Ann Mroz

Ask first not how can we deploy new technology but should we?

With edtech evolving at a tremendous rate, it’s important to be sceptical of far-fetched claims and remember the imperative to “do no harm”

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One of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics was that a robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, with artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, it’s a “law” worth bearing in mind in sensitive settings such as schools and hospitals. Although fictional, it’s the equivalent of doctors’ injunction to “do no harm”.

A project, recently funded by the Department for Education, that uses robots to help children in hospital to return to school would certainly appear to do no harm; quite the opposite, in fact.

However, not all technology fares so well. So much money has been wasted in schools on tech that isn’t fit for purpose and adds nothing to education. In terms of opportunity cost, it just doesn’t bear thinking about.

And I don’t know how many times I’ve had to listen to tech entrepreneurs tell me how outdated the education system is and how their shiny new kit is going to disrupt it. Funnily enough, Michael Gove was way ahead of them on that score, using no tech at all to do so.

But the problem is that the last thing schools need is disruption or revolution. What technology needs to do is to support learning. It’s as simple as that.

There’s no point buying stuff because it’s the new thing. We have to stop and ask: does it add anything to the education that heads and teachers are trying to provide? The problem is that often we just don’t know and there’s little out there to guide and protect schools from snake-oil salesmen.

Both Justine Greening and her predecessor, Nicky Morgan, rightly insisted on the need for companies to prove impact, so that schools did not invest in “technology for technology’s sake”. Damian Hinds is feeling a little bolder, perhaps bolstered by the success of ventures such as the UCL Institute of Education’s Educate programme in demonstrating impact, and has challenged the edtech sector to create a step change in schools. He’s outlined five “key opportunities” where they could help in “improving teaching and slashing workload”.

It’s both a pragmatic and very smart move. The government can’t solve workload without help. Hinds is basically enlisting tech firms to do it for him. And by being the first education secretary in eight years to embrace edtech, it portrays him as a forward-thinker. But what’s really clever is that, while giving his support, he has set firm parameters for edtech firms to work within.

One difficulty is how educators are going to know what to buy and how to use it. Hinds has enlisted the College of Teaching to provide training, and there will be various roadshows and a “try before you buy” scheme. There are also lessons to be learned from special schools, where tech has a much more integrated – and often vital – role. All this couldn’t come at a worse time for budgets, however. Where are schools going to get the money to buy any of these products?

And will this be enough? There’s been nothing helping schools with buying tech for eight years since Becta, an organisation tasked by the Labour government with promoting and integrating ICT in education, was abolished in Gove’s memorable 2010 “bonfire of the quangos”. Do we need a new Becta? Otherwise, determining whether tech is useful will remain a task that schools have to undertake themselves.

Technology is developing at a fast rate. As it advances, the question we should always be asking is not how can we deploy it in education but should we? There are some big ethical challenges ahead. Perhaps we need to take a cue from Asimov and set some firm rules around the use of technology in schools. Primum nonnocere.