‘Embracing edtech in the classroom is essential’

Former schools minister Jim Knight responds to Tes’ Ed Dorrell on edtech, arguing that technology may not be the silver bullet, but it is necessary

Jim Knight

Edtech, Education technology, Jim Knight, Ed Dorrell

Edtech is not a silver bullet. It never has been. Edtech is not always right – but neither is Ed Dorrell. Ed’s piece “Edtech can’t solve the problems facing education”, is an oversimplistic view of the past and the future.

Ten years ago, I was the schools minister responsible for spending a lot of taxpayers money on the Harnessing Technology Grant, embedding technology into Building Schools for the Future and the Home Access Scheme. I can’t pretend that we got the return on investment needed but the reasons for that are not because we failed to “rethink education” or “disrupt teaching”.

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While edtech was embraced in the US by the political Right as a way of replacing teachers and undermining union power (see Moe and Chubbs, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics and the Future of American Education), New Labour saw it as a way of enhancing the role of teachers. The core of that government’s strategy was more, better-paid and better-supported teachers. And that's what we did: paid them better, recruited teaching assistants, upskilled leaders and harnessed technology.

Our mistake was in not properly integrating those four factors. Our edtech agency, Becta, produced a report that has recently been echoed by the EEF – it said that where the implementation of technology was well-led in the school, it had good outcomes. Unfortunately, there was insufficient focus on building school leaders’ confidence around how technology could grow teacher capacity and reduce workload.

Good leadership of the implementation of technology should be the focus now that the government has finally woken up to the reality that technology is not a threat but a promise.

We live in a time where adults feel naked without their phones. To accidentally leave home without a mobile is now too discombobulating not too force a mad dash home to be reunited with this digital extension of ourselves. We may need a uniform device for school, as we do for clothes, but for schools to continue to ignore the reality of how we live our lives with embedded technology would be madness.

Leading the implementation of technology in schools does mean change. The school office is already using the technology of information systems, recruitment technology, word processing and messaging services. This is delivering efficiencies and companies are now also offering insights derived from data that help well-run schools make their money go further.

The next stage is to use technology as an enabler in school organisation. For example, timetabling technology has the potential to do more than just make a massive headache easier. There is a huge workforce gain to be had with more part-time teachers and more flexible working, opening a huge talent pool of qualified teachers and reducing the need for supply. This gain is possible if catalysed by technology.  Again: not a silver bullet, but a necessary ingredient in a much-needed change.

Other gains are there to be had before we get into the classroom. Embedded use of technology allows for the recording of feedback and behaviour on the fly. This can be used for parent feedback, seating plans, reporting and marking.  One day, we might even move away from testing using pens and paper and see the huge savings in time and money from digital assessment.

Within the classroom, the vision of how AI can assist the teacher has been well articulated by Rose Luckin and Wayne Holmes. At its core, enhancing the ability of teachers to know each of their pupils as individuals and helping with more granular differentiation.

We can have the well-worn debate about whether the curriculum and accountability system is fit for purpose. I think it needs radical change but, even for those who don’t agree with that, embracing technology in the classroom is now essential, regardless. With a growing shortage of teachers, the only way of continuing to provide effective schooling is by extending the reach and capacity of the workforce. And the only way of doing that is through well-led technology implementation.

Some things don’t change.

Lord Jim Knight is chief education and external officer at Tes Global, the parent company of Tes


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