'The US is placing ed tech at the heart of its education reform – the UK must follow its lead'

After a visit to the White House, the CEO of Edtech UK says that Britain needs to learn from the US and take a long-term view on the use of technology as a lever for reform

Ian Fordham

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I’ve just returned from an official trip to the White House. That’s not a sentence you write every week. I was invited there in my capacity as CEO of Edtech UK, following an ed tech trade mission we ran with UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), helping early stage start-up businesses to break into the US market. These are companies with amazing solutions to real challenges in the classroom and in the workplace.

Edtech UK launched just over a month ago, with cross-Whitehall endorsement, as a new strategic body, to accelerate the growth of Britain’s ed tech sector in the UK and globally.

Our aim is to be a convening voice for this burgeoning sector. To support educators and teacher innovators who have great ideas for products and solutions but no support; to help the highest growth start-up businesses which are exporting their work to the world; and to work across UK government to support strategy and policy that helps drive the sector to improve outcomes for learners as well as skills and economic growth.

My visit to the White House coincided with a historical moment for schools in the country. I was there for the launch of their landmark National Education Technology Plan but on the same day president Barack Obama signed new primary legislation, called the Every Student Succeeds Act. As the president’s special adviser Roberto J Rodriguez said: “It has been a momentous week for education and technology reform in the US”.

The provisions of the ESSA, passed with bilateral Congress support, aim to fix the policies of the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, which placed significant emphasis on standardised testing. The new legislation offers a much greater focus on equity, more personalised approaches to improve learning outcomes and the use of technology to drive reform. 

Just after it was signed, I attended the White House launch of the NETP – a long-term strategy to use technology in a way that levers change across the American education system. The original NETP launched in 2010, so the 2016 scheme builds on an already robust framework for using technology and the setting up of an “Office of Educational Technology” at the heart of the US Department of Education, with direct reference to the president.

The NETP and the ESSA together are significant in so many ways for the UK, at a time when the new government has settled in, the immediate manifesto pledges are in motion and the Department for Education is about to launch its delivery plan for the next four years.

The US is leading the way in terms of placing ed tech at the heart of their education reforms. So where is education technology going to fit within our own government’s education reform efforts? What role might basic connectivity and access to the web play to improve equity in schools? As Mr Obama famously said: “In a country where we expect free wi-fi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools."

Will technology feature prominently as a solution to tackle key priority issues such as teacher’s workload? Will it help to improve behaviour in the classroom and to address the desperate need to narrow the achievement gap? Our argument is that we need to take a similar strategic, long-term view of the use of technology as a lever for reform.

This is not about technology evangelism, this is not about futurology, there will be no false promises. Just a bit of digital pragmatism that says: we have to use the current technological developments - aligned with ambitious vision by policy makers - to solve problems that have existed in the past.

The NETP provides us with a blueprint for departments of education across UK governments. Let's harness its potential for the benefit of all teachers and learners in the UK and start using it to improve equity in our education system. As Arne Duncan, the US secretary of education, rightly said: “If the technology revolution only happens for families that already have money, then its not really a revolution at all."

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Ian Fordham

Ian Fordham is chief executive of EdTech UK and co-founder of the Education Foundation.

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