LGfL CEO: ‘I’m not a shrinking violet in terms of risk’

John Jackson, CEO of LGfL, the National Grid for Learning, speaks to Education Technology about bridging the digital divide, technological resilience, and government regulation

It’s been a good year for edtech charity LGfL, the National Grid for Learning (formerly London Grid for Learning). It won double at both BETT in March and the Education Resources Awards (ERA) in May.

CEO John Jackson received an ERA Outstanding Achievement Award for his work helping schools adopt new technology and save money, and his dedication to keeping children safe, tackling inequality, energising teaching and learning, and promoting wellbeing.

The trust became somewhat of a lifeboat for many schools during the pandemic. In the early weeks, John made the decision to buy up two million Chromebooks and WinBooks and get them into schools at reduced prices.

He explains how this came about: “Laptops weren’t part of our core business but people were ringing me at the start of Covid saying, ‘We can’t afford this kit, we’ve got to shut the school, kids haven’t got access at home because they simply haven’t got the cash – can you help?’.”

This was a time when there was a worldwide scramble for devices as students and employees headed home for lockdown, which drove up costs and ate up supply. LGfL’s national procurement campaign ensured that even disadvantaged pupils and families in deprived areas had access to incredibly necessary technology.

“No one else was crazy enough to go out for two million devices without a single audit,” says John. “I said I was going to buy them and at first everybody was laughing; then they realised I was dead serious, and then bought into it.”

“I’m not a shrinking violet in terms of risk,” he adds.

LGfL made its content remotely accessible to any school in the country, completely free of charge, which included cloud technology and filtered internet connection. It also supported the 2020 Edtech Demonstrator Programme which was developed by the Department for Education (DfE) and provided free, peer-to-peer technology advice between schools and became a critical support system over the last two years.

What drove John was his positioning of the pandemic as an opportunity, and his mantra that LGfL, and schools, would “come out stronger, technologically, than when they went into the crisis”. 

For someone else to cite ‘community spirit’ as the reason behind their work ethic, it could sound cliche. But John is genuinely, authentically, upbeat about the educational sector. “This is why I’m in education. I feel privileged to work with teachers, and schools, because there’s so much good, so much positivity there.”

He hopes to celebrate this, and the ‘legends of learning’, at the next LGfL conference in July, which will draw hundreds of attendees from network schools. “I think teachers did a miraculous thing to keep a lid on all of this, you know, largely, and help families and communities through it. And I think, I think it’s important, we recognise that, you know, and celebrate.”

Looking to the future John wants to see the British edtech sector come into its own, mentioning “cool stuff” like Pobble, a platform for teachers to easily share lesson ideas and resources, and LGfL’s partnership with Ohbot’s Picoh robot which children can program to speak and perform tasks. 

He also mentions the companies making great strides with assistive technology, like the AV1 robot that lets children stay in touch with classmates during long-term absences. LGfL has long been an advocate for augmented virtual reality, and John speaks with an infectious passion about the possibilities of VR in the classroom – bringing history lessons to life in a brand new way, helping children see the world without leaving their desks, and showing them a different side to learning.

Whilst John is focused on progression, he knows a key part of moving forward is developing resilient technology that is not only designed for capacity, but reliability, for years to come. Schools cannot afford to have their systems shut down every time they install new platforms, move to the cloud, or upgrade to multi-gig. 

He says that it is technology’s job to follow and facilitate societal shifts: “Technology really is about enabling fundamental change. So it’s actually the change that you really need to think through and the technology comes in the slipstream of change, if you like.” 

“This is a marathon, not a sprint. One of the things I’ve noticed as we’ve come out of Covid is the energy levels have gone down. I think you’ve got to have a mentality that you’re going to keep at it.

“You cannot ignore the challenges of the teaching profession to get confident, remain confident with harnessing technology, and how to use it in classroom practice. I think there’s some way to go.

“We need to make sure we are properly evaluating the impacts of technology. I think there’s a lot of work to do on digital strategy and toolkits that allow schools to fit it all together: the financial planning, the teacher training, the changes in working practice, the headspace to make the curriculum changes, and manage risks.”

Fast innovation has other issues. Some are starting to notice the problems that come with having a technological sector that is essentially unregulated. One major company hikes its prices, and the rest must follow suit to have any chance of staying in the market; a new social platform prides itself on open access and unmoderated content, which comes with the potential for children to come across extremist views and explicit imagery.

John points out that the blinding pace of technological innovation is a major challenge for the government, whose legislation and processes simply cannot keep pace. Left unaddressed, there could be worrying financial, societal and safeguarding implications from this mismatch.

This bothers him: “What you should have in an economy is regulation on things that have a significant impact on your economy, or on your society, or have a potentially dysfunctional market. Because if you don’t, if you have things that are important, but have very little [regulation], it’s a bit like the Wild West. The consequences are going to be ultimately difficult and negative.”

He says finding a solution is ‘bloody complicated’, but that “it’s a question we should be asking ourselves – how do we do this better?”

John Jackson and co. have supported teaching staff, school bodies, pupils, and families through a particularly tough couple of years, and it looks like they’re now ready to take the sector to new heights – digital equality, online safety, virtual reality, robots and all.

Header image credit: Justin Thomas

Read more: £10m scheme to help Open University plug skills gap

Leave a Reply

Free live webinar & QA

The digital difference - Build a culture of reading with ebooks & audiobooks

Free Education Webinar with OverDrive

Friday, June 24, 2PM London BST

In this webinar, hear from Havant Academy Librarian Joanna Parsons to learn how she uses ebooks and audiobooks to help boost reading among her secondary students.