Roundtable – 19/20 vision with Sophie Bailey

As schools, colleges and universities ready themselves for the 2019/20 year, what are their main edtech focuses?

The second in our series, Steve Wright speaks to Sophie Bailey. founder and host of The Edtech Podcast.

Q. As schools, colleges and universities across the country ready themselves for the new academic year, what are their main edtech focuses?

Value remains an essential edtech focus for educators, both in terms of the return on their investment in technology, and the perceived value of the teaching and learning provided. For schools in the UK, edtech on a budget remains important. For universities and colleges, meanwhile, The Augar Review, published in May and drawing together recommendations on post-18 education and funding (including the reduction of tuition fees) is still uppermost.

Whilst the number of apprenticeships taken up will not hit the government target of three million people starting apprenticeships by 2020, interest in degree apprenticeships remains high. Essentially, there is increased competition in providing the pathways to employment or training. As a result, new partnerships bridging universities, colleges, employers and training providers are popping up. An example is Handshake, which matches students to employers using machine learning algorithms and personal reviews. 

The importance of demonstrating value, whether through employment statistics (Handshake), student engagement (Unitu), or bringing in expertise (Connect2Teach) is important for universities whose supremacy in providing quality candidates for work and research is being challenged. With students protesting about the lack of relevant content in their courses (see the example of Joe Earle, Cahal Moran and Zach Ward-Perkins, authors of The Econocracy and former students at the University of Manchester), it’s also interesting to consider how the value of university has been sometimes reduced to economic and employment terms only, rather than its research and wider civic value. 

Edtech also has a part to play in better sharing university expertise with citizens, and in managing the needs of the research community. 

Q. What are educators most concerned about in terms of back of house/administrative/non-teaching tasks?

School, college and university network managers, directors of IT and assigned data protection officers will be sobered by the recent sharpening of tools by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Their £183m fine of British Airways for a data breach was roughly 367 times greater than the £500,000 fine of Facebook for the Cambridge Analytica scandal made in pre-GDPR times. 

The ICO has since followed up with a £99m fine of Marriott, after personal data of 339 million guests was stolen by hackers. For large education institutions, the threat of hacking – both of student data and/or cutting-edge research – is real, as are the ICO repercussions. For all education institutions, the pushback around use of student data to finance “freemium” edtech is evident. Increasingly, educators are articulating concern on what student information is collected and with whom it is shared, from learner analytics to nudges. 

As Andrew Ashe, winner of the global learning X-Prize award and former teacher, observed, “Children should not become the product of large data-gathering companies.” Tightening up of data management practices will be a priority, in tune with AI as it becomes more sophisticated. 

Q. What edtech skills are teachers keen to focus on for 2019–20?

Teachers are a diverse bunch, so focus will vary wildly from school to school. For some, moving to a cloud system and working out how to best use collaborative tools will be a key focus. For others, accessing continuous professional development through edtech will be a personal goal. 

Most would agree, though, that their focus will be on students achieving their potential, whether in grades or personal metrics. In all of these scenarios, technology can help to connect people and the learning materials they need. Digital literacy and an understanding of online safety continue to be important for educators: how do politicians manipulate their Google rankings to improve their election chances? How do individuals stop the distribution of their own images which are destroying their career and relationship chances? 

Our education system appears to lurch from one focus area to another, resulting in periodic tunnel vision on everything from coding to maths to grammar. The results are stark: we lament the loss of computational thinking or English literature in context, replaced instead by a focus on rules, whether in lines of code or in grammar. A recent study of A-levels showed that “taken together, the three English subjects have seen a decline of 20% in three years.” 

Against this background, edtech offers the opportunity to broaden approaches to curriculum, whether using virtual reality to assess group work, or to connect students internationally. The skills needed to navigate this approach will be identifying quality resources; creating an active, blended pedagogy; reflection; and feedback. Patience, prioritisation and the ability to communicate new approaches are all essential. 

Q. Which edtech products and services are garnering most excitement?

Adaptive learning platforms continue to gain interest, as does AI in all forms.

Holographic lecturers got quite a bit of attention via Imperial College’s edtech lab late last year. It remains to be seen what cost implications remain for holographs, but they highlight the effort of universities to bring industry experts into their curriculums via technology. 

One university chief operating officer recently observed that assessment would be the game-changer for universities innovating on a broader level. Services to assess collaborative effort – in contrast to our existing examination approach, which applauds individual effort – will be popular among industry. Assessment and digital exams will continue to pique interest. 

Natural language processing (NLP), whether it’s colleges developing chatbots for administrative services, or ex-IBM executives rolling out voice-activated teaching and learning assistants, continue to garner excitement due to their potential to save teachers time. 

Triangulating products and services which connect universities, employers and students will do well: think Degreed, Handshake, Learnably, plus Beam and HowdoI for the homeless and disabled.

There is also growing interest in the corporate training sector, which offers a more stable business model for edtech companies and investors. 

Q. What edtech topics are at the top of the agenda right now?

Corporate learning and training, hybrid models of online and offline, the hybrid campus (meetup, café, library, co-working space). Slowing Chinese investment in edtech. Core competencies as a foundation for any other form of teaching and learning. Next-generation video, NLP and voice-activated technology. Student data. Pedagogy-first edtech versus failed edtech models.

Q. Should we be looking to any other countries/systems for inspiration as we seek to get the best from the edtech out there?

As long as we remember the importance of context in what works, taking inspiration from other countries and systems seems an excellent idea. Cultural differences mean that we can’t simply lift the perceived successes of Finland or Singapore, but we can be inspired by their prioritisation of continual professional development and prestige. 

Educator Koen Timmers talks about being “pedagogical engineers” and drawing from different pedagogies and tools, edtech or otherwise, to craft teaching and learning. To this end, the reduction of teaching and learning to an exact science is flawed. 

We can see the wheels coming off this model in recent examples. Alt School, which was founded by an ex-Google executive and raised nearly $200 million, recently had to pivot away from its initial mission to offer a network of schools for “learning environments where technology helps educators create personalised, foundational knowledge and project-based learning experiences focused on developing the whole child.” Many level the perceived failure or change of direction at Alt School to the lack of educators at the helm, relying only on Silicon Valley’s absolutist faith in tech. 

Perhaps the old proverb rings true: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” To this end, it’s inspiring to note the launch of The European EdTech Network (EETN), a three-year project funded by the European Commission within the Erasmus+ Strategic Partnership for Higher Education programme. The network aims to bring together teachers, researchers, students and entrepreneurs in education and digital technologies, through university-managed innovation programmes, in order to promote digital methodologies and pedagogies that will ultimately improve higher education systems in Europe. 

Further reading


Forbes magazine: Does Education Technology Help Students Learn?

Jisc’s Janet Network:

Imperial College Edtech Lab:

European EdTech Network: