Damian Hinds declaring in 2018 that:

There is clear, untapped potential for schools, colleges and universities to benefit even further from the power of technology to support students to learn, reduce teachers’ workload and save money.”

Despite this admission however, there had unquestionably been a lack of national conversation about the promise of edtech for too long and thus publishing a first ever strategy for UK EdTech in April represented a landmark moment.

So what does the DfE think of the current state of UK EdTech, what does it hope to achieve and what does it mean for colleges?

Building Blocks

Much of the strategy – including the first 12 of the 19 ‘Commitments’ made within it – focuses on getting the key building blocks in place for UK EdTech.

As shown by the first diagram of the strategy – where the strategy is literally the first step – DfE have set out to tackle 4 key barriers for UK EdTech:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Skills
  3. Safety
  4. Procurement

Whilst none of these are topics that set the pulse racing, they are undoubtedly sensible building blocks that the UK needs in place for schools, colleges and universities. You would be hard-pushed to find anyone disagreeing that these are ‘must-haves’ and there are many direct comments and specific examples on these points within the strategy document itself.

Realising the Potential

But the title of strategy isn’t “Getting the Building Blocks in Place”; it is “Realising the Potential of Technology in Education”.

So – assuming that infrastructure, skills, safety and procurement are indeed progressed in the coming months and years – what does the strategy look like more broadly? After all, as the EEF says:

“The question is no longer whether technology should have a place in the classroom, but how technology can most effectively be integrated in ways which achieve improved outcomes for young people.”

In this regard, the commitments made by DfE that stand out are:

  1. Setting up a new EdTech Leadership Group, made up of representatives across the education sector;
  2. Working with industry, research and education groups to establish small ‘testbeds’ of schools and colleges to support the development, piloting and evaluation of technology; and
  3. Creating a step change in the digital services available to parents, students, teachers and education leaders. We will pilot ways of engaging with these groups that brings together relevant information, so that the education sector and the public get the services they need.

These are all welcome initiatives and we would of course encourage colleges to be a part of any of interesting new pilot schemes for edtech. The fact that DfE talks about “parents, students, teachers and education leaders” in a single sentence also shows that DfE recognise that there are lots of stakeholders involved when it comes to the use of edtech and that each of those stakeholders will need information pertinent to their perspective – something that links well with the commitments made around improving procurement of edtech.

DfE believe that these are the key initiatives that will help establish the “dynamic EdTech business sector” that is “essential” for the UK.

The Missing Piece: Outcomes and Attainment

So overall, lots to like in the UK’s first EdTech strategy, but what do we think is missing from it?

There are several things we would have included, but probably the single most significant factor was how raising outcomes and attainment felt like a byproduct of edtech, and not its central purpose.

In his foreword, Damian Hinds says:

“I believe technology can be an effective tool to help reduce workload, increase efficiencies, engage students and communities, and provide tools to support excellent teaching and raise student attainment.”

All the right words are there – including raising student attainment – but it feels to me that DfE don’t fully understand what makes the potential for UK EdTech so great.

Yes, workload, efficiency, communication, support are all important….but it is helping learners to achieve better outcomes that makes almost all edtech companies get out of bed in the morning. Edtech companies and their teams – certainly all the ones I have met – are focused on and driven by the desire to change the lives of their learners. EdTech companies want to deliver those ‘light bulb moments’, helping learners to open up new doors that might previously have been closed to them.

So perhaps there is still a gap in understanding and context between DfE and UK EdTech that needs to be bridged in the months and years ahead, but at least now we can say that the conversation has truly started.

Mark Mckenna is the Founder and Managing Director of Mindful Education.

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