Keeping up with edtech: Dave Fletcher

Second in our panel discussion on how educators can make the edtech sector work for them, we hear from Dave Fletcher, CEO of White October

Dave Fletcher, CEO, White October joins the discussion.

Q. Is there a new genre of technology (e.g. the recent focus on VR and AI) that is currently taking over, or is likely to soon?

Dave Fletcher: On the horizon are technologies such as voice recognition and natural language processing which should make a huge impact in areas such as languages and assessment. But these are a number of years away from making a serious appearance in the market, whereas 2019 may be the year where sophisticated formative assessment products become transformational. A number of outstanding products are making a splash, for example Educake, the formative assessment platform for KS3 in science and geography, allows teachers to set free-text, curriculum-matched homework that is automatically marked in seconds. 

As this and other products mature, teachers will get their marking time back to make meaningful interventions in the classroom while their students become empowered to take ownership for their own learning. How long before marking homework becomes a thing of the past? 

Q. How is edtech affecting pedagogy, and vice-versa?

Dave Fletcher: We are seeing the convergence of two massive changes in society: changes to work patterns, and the digital revolution. Most school leavers now expect to have many careers in their lifetime, and in this world the ability to learn, communicate, adapt and create is far more important than the retention of knowledge. School curricula are lagging behind, particularly in the UK, and massive, fundamental change is needed. 

Technology is part of the solution: with VR and AR enabling a different type of training (and assessment) and the future of AI in learning making the personalised, adaptive learning of skills possible. I see equally momentous changes in both pedagogy and edtech that should be serendipitous, but out-of-date curricula in the UK is currently preventing their full transformative potential. 

Q. Is there anything happening behind the scenes in edtech now, that will change how we view education in the next five years?

Dave Fletcher: Formative assessment platforms available now are likely to be dumb in comparison to those on the market in five years’ time. The application of AI (for example, image recognition, natural language processing) will increase the breadth of work that can be automatically assessed and the quality of assessment, as well as enabling the full potential of adaptive learning systems. Publishers will need to create content that can take advantage of this new technology, and trust will need to be earned from students and teachers alike.  

Q. How can teachers keep up with the fast pace of tech? It’s notoriously lightning speed, whereas education lags in adopting change. Can we consolidate these two approaches? How?

Dave Fletcher: “How can tech adapt to the reality of teachers’ lives?” is a better question to ask. There is a massive gap between the aspiration of edtech products to make a positive impact on teaching and learning, and the reality that teachers on the ground experience. Our research with teachers has discovered that most teachers’ lives are being made worse by poorly thought-out products: a teacher may spend half a lesson sorting out login problems for an edtech product, or an evening re-entering data that they recorded on one platform into another. Schools are time and money poor, their tablets and laptops are old and slow, their systems fragmented. The edtech industry has a moral responsibility to acknowledge and work around these fundamental barriers to change, for the sake of teachers’ wellbeing as well as the commercial success of their product.

Q. Technology can be a fantastic tool for schools and universities, but can also cause a lot of resistance in decision-makers if they don’t see the benefit. How can advocates get higher management and those that control the purse strings on board?

Dave Fletcher: Our research speaking to teachers across the country has picked up on the disconnect between teaching staff and budget holders when it comes to edtech. We didn’t hear from teachers frustrated by not being able to adopt technology. Rather they were frustrated when decisions were made at a whole school level to adopt hardware and software which ultimately couldn’t be used in the classroom. The problems they encountered were basic: a lack of training or support, connectivity or compatibility issues, and negative impacts on their workload. The simple answer, whether for teachers advocating for tech, or higher management implementing it, is try before you buy. Small-scale trials and internal consultations are essential to making a case both for and against new tech.  

Q. Edtech suppliers often raise the issue that they don’t know how to break into the education market, and that the disparate nature of the sector means they don’t know where to start. What advice do you have for both providers and educators who would like to make connections?

Dave Fletcher: While it is true that established publishers have had the upper hand with brand recognition, large sales teams and existing relationships, as with most industries small creative disruptors can make a dent in the market. Successful new entrants in the schools market eventually achieve traction through reputation and word of mouth because they have crafted a product that literally changes the lives of teachers. As teachers and schools come under increasing strain from reduced funding and workload, they present acute problems for you to solve, and the winners will be those who offer solutions. 

You cannot ignore the realities of the market, however: slow buying cycles and budget holders who are hard to pin down, so it will take time even after your product has begun to shine. Make sure you have a long enough runway to see it through, and a relentless focus on building a seamless product around the modern needs of teachers.

Q. Is there a time in history when technology has had such a huge impact on education? Do you think it will continue to do so, or can we expect a plateau at some point?

Dave Fletcher: The impact of technology on education today is probably overstated. When we examined the state of technology in schools today, we found them to be a dumping ground of out-of-date devices and software that teachers can’t use. While teachers can still see the potential, they are not living it. The real change is still ahead of us, and it will take many more years before technology that is fit for use within schools begins to change the way we teach. For me, the greatest potential impact is that technology becomes an enabler for teachers to teach: that it removes the burdens and disruptions from their days and gives them the time and space to connect with their students.