Properly tested edtech could transform the education system

Although small pockets of good practice exist, technology too often fails to deliver on its promises, says Nancy Wilkinson

Edtech has been widely discussed in recent weeks, following the Government’s recently published education technology strategy. Funding pressures and inconsistent infrastructure remain issues, but the strategy has been widely welcomed by the sector for its potential to tackle major challenges in our education system and bring new opportunities to schools and colleges. Smarter use of technology could drastically improve the efficiency of the education system.

Elements of education have already been transformed, from a huge range of distance learning opportunities, to the vast expanse of knowledge now available at our fingertips thanks to the internet. Yet schools and colleges often struggle to use technology consistently. Small pockets of good practice exist, but unfortunately technology use in education too often fails to deliver on its promises.

As a school governor for a primary school in London, I’ve seen how technology can help improve teaching and learning. A digital tool has helped transform how we engage with parents of children in early years, sending pictures and videos to parents so they can see their children in school. Teachers encourage children to use tools at home to help practice their maths. And we’ve finally got rid of the reams of paper at governor meetings and use the school’s tablets instead.  But these opportunities can be few and far between, and very inconsistent between schools. Rather than see these tools as ‘nice to haves’, we must support all schools and colleges to realise the benefits of technology and overcome barriers to impactful adoption. Technology can make a real difference to education, and ensuring it is used effectively must be a priority.

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A big issue remains a lack of evidential benefits for technology in education. The education sector is increasingly being held to a higher standard of evidence, an area in which the UK are world leaders. Thanks in part to the launch of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in 2011, randomised control trials (RCTs) are an achievable goal for many education interventions, and a step change in the standard of evidence used in education. 59% of schools have used the EEF toolkit, which summarises the results of trials and makes it easy to see which interventions have had the greatest impact. But education technology hasn’t yet caught up with this standard of evidence.

Not all technology products may be right for a RCT. In fact, RCTs can be costly and lengthy, best suited for interventions designed to test what works against a background of strong indicative evidence. But that doesn’t mean we should shy away from ensuring technology products are pushed to generate higher quality evidence. Gathering more rigorous evidence should be possible for tech organisations, appropriate to their stage of development.

“A big issue remains a lack of evidential benefits for technology in education”

This isn’t just an issue that the UK struggles with. Nesta’s research into edtech testbeds shows that many countries around the world are trying different ways to connect technology with practitioners and test in a real-world setting, and outlines four models. For example, iZone NYC has set up a way for teachers and edtech organisations to carry out short evaluations to improve products and understand what works. And MindCET in Israel matches technology with teachers who become ‘early adopters’ to share learning with the sector. There are also examples of how technology has been introduced systematically in different school systems around the world. Alongside our partners at Nesta Italia, we will be shortly publishing research into different models of adopting technology in school systems and the role of philanthropic foundations in supporting more experimentation and evaluation.

 As a school governor for a primary school in London, I’ve seen how technology can help improve teaching and learning

Edtech products need to be supported to improve, grow and, crucially, evaluate, so that more schools can benefit from new and existing technologies.  This can be done through testbeds which help to connect schools and colleges with edtech products, thereby improving our understanding of what works, and barriers to implementation. Bringing partners together from across the sector to help share learnings should be key to this, so that schools, colleges and edtech organisations can improve how they operate.

Technology is not a silver bullet that will fix all problems, but it does have a place in a modern education system. The failures of the past must not be repeated – we need to act now to ensure it is used to support a fantastic education for all young people.

Please contact if you are interested in finding out more about becoming involved in an Edtech Innovation Testbed.

Nancy Wilkinson is senior programme manager at Nesta