We must put humans at the heart of edtech

Technology can contribute to an empowering educational experience – if edtech strategy focuses on genuinely helping teachers and pupils

Chris Holmes

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There is precious little more important than a successful educational experience. After I lost my sight, aged 14, I was able to continue my education at my comprehensive school thanks to the attitudes of school staff. Teachers were willing and able to adjust their teaching to my needs – for example, transferring textbooks to cassette tapes. These experiences shaped my belief in the incredible role teachers play in our lives and the power of technology (cassette tapes!) to enable and empower.

Technology is a tool and ultimately a way of augmenting the human. This is as true for the emerging technologies of the fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – AI, robotics, distributed ledger technologies and so on – as it is for chalk and blackboards. Edtech has great potential – the automation of certain tasks to free up time for teaching, for instance – but we must avoid the pitfall of embracing this shiny new technology and then setting off in search of a problem. A ruthless focus on existing challenges must underpin the development of policy in this area.

I am delighted to chair the edtech leadership group which consists of experts from across the education sector and industry. The aim of the group is to drive the edtech agenda forward and we will produce an agreement for the sector by the end of the year. We will be looking specifically at Department for Education commitments detailed in the government’s edtech strategy including creating testbed schools and colleges, supporting innovation competitions and considering how best to maximise the impact of the demonstrator schools and colleges programme.

Our priorities are still at draft stage but can be summed up in a few questions: what do we know (and need to know), what are the problems to be solved, what are the barriers to implementation and what next?

Research in this area is key. While there is some excellent research, there is also much that is patchy or incomplete. We need to encourage a comprehensive review of the evidence base for the technology generally as well as particular products.

There is a cost – both financial, obviously, but also attitudinal – to investing in hardware, or other products or services that prove not to deliver promised outcomes and instead end up in the cupboard of shame. Schools, colleges and universities can easily be overwhelmed by the task of choosing the best product for a specific job. This challenge must be addressed.

Policy must focus on enabling schools, colleges and universities to get the best from the technology available. Among other things, this means understanding and accurately defining the systemic issues faced across many of our schools and colleges. Teacher workload and the recruitment and retention challenge are just two areas for which technology can help provide solutions.

Another significant challenge is the lack of support for children with diagnosed special educational needs and disability. Failing to ensure equal access to high-quality education misses out on a pool of talent that will be devastating not just to the individuals, but to society. Supporting access, inclusion and improved educational outcomes for all is a key priority in the government's edtech strategy and will be central to the group’s work.

Technology is not a silver bullet but can absolutely be harnessed to help address these and other challenges. The inaugural leadership group discussion highlighted the need to hear from school/college and university leaders – what are the assumptions being made about edtech and what are leaders hopeful for?

We will be considering issues around infrastructure and interoperability but also looking closely at how to equip leaders with the skills and confidence they need to benefit from this opportunity. My colleague in the Lords and ex-schools minister Jim Knight remains enthusiastic about the potential of edtech but has admitted that it was a mistake to give insufficient focus to building school leaders’ confidence around the benefits of technology.

As we consider these questions, next steps will become clearer. The edtech strategy must ultimately be about leading and enabling. In an age of technological transformation, how do we lead with the human at the heart? How can technology contribute to an enabling and empowering educational experience? What we have in front of us is the potential to thoughtfully deploy so many elements of the 4IR in schools, colleges and universities, to increase efficiency, include and positively assist all, staff and learners alike.

Lord Chris Holmes MBE is a British visually impaired former swimmer and life peer in the House of Lords

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