Engaging with edtech: how governments can get on board

Chris Cooper, UK CEO of Edval Education, discusses governments’ view of edtech, and how they can use their influence to make it work for schools

Keen to protect the valuable education budget, it’s understandable governments may regard commercial vendors with suspicion. Concerns around data privacy are common and some feel more comfortable taking a ‘hands-off’ approach, unaware of the large ecosystem that is unofficially partnering with their schools. Schools seem happy, so largely, the vendors are left alone. They therefore maintain a status quo, in blissful ignorance of the opportunity cost.

As a global edtech company supporting nearly 1000 schools, we know there are many supportive governments, who see edtech as the future. They actively engage with vendors, listen to their feedback and investigate their methods and outcomes at schools. They work to support vendors in various ways and foster a solid partnership. Though the vendors are largely commercially motivated, and the government is mission motivated, both share a common goal, being: Drive school improvement.

Together, a solid, symbiotic partnership can be a win-win. Vendors can increase revenue, which will further fund their innovation, while government benefits from a third party to help schools. Commercial motivation coupled with government support can yield strong results. Yet each on its own is limited.

It’s worth noting that innovative methods bring significant benefits, and this is distinct from technology. Schools are often unaware of new methods, and assume their buying decisions are technology focused. Examples of innovation in methods include automated, algorithmic rooming, staffing, or timetabling. This includes dynamic adjustment mid-year, which is an exciting area supported by very few systems, so schools tend not to know that it exists. Likewise, there is very little awareness of issues like parents’ evening scheduling or timetabling, (not to be confused with online booking), designed to support greater parental involvement and promote education equity for learners of all backgrounds.

There is a place for governmental bodies, like the UK’s Department for Education (DfE), to investigate areas of promise, discover their merit, and promote to schools for consideration. While they might also seek edtech providers who could service these areas, the focus is method and philosophy. Changing the mindset of school staff is not easy, but the DfE could use its influence and non-commercial focus to aid schools in becoming aware of key areas of administration management.

By closing the gap between the need for evidence-informed edtech, and vendors without commercial incentivisation to conduct research, DfE would provide a whole new insight into what works, and by how much.

Government bodies must remember too that while edtech can bring impressive results, and often in lesser-known areas, it is not easy to confidently report benefits which may be tangential, or unable to be directly measured. Vendors spend a lot of their budget in building and marketing their technology, but usually there is little, if any, budget allocated to formal research. With business drivers, research is seen as a very ‘long game’ bet with no quick win.

Let’s not forget either that, although vendors are well experienced in creating, marketing, selling and supporting their products, they are not usually qualified and experienced in education research. This is a whole new area requiring a very different skillset.

To make matters more difficult, even if vendors find the budget for research, they may or may not find the compelling associations they had hoped for. Even when positive outcomes are found, they still need to be ‘sold’ to schools and, at present, many schools don’t consider research-based evidence as part of their buying decisions. Too often, buying decisions are based on appearance or ease of use, rather than complex, longitudinal studies.

Then there is the problem of independence, and whether a school should rely on the outcomes from a detailed research study, completed by the vendor themselves. It surprises nobody, after all, that the cigarette industry research shows there is little harm from smoking. So, while education research is valuable, we know it is hard, costly, and for best effect, it should come with a degree of independence.

This is where DfE can assist to identify some areas of likely interest in research, where positive outcomes proved would clearly influence schools to adopt technology or change behaviour. DfE could then provide independent educational researchers to work with the vendor on a study. They could help fund the study with grants, and help promote the study so schools feel more comfortable engaging properly.

By closing the gap between the need for evidence-informed edtech, and vendors without commercial incentivisation to conduct research, DfE would provide a whole new insight into what works, and by how much. This would help influence schools’ buying decisions and bring higher quality edtech to the people who use it.

To find out more about government engagement with edtech, email hello@edval.education for a copy of the complete paper.

W: edval.education/