Could this be edtech’s ignition moment? 

The patient and creative policy work of EdtechUK could soon be bearing fruit, writes EdtechUK’s Ty Goddard

By Ty Goddard, CEO of Edtech UK

I’ve worked with and lobbied Governments over the years on some big issues from disability, child protection and education. Sometimes policy and people can move as slow as snails and then suddenly factors can combine to accelerate interest, change and commitment. 

Education and learning technology needs a policy framework. A policy framework would enhance the efforts of start-up and scale-up companies, legitimises usage across education and set us all out on a journey to properly articulate impact. An investment and financing framework that continues to go beyond the silo with timescales would be useful. 

We need leadership that recognises sensitivities around digital, the vital role of educators, the potential and responsibility of creating jobs across our country

I want no return to quango Britain, but investment to further help this lively and creative edtech sector flourish. We now need leadership that recognises sensitivities around digital, the vital role of educators, the potential and responsibility of creating jobs across our country. 

Good steps were taken with the introduction of computing, but education in the UK is not as digitally rich as it ought to be. Countless taskforces on behaviour, workforce and big education challenges did not look in any depth at the potential digital dividend.  Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, when London Mayor, understood the importance of edtech. The Rt Hon Justine Greening MP’s time at DfID saw investment in edtech solutions expand to respond to the challenges of scale, poverty and girls’  education. 

The forthcoming Social Mobility Opportunity areas need a digital heart, or at the very least a digital testing ground. I also believe that a school-led system is an invitation for respect, not inaction.  Now is the time to shape both our approach to this vibrant edtech sector, but also to ask how can we use the levers, convening power and reach of Government and its agencies to properly shape our education nation? 

It’s often worth quickly looking back and major policy shifts can teach valuable lessons. Indeed, the introduction of the computing curriculum came about because of an unprecedented coalition across the tech industry, coherent arguments on the shape of future skills, an advisor in Downing St, Minister Matt Hancock, MP and the instincts of the then Secretary of State Michael Gove. Our report, ‘Technology and Education: a system view,’ sought to contextualise this change.    

Longstanding campaigns each have a pivotal moment of change – an ignition moment – when broad and disparate activity, common sense and policy priority aligns.  It is this alignment that is key. 

The rhetoric of disruption plays well to the crowd but may do less to embed confidence and understanding in the use of edtech.  The frenzy of the trade show or the wild west of ‘catalogue’ purchases do little ultimately to work through the educational and organisational challenges of tech adoption.  Tech evangelists who only talk endlessly about innovation and the next shiny gizmo seem so far away when parents worry about and want their daughter to read, write, do numbers, understand and navigate the world.  

There’s nothing wrong with tech evangelism or innovation; we need it, but it has to be anchored in the pragmatism of the classroom, college educator, senior leadership team or governing body

There’s nothing wrong with tech evangelism or innovation, we need it, but it has to be anchored in the pragmatism of the classroom, college educator, senior leadership team or governing body.  Never have the sane voices and wise counsel of educators been more needed around digital, from how to structure teaching and learning to screen time, relationships and social media representation of pupils.

There’s been good work by the tech giants on computing and coding. Groups mobilised to support the Raspberry Pi and the BBC’s ambitious work on micro:bit– but now we must consolidate and assess implementation challenges.

If there is digital promise across our schools, we need to move beyond solely corporate networks – however useful and focused  – we need to create a national network brokered with trust and mutual respect, for our national digital good.  There are real areas of promise and we must spend time understanding, communicating and harnessing those implementation lessons. 

That same cross-industry push that helped the introduction of computing needs to come together to create a national ‘tech rich schools network’ – product agnostic – that focuses on communicating and supporting the education profession on education technology usage and adoption. 

As with the introduction of computing in the curriculum, some things are easier said than done. There has been a level of success, but it has not all gone well. 

Our work and communications over the past three years have been focussed on demonstrating the actual and future potential of the edtech sector. The the use of education technology can support teachers, consolidate learning and inspire different experiences. The growth of British edtech creates jobs right across our country. Like fintech and medtech, nurturing this sector will pay dividends and contribute to economic growth across the UK. 

Is an edtech ignition moment upon us? 

Our Vision 2020 document, that came out of our Global Summit held in London in November 2016, was published in the week of the Industrial Strategy and welcomed this clear signpost of active industrial support. 

This Industrial Strategy signalled a change of approach and culture to nurturing latent industrial strength and catalysing future sectors. Quite simply, this is part of a plan for Britain and is active, long term and imaginative. 

We can’t do what we’ve always done. 

Muddle will not build sectors nor will locking out small agile companies from the cogs of growth. And the market can not do everything on its own and often needs support, or at the least, a framework for consolidation.  We actually have to be entrepreneurial about our plans, and implementation to be entrepreneurial. 

The Industrial Strategy articulated ten pillars, spreading growth and said this: ‘We will build on our areas of global excellence and help new sectors to flourish, supporting businesses to take the lead in transforming and upgrading their industries through sector deals.”  

Like a potential sector deal for the creative industries, we may want to consider the same for edtech. These ‘deals’ are not only about growth; but about real co-operation across a sector. 

The Digital Strategy launched in February 2017 covers a broad landscape of digital and skills; and says this about edtech: “Education technology (edtech) is one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK, accounting for 4% of all digital companies, and UK businesses have become world leaders in developing innovative new technologies for schools. The potential benefits when implemented correctly are considerable, both in teaching and in school administration. We want to make sure our pupils, their parents and teachers are able to make use of these opportunities.”  That is definitive and clear. Now the challenge is understanding implementation and supporting educator skills through schools, colleges and Universities. 

The recent Budget too finally acknowledges the central importance of technical skills to our national life with the introduction of T–levels. 

Our advisory work with the Association of Colleges has shown that Further Education suffered extensively from budget cuts of around £1 billion in recent years.  That is over and that is to our Prime Minister’s and Chancellor’s credit. We need a thriving Further Education sector and it will be our local and regional future economic lung. 

Of course, there has been a level of justifiable caution from the policy folks. When the Education Foundation, hosted roundtables at the DfE and at Downing Street with President Obama’s then head of edtech, Richard Culatta; we knew it was going to be a long haul.  We all know that a policy framework needs to support those moving at pace, innovating with risk and needs to inspire others on the ground to start the journey.

If Brexit Britain is to mean anything, then it is in Education Britain that we will find many of the answers to our future challenges.

Optimistic? Yes.