The EdTech strategy our schools need

7 September 2017

England has the potential to be a world leader in developing and using education technologies (EdTech as it’s popularly known), with benefits for individuals and the nation. However, the Government has provided virtually no leadership on this issue for at least three years. This risks missing the opportunity outlined in the 2017 Conservative manifesto to ‘harness the power of fast-changing technology’. With positive rumblings coming out of the Department for Education (DfE) recently, now is the time for some new thinking.

Demands placed on schools are both increasing and changing. There are currently 2.8m pupils in English state secondary schools, but that number is set to increase by over half a million (19 per cent) by 2026. However, finances remain constrained. Even the £4 billion of extra spending announced in the Conservative manifesto equates to a 3 per cent real term fall in school budgets this Parliament, at a time when staff shortages are increasing, especially in ‘core’ academic subjects. The 2015 Conservative pledge to enter 90 per cent of GCSE students for the EBacc by 2020, has slipped by seven years, mainly due to workforce issues. School staff repeatedly complain about the pressures of accountability and workload. England’s middling performance in the international PISA rankings remains static, while competitor countries overtake it. Nearly two-thirds of UK employers now fear they won’t find people for the growing number of highly-skilled roles they need post-Brexit.

Goals

In this challenging context technology has a key role to play in achieving value for money, finding efficiencies and productivity gains in schools, and delivering innovative new models. This is a pattern already emerging in other sectors, from online identity verification, to patient self-management apps. However, EdTech is not a goal in itself, to achieve its potential it must be used in a way that seeks to improve specific outcomes towards four (often overlapping) ‘goals’:

  1. Teaching and learning e.g. offering broad, varied and rich content, facilitating more effective feedback, or motivating and engaging students (and their families).
  2. Assessment e.g. adaptive and personalised, on-screen, or using text analysis.
  3. Supporting staff e.g. to facilitate collaboration between staff, share best practice, support professional development or ease workload by saving time spent on low-level admin tasks
  4. Efficiency e.g. predictive and semi-automated Management Information Systems, or the Application Programming Interface based Data Exchange system DfE is piloting to rapidly collect data from schools

Barriers

Multiple research studies have found teaching to be one of the least automatable jobs. It requires complex human-to-human interactions, empathy and trust. However, there is clearly much scope for augmenting teaching roles, by automating some tasks and providing evidence for more informed decisions. This will then allow educators to focus on the high-impact, more creative and inter-personal parts of their job. However, four key barriers are currently preventing progress.

1.There has been virtually no leadership on this issue since the 2014 Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) was established by Michael Gove, Matthew Hancock and David Willetts. There was no mention of EdTech at all in the Plan for Britain, Skills Plan or Industrial Strategy, and only a modest section in the Digital Strategy. Any mention of either technology, digital or data is completely absent from the following DfE initiatives (totalling over half a billion pounds), including within their accompanying guidance, speeches and research;

  • £150m National Collaborative Outreach Programme
  • £140m Strategic School Improvement Fund
  • £75m Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund
  • £72m for 12 Opportunity Areas
  • £70m Northern Powerhouse schools strategy
  • Three-year funding for ‘innovative’ teacher training provision (spending to be confirmed).

2. If data is the ‘fuel’ for AI and other EdTech solutions, then in education the ‘pipelines’ are currently diffuse, mistrusted and at risk. Highly valuable (and expensive) public datasets – such as the School Workforce Census and Qualified Teacher Database – badly need ‘cleaning’ and linking to unlock their value. Furthermore, child safeguarding and online safety add an additional layer of sensitivity to wider debates about data protection, security and privacy. Although data failures in education do not obviously mean ‘life or death’, as in the police or NHS, they could still be highly damaging and costly. For instance, as more examinations move to being on-screen and digitised, a ‘WannaCry’ type cyber-attack could impact an entire cohort of student’s national examinations. Leaks of exam questions are already becoming commonplace. Data breaches containing the personal data of children would also be disastrous. It is currently unclear if schools are prepared for issues such as the General Data Protection Regulation (coming in nine months), the digital charter, the framework for data ethics, or the new international agreement on data. Without addressing these issues, the many benefits of interoperable, linked and shared data – such as saving staff time and money – cannot be realised.

3. Successfully procuring and implementing EdTech is another major challenge. UK schools currently spend £900 million annually on EdTech, which works out at £320 per pupil. EdTech can be a relatively costly investment, incorporating hardware, software, training, support and maintenance. It can also involve substantial organisational change, with little evidence or guidance of how to successfully implement new technologies, or what can be learned from failures. Almost all innovative provision comes from private, for-profit enterprises – from teacher-run start-ups, to FTSE100 multinationals. Left unchecked, the market cannot deliver value for money for a fragmented school market. There are numerous examples of huge sums of wasted money due to EdTech being missold or missused. As relatively small and diverse organisations, it is hard for schools alone to develop the relevant capacity, processes and skills to secure value from such technologies through effective procurement and implementation. Reliable information about costs and benefits are opaque. Decision-making should occur at an appropriate level in the system. The right balance of funding and regulation should stimulate a fair and competitive market. Procurement should sustain and reward innovation. It is unclear if the current system achieves any of these aims.

4. Compared to health, robust evidence about what works in education is in its infancy. The Education Endowment Foundation has evaluated 28 digital technologies so far, overall finding moderate impact for moderate cost. This hides huge variation – in different technologies, goals, implementation and impact – with little comparable data on efficacy. It’s also important to distinguish who’s using the technology; learners, educators, parents or others. Who pays and where the technology is used are also key. There is huge scope for educators to take a greater role in evaluating EdTech themselves, as the profession becomes more evidence-informed, through initiatives such as the Chartered College of Teaching, or Education Endowment Foundation research trials. Helpfully, some of the teacher time that EdTech can save – from marking, planning and admin – could be spent evaluating the impact of new technologies. This can be a powerful way to develop teachers, improve outcomes for students, and achieve value for money. Likewise, vendors that are profiting from EdTech should be more accountable for providing robust, standardised evidence that their products and services are effective – beyond marketing hype.

Recommendations

A future blog will go in to detail on the solutions, but in summary there are eight steps that government should take to overcome the four barriers and achieve the four goals:

1.Government must play a more pro-active leadership role, developing a national strategy that maximises EdTech opportunities and minimises risks across the whole school sector. Even big groups of schools are too small to do everything themselves, and the majority of schools are still stand-alone.

2. Vendors should be systematically incentivised to provide robust and comparable evidence of efficacy and efficiency

3. Tangible examples of success must be identified, understood and acted on (and likewise with failures)

4. Evolving data issues need solving, to build trust in the system and keep data flowing

5. The EdTech market needs stimulating and regulating; fairly, appropriately and transparently

6. The market must deliver value for schools and sustain cutting-edge innovation if the UK is to keep up with the rest of the world

7. EdTech purchasers – teachers, school leaders and others – need the right information, capacity and support

8. Decisions should occur at appropriate levels in the system, with clear accountability

Louis Coffait, Head of Education, Reform 

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