Empowering teachers, empowering change

Charley Rogers speaks to Priya Lakhani, CEO of Century Tech, about government’s role in edtech adoption, and what needs to change

Name: Priya Lakhani OBE

Job Title: CEO, Century Tech

Twitter: @priyalakhani

You have recently given evidence in the House of Commons as part of a parliamentary inquiry into the efficacy of edtech. How do you think the inquiry is going, and what does the government need to take from it?

I actually think there are some very well-intentioned people in government. What I’ve found, coming from the standpoint of innovation, and the fact that innovation is actually about using new tools or technologies to solve problems, is that we know what the problems are. The DfE has a team of edtech experts that really know what they’re talking about, and I think that we have to somehow get past the bureaucracy, and get past the slow snail pace at which government moves, and we have to be bold.

You might also like: Government must ‘claw back’ political will for edtech investment

In Britain we should be really, really proud, actually, of the pace of change in the development of technology; what entrepreneurs have taken on with a heck of a lot of risk. I think it’s now time that others evolved too. You’re not going to make change when it’s just a certain section of society that is saying ‘let me try this out’. 

I think we now need to match up with some real action, and some support. And they do have a very impressive team in government, led by a man called Alex Waters. Alex, Sofia Costa and Kiera Newmark have done a lot of work over the last few years on edtech, so I think now they’ve just got to join the dots and make something happen.

And to me, honestly, it’s not necessarily a technology question. The technology exists. There’s a lot of technology. It’s about change management. It’s about going into the education sector and showing best practice, convincing teachers this is worth a go, convincing them that if you do what you’ve always done you’re going to get what you’ve always got.

If you want to make change, you have to try something different.

We have to somehow get past the bureaucracy, and get past the slow snail pace at which government moves, and we have to be bold.

And how does funding fit in? It’s always the elephant in the room when it comes to edtech…

That is a huge problem; clearly it’s a problem. You know, teachers are this amazing workforce of over half a million people that clearly aren’t doing it for the money, right? We need to empower them, but we need to find some way forward. 

So I just want to find some inspiration. I want someone to lead the way forward, and build an ecosystem where we’ve got educators, we’ve got technology entrepreneurs, we have social impact companies, like us, like Educate at UCL. 

Educate is a pioneer. They have focused on a hard sector, they’ve got funding for it, and they are analysing the impact of technology. They’re also really encouraging all technology companies to not think of this as a pure commercial venture, which frankly it should never be. 

Education is a very specific area, with certain nuances that technology has to be really, really serious about. You have to combine technology with learning design. You have to get teachers very involved. 

And this is what Educate does with its programme. 

You might also like: Interview with professor of learner-centred design at UCL, Prof Rose Luckin

You mention the UK’s edtech entrepreneurs. How is Britian’s edtech sector looking at the moment?

I think there’s one thing about government that I’ve been really impressed with. They do promote British business. You can’t deny that. I won’t deny that. There are people in government that absolutely want to elevate the status of entrepreneurs who are in this particular space. There’s just so much more to be done.

What I said to Robert Halfon, chair of the parliamentary committee, was basically, ‘you guys have to help elevate us, you have to create an infrastructure where we can do our job, and then let us get on with it and do the rest. 

We are an entrepreneurial country, we have solutions to real problems, and we want to help. I’m a social impact entrepreneur, it’s what I want to do, but if you don’t do it, then it’s going to happen regardless.’ 

There are people in government that absolutely want to elevate the status of entrepreneurs who are in this particular space. There’s just so much more to be done.

My view is that government have a say. Because this is their policy. They are demanding that literacy and numeracy levels should be at a certain level. Therefore, this is a huge opportunity for them. I feel like the select committee could really see that. I feel like the edtech team at DfE see it.

But I am very concerned that this technology will end up country-wide in many other countries and in the UK last. And that is a worry, because advanced technology that actually works could create digital exclusion if you don’t get it in front of everybody. 

And so what you’ve got to ensure is that you are enabling your people, you are giving them access, you are helping and promoting, creating a platform, creating a stage.

Finally, how have you found navigating the male-dominated tech world as a female CEO?

Being a woman in tech is a really interesting question because I don’t walk into meetings thinking ‘oh I’m a woman’, I just go into meetings and do my thing. 

It’s just super important that we’re all loud and powerful, because otherwise girls are going to grow up and think that tech’s not for them. I mean, the stats are shocking. There are so few girls – less than one per cent of girls actually go on to take a degree that has anything to do with science and engineering at university – and this is a systemic issue. We’ve got to solve something here.

We’ve got to tell girls at a very young age that this is actually for them. This is not a field that they should be afraid of, and actually they have so much to bring to the table. I’m not a computer scientist – OK I’ve got two degrees in AI now, but that came later – I was a lawyer. 

There’s so much more work that we have to do here, it’s a whole topic in itself, but I just kind of do what I do, and I have a top-tier team who are very supportive, I’ve got their back, they’ve got mine, and it works.

You might also like: Stemettes co-founder receives honorary degree from University of Bristol