'Coffee shops should not have faster wifi than schools'

We've had technology in schools for decades now. But we are not seeing a return on investment yet. This is why an edtech strategy needs to be educator-led

School pupils, using tablet computer

It has been a long haul to get an edtech strategy in England. Wales and Scotland seemed to be setting the pace, while there remained a lack of national conversation about education technology in England. Countless Department for Education working groups on behaviour, modern foreign languages and even workload seemed to forget or, indeed, underestimate the power of technology. 

We need to acknowledge across education that the money and investment are not enough at present. Our infrastructure alone needs a major overhaul – coffee shops should not have faster wi-fi than our schools. As AR, VR and things such as AI begin to take off, we’ll need decent and equitable broadband speeds across our whole education estate. 

Return on investment

We have had technology in schools for decades now. But we are yet to see the full impact of this across the system, in terms of raising standards, reducing teacher workload or improving key areas of challenge for institutions. Just as we expect a good return on investment in our human resources, so we should expect to see return on our investment in technology resources. 

We all know the history of our government-supported initiatives around technology, and it’s been heartwarming and exciting to see our lobbying finally making a difference, with the launch of the DfE edtech strategy earlier this year. 

Credit where due to the education secretary, Damian Hinds, that in the policy paralysis of Brexit we actually have an edtech strategy. But we also need to connect that to the industrial strategy, and support this growing edtech sector regionally, for the sake of jobs and growth right across the UK. 

Values-driven approach

That said, education needs a values-driven and unimpeachable approach that puts children and teachers at the heart of everything they do to support schools with technology. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t make money. And, certainly, business experience is important in working out how things can work for schools at scale. Manufacturers, edtech entrepreneurs and vendors are important parts of the ecosystem. 

But real embedded change will not happen if it is solely vendor-led. And those vendors who understand that this is a partnership will thrive. 

The newly established edtech leadership group needs a joint deputy chair who is an educator – it is wrong that there is just a single deputy chair from a trade association. We need the voice of educators, from either school or college, to help in steering the leadership group. 

There are lots of good things finally happening, but educators need to be centrally involved in developing edtech policy and the roll-out of initiatives. 

There are real positives about the strategy in England. These include testbeds for product testing and demonstrator schools and colleges. But the energy and passion of teachers must be harnessed and enabled to shape and lead this strategy. 

Educator-influenced strategy

A vendor-led strategy may only get us so far, and will fail to unlock the trust and participation of those in the classroom or tutorial room to make this work and stick. 

To be successful, we need the strategy to be educator-influenced at every step. We need to establish an educator reference panel to plug the frontline directly into shaping the strategy. 

Education technology also needs to be seen in the context of digital skills, jobs and regional growth. This is a fast-growing sector across the UK and it needs investment and support from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This should not be an add-on, but a crucial way for government to join up and work properly across Whitehall. 

The edtech leadership group is an important milestone. But, to be truly effective, there needs to be change in structure and tone. More leading through partnership. Top-down never really lasts. 

We are creating a national network of educators to lead, influence and motivate the UK’s digital journey. 

The Edtech 50 publications give a useful model for school-to-school collaboration, and it needs to be increased. Communities of professional practice are key catalysts for support, change and innovation. 

Here and now

Also, research needs to be framed for the here and now. It needs to be practically useful and contextually relevant, not merely sponsored by vendors; it needs to be in the public interest and above reproach.

The lessons from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are too important to miss for England. Properly empowered educators supported by a national platform to share resources is a motivator for lasting change. 

How we shape this is important – it needs more care. 

Ty Goddard is co-founder of the Education Foundation and chair of Edtech UK. Mark Anderson is an educator and consultant. He tweets as @ICTEvangelist

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