Today’s long-awaited edtech strategy provides scaffolding and support for England's schools to deepen their use and understanding of education technology. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are already on their own journeys and today’s strategy adds to their work.
A few years ago, we took the then-head of the office of education technology in the Obama administration to a roundtable discussion at the Department for Education. There were so many civil servants present, and yet there seemed to be little focus on education technology in the department.
There’s been a lack of national conversation about the promise of edtech for too long and this new strategy is an important stepping stone in this overdue conversation. We’ve seen action groups and decent reports but little national impetus.
Political will can be a fragile thing. And when there’s a revolving door of ministers, it’s also a challenge to forge long-term policy.
Our national policy framework in England has badly lagged behind educators in schools, colleges and universities. They are already using technology to consolidate knowledge, practise retrieval and enhance classroom or lecture room experience. They’re doing it for themselves without a policy framework to support them.
Many of us have lobbied the government on the need for this high-level support. It has taken a while and we still need further cross-Whitehall focus, wise investment and support.
Education secretary Damian Hinds deserves praise for not letting the priority he has given to education technology be overshadowed by countless other agenda items.
Following on the heels of positive guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation on technology, we will see more work and debate on impact, implementation and, importantly, the nature of real "value" that education technology can bring.
As the EEF says; “The question is no longer whether technology should have a place in the classroom, but how technology can most effectively be integrated in ways which achieve improved outcomes for young people.”
Hopefully, we’ll see Ofsted understand and share good classroom practice that uses edtech. Its new inspection framework must include a deeper view of what edtech can bring to its priority areas, and I'm heartened by my recent discussions.
Drawing on existing expertise in the system, the strategy will also launch a series of "demonstrator schools and colleges". Our work on the Edtech50 Schools project, supported by Intel, Jisc, NetSupport and in partnership with the Independent Schools Council and Tes, highlights digital flagship schools who already demonstrate a focused sense of what is useful to them in terms of technology – whether it be in supporting teaching, cutting teacher workload, collaboration across staff teams or consolidating knowledge across the curriculum.
How do we harness schools already on the digital journey to support others? This "facilitated collaboration" needs to be imaginative and funded to be the change-management we need.
There's a real verve and commitment across the edtech champions, and they deserve praise. They made the sensible case that education technology, if used well and coherently, can be of real benefit to our education system.
The edtech innovation fund of £10 million was trailed earlier in the year and has 10 main areas, including essay marking, formative assessment, parental engagement and timetabling technology. Nesta will be tasked to be an agile solution provider, keeping up with the already fast pace of innovation in these areas.
Testbeds are useful to all of our understanding, but they need to be brokered properly and supported to benefit the whole system.
The power of technology
Our long-term work at the Education Foundation suggests that teacher development and confidence is crucial when rolling out any strategy. And support for training – informal and formal – will be key. It is good to see that this will be supported by free online training courses for teachers and school leaders, produced by the Chartered College of Teaching.
The education secretary is prioritising assistive technology and asking developers and education experts to make recommendations to the government on how to use the power of technology to support learners with conditions such as dyslexia or autistic spectrum disorders to thrive in the classroom.
It is also good that an educational suppliers' trade association, BESA, will help schools to identify the right products when buying technology through its LendED project – enabling teachers to try before they buy. I’m also impressed by the early work of the edtech impact initiative.
It’s crucial, too, that vendors work with educators rather than simply selling products to them.
The strategy will also take a positive look at increasing connectivity across our school estate. It needs to build on the work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and others on our national connectivity challenge. Jisc’s "Janet Network" is a national asset and more schools should be part of it.
Leadership of the sector is vital and the partnership between educators, vendors and the edtech businesses themselves is of utmost priority. We'll need to see better collaboration between organisations to benefit the wider system. We need to flywheel co-operation because there's a lot of "players" – we all need to focus on this national plan and change some behaviours.
Sharing edtech expertise
Chris Skidmore, the new minister for universities, has a vital cross-departmental role to support the edtech sector. Remember, too, that edtech exports are worth an estimated £170 million to the UK economy. Edtech must be part of the industrial strategy going forward – businesses need support and "hubs" within which to grow and understand the needs of educators.
It is important that colleges and universities focus on their own digital capabilities and share their growing expertise. There are real jewels in the crown, whether at Bolton or Basingstoke colleges or the University of Northampton.
Prioritising the voices of educators, growing a diverse market and being honest about the real areas of promise will be a challenge.
We don’t always get it right. We need to prioritise safety and security, too. But let’s drop the tyranny of that "perfect" case study to properly begin this journey of finding what works – often context and implementation are key.
There’s real pressure on budgets and big teacher recruitment and retention issues. Edtech is not a magic wand but all over the United Kingdom there are real areas of promise.
I'm pleased to have played a part in this work and have always argued that policy helps to create an environment that supports innovation and allows creativity to flourish. This "sensible steps" strategy will allow us to grow an even more vibrant edtech sector across our country to support our schools, teachers and pupils.
It's not the last word, but it's welcome.
Ty Goddard is co-founder of The Education Foundation and chair of Edtech UK