Making EdTech work in the classroom

To cut through the cycles of hope and disenchantment that have followed EdTech ever since its first use in schools, it is necessary for schools, suppliers and government to work hand in hand, writes Alexander Shea, policy analyst at the British Educational Suppliers Association

With his neatly ordered hair, pressed slate-grey suit and plummy vowels, Kenneth Baker seemed an unlikely figure to launch a nation’s era of ”techno-romance”. Yet as he took to the stage in 1981 to unveil one of the UK government’s first ever educational technology (EdTech) initiatives, the Conservative Minister for Information Technology produced an unexpected moment of rhetorical flourish.
In the high noon of Thatcherism, as the sun set on Britain’s manufacturing industry and social unrest snapped at the government’s heels, Baker described “a heaven-sent opportunity” that lay before the country. The micro-computer would ‘’train the young people of today for the jobs of tomorrow’’ and ‘’improve the education of all pupils in all subjects.’’ And upon the altar of his “Micros in Schools” initiative, which would place 6,000 microcomputers in 1,500 schools, Baker promised to build the Britain of the future.
Nearly four decades later, once again a Conservative minister took to a stage to set out a transformative vision for EdTech’s role in education. In April 2019, speaking at the Schools and Academies Show in London, the then Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, announced the government’s new EdTech Strategy.

Injecting ambition into strategy

If EdTech has lived in the policy wilderness since the British Educational Communications Technology Association (BECTA), the quango then responsible for delivering EdTech initiatives in schools, was scrapped by the Coalition government in 2010, Hinds’ EdTech strategy has injected a bit of Baker-esque ambition back into government policy.
Supported by a £10 million innovation fund, the strategy will assist teachers to integrate EdTech into lesson plans, help education providers achieve value for money  during procurement, further develop a world-leading UK EdTech sector, and level the playing field for those with SEND.
A return to Baker-esque ambition is not unmerited. If, as the Financial Times reported in 2015, London is today home to a world-leading EdTech industry, with British EdTech companies making up half of the 20 fastest-growing European companies in the sector, this is partly the result of the nurture given to the UK’s nascent computing industry by Baker in the 1980s.  
With the EdTech investment firm, IBIS Capital, having reported that the number of EdTech start-ups is growing by 29 per cent per year, the EdTech strategy offers an opportune moment to once again nurture an industry that promises to be a tiger of the British economy.   As the strategy notes, the UK EdTech industry could be worth £3.4 billion by 2021.

Evolving aims

The EdTech strategy is not only encouraging in how it returns to the policy of the past, but also in how it departs from it. Notably, it moves beyond the problems that have been endemic to government engagement with EdTech ever since Kenneth Baker’s speech in 1981.
As the British Journal of Education Technology (BJET) noted in its special retrospective on the UK EdTech industry this year, in announcing micro-computers to be a “heaven-sent opportunity”, Baker instigated a government pattern of fetishising technological devices, without considering how they integrated into pedagogical practices or the training teachers needed to use them.  
As the technology historian Neil Selwyn has noted, if Baker’s ”Micros in Schools” programme eventually placed 6,154 computers in classrooms, only a fraction of the 3,000 teachers who were promised training in their use ever received it. This asymmetry between the faith invested in devices and the training provided has continued into the 21st century. In her review of recent policy and research papers written on EdTech, the academic Sarah Hennessey continued to detect a “techno-evangelist outlook” whereby devices such as tablets were expected to transform outcomes overnight.
This approach to EdTech has led to two negative outcomes for school and industry alike. The first of these, to borrow an expression from Damian Hinds, has been the emergence in schools of “cupboards of shame,” stashed full of devices that have not been used due to lack of teacher training.
Indeed, in 2018, research by the National Education Research Panel, published by BESA, found that 68 per cent of secondary schools and 56 per cent of primary schools continue to cite training in EdTech resources as being their key challenge over the next 12 months.
The second has been a concern amongst many schools that EdTech products don’t always live up to their promises. Teachers’ lasting memories of unused iPads and expensive laptops can be hard to dispel. As a result, even if research from figures such as Steve Higgins, Professor of Education at Durham, continues to evidence the positive impact of EdTech on learning outcomes, we face a situation where EdTech is still often characterised either as snake-oil or panacea.    

Shaping EdTech products

Such a characterisation is often unfair. Through initiatives such as UCL EDUCATE, where BESA has worked in conjunction with University College London to advise over 250 EdTech businesses on the latest research on improving educational outcomes, EdTech companies have sought to shape their products in light of proof of what works in the classroom.
The EdTech strategy provides solutions as to how to both improve teacher ‘‘readiness’’ in using technology and re-build certain schools’ trust in the value of EdTech products. With regard to the former, the strategy supports BESA’s LearnED programme, a series of continuing professional development roadshows that bring together teachers and education leaders to discuss, and see in action, best-practice use of technology in the classroom.
The eight LearnED Roadshows BESA organised across England in the 2018/19 academic year brought together 1,200 members of the education sector, and received the highest approval score of any UK education event that year. With the continued support of the Department for Education (DfE), BESA will hold a second series of 10 events in 2019/2020, one of which is devoted entirely to EdTech’s role in SEND provision.
With regard to re-building schools’ trust in the value of EdTech’s offering, the strategy recognises that the best way to do this is to encourage schools and suppliers to work hand in hand. As the education commentator Svenia Busson rightly notes, the strategy takes the lead here from countries including Finland and Singapore. In both these countries, suppliers have adopted ‘‘try before you buy’’ schemes to allow schools to identify products that match their needs, while schools have allowed suppliers access to their campuses so as to test and refine their products.
The EdTech strategy integrates both these elements. To help schools make the right purchasing decisions, the DfE has worked with BESA on, an online lending library of over 150 EdTech products, where teachers can try products before they buy. For their part, suppliers will have access to “testbed schools”, where they can test their products in a live classroom setting. This would be a particular concern as, according to a 2018 Deloitte report, China’s private schools and kindergartens account for 39 per cent of spend in an education market worth around £250 billion.
To cut through the cycles of hope and disenchantment that have followed EdTech ever since its first use in schools, it is necessary for schools, suppliers and government to work hand in hand. The DfE has set out a vision for EdTech that, if realised, could have a ground-breaking impact upon its implementation worldwide. It is up to all of us now to deliver.