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Dire straits for edtech

Professor Christina Preston of Naace and MirandaNet voices her concerns about the future of tech in education

Posted by Charley Rogers | June 02, 2017 | Business

When the Coalition took over in 2010 they cut Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and introduced Computing in the belief that the job market needed computer scientists only. In fact, the workplace needs teams of differently talented people to ensure that technology works for business as well leisure and home, and that users are safe.

However, the Coalition concentration on Computing assumed that schools did not need to teach Digital Literacy, Digital Citizenship and E-safety in any coherent way - the backbone of the ICT curriculum. The theory goes that the leading politicians had not had much input from Oxbridge on these matters, and their own children were too young to bring the excitement and the dangers home. There was also an implicit assumption that as young people mostly had smartphones, they did not need instruction in edtech as they had in the past.

In fact, the prevalence of apps and devices means that young people do not know key basics of how to manage files, how to email, and how to word process, for example. On a more sophisticated level, the media has highlighted increased bullying on social networking and uncontrolled inappropriate content on the Internet, like extremist propaganda and suicide sites.

Meanwhile, although £11 million has been sunk into teacher training in the new computing curriculum, the targets have been seriously missed. 2016 figures reveal the government, for the second year running, recruited only 70% of the 400 computer science teachers funds allow for. Dr Bill Mitchell, head of the British Computing Society, said that a country the size of England – with over 20,000 schools – probably needs closer to 1,000 Computing teachers, adding that it could be another five years before teachers feel confident enough to successfully teach Computer Science.

The problem for school managers is not only that there is a shortage of 'qualified' teachers, but also that there is no clear definition of what 'qualified' implies.

The problem for school managers is not only that there is a shortage of 'qualified' teachers, but also that there is no clear definition of what 'qualified' implies. The emphasis on Computer Science has led to a devaluing of a 30-year ICT skills' legacy; good ICT teachers have jumped ship as the message has been that their knowledge is no longer relevant. The ICT teachers I’ve worked with struggle with Computing because of the degree of technical, pedagogical and skill level required to teach a deep understanding of computer science. Coding programs like Python and Scratch help bridge the gap, but Computer Science places extra demands on teachers trained to teach ICT.

One reason for the challenges that are emerging may be that in their first week, the Coalition closed down all the websites that held the Labour Government funded research on the grounds of maintenance costs. Experts and academics were seriously out of fashion at this point. Unfortunately, one of the specialist categories that was trashed, was the research into the best ways to engage teachers in professional development programmes in the use of edtech, and frameworks for developing effective practice-based programmes. These studies, funded by BECTA, included an analysis of the substantial reasons why teachers were generally reluctant to use technologies, a phenomenon that can be traced globally.

However, it seems that now politicians are too shy to even mention this contentious area in all three manifestos. The omission in the Labour manifesto is the most disappointing, as their championship of edtech in the 1990s made Britain leaders of the world… a position we are fast losing at a time then the country needs this kind of export badly.

So what should the parties have said? They should have shown a strong grasp of the potential impact of mobile learning and the use of devices on education, as well as the challenges, the implications of artificial intelligence in education and the need to be able to judge the provenance of information on the web, and augmented and virtual reality powering increasingly powerful learning tools, especially for the less able. Social learning, borderless classrooms and transnational projects have been part of our armoury for many years, but the technology is now seamless and allows us to concentrate on true collaborative and social learning - a small effort to develop cultural understanding.

The partnership between edtech companies, schools, and academics overseen by the British Education Suppliers Association has been the envy of the world since the 1980s. But the lack of government support and proselytising on the world stage is affecting these partnerships adversely.

Of course, financing edtech is a terrifying prospect, especially when there are so many global examples of failed projects and investment in the wrong technology or outdated systems. But in the manifestos the politicians should also have been explaining the cost saving for education: the rise of analytics as a way of better understanding students and directing the right resources to individuals; the massive changes coming in assessment, particularly self-assessment; the potential to reach out to those who do not find the classroom an engaging place; and large scale courses that make education freely available anywhere and anytime to those who want to learn whatever their age and context.

Britain could be leading these education initiatives if politicians understood enough about the potential and considered investment. Meanwhile it will not be just Brexit that has detrimental impact on universities, but the lack of funding to become profitable by taking advantage of these innovations – most internet exchange will continue to be in English after all.

It would appear on a superficial study of the manifestos that there is no political will to highlight these issues, let alone to fund edtech. The costs should, in fact, be invested in professional development programmes. What has been spent on this has failed because the proven factors that make teacher education effective have been ignored.

In the certainty that there will be no future funding for CPD, Britain will continue to lose its world lead. This includes lack of investment in research on the best education products and services that have been based on pedagogical needs not commercial forces. The partnership between edtech companies, schools, and academics overseen by the British Education Suppliers Association has been the envy of the world since the 1980s. But the lack of government support and proselytising on the world stage is affecting these partnerships adversely.

The fragmentation of schools makes it difficult for companies to offer basic training affordably, and schools cannot afford fees for universities to help with higher-level thinking in this area.

Some intelligent school leaders will work this all out for themselves and continue to invest in edtech as an essential for students even though they have no government policy, government agencies or local education authorities to fight their corner. The fragmentation of schools makes it difficult for companies to offer basic training affordably, and schools cannot afford fees for universities to help with higher-level thinking in this area. University edtech teachers are another dying breed of experts, as a result of government policy to put teacher training into schools. Teachers given these staff trainer roles rarely have a budget for their own professional development.

Teachers and leaders who continue to have an interest in this field join specialist professional organisations like Naace, MirandaNet, and ITTE, that provide a voluntary forum of experts for learning and debate. These organisations, still passionate about their subject, continue to share and publish studies about how edtech can improve motivation and achievement in classrooms; this is important because keeping students’ attention is increasingly difficult due to their increased access to technology in their day-to-day lives.

Nevertheless, there was some good news. In early May, ITTE and MirandaNet visited civil servants at the Digital Policy and Data Strategy unit at the Department of Education. The most recent education minister, Justine Greening, seemed to have raised the edtech agenda seriously for the first time since 2010. We, as experts, were genuinely excited.

But it was a doomed awakening. Politicians and civil servants went into election purdah and who knows who will be in charge from June 8th. None of the manifestos mention edtech in terms of subject or funding. Sadly students at all levels will suffer from this political blindspot, and so will our standing in the world, as countries who are becoming more edtech savvy take over.

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