I do not welcome the opportunity to produce another negative critique (indeed, I have hesitated for four months before doing so). I would much rather move on to make a positive contribution to a coherent discussion about effective ed-tech policy. But so long as a group such as ETAG, established with some fanfare by Ministers, produces such a poorly reasoned argument, there seems to be little option but to offer a rebuttal.
What I want to emphasise at the end of this piece, however, is that the failure of ETAG provides an important opportunity to put aside the muddled vision of technology in education that has dominated our discourse for the last 20 years. Following last week’s election, we have in 2015 the best opportunity since 1997 to make a fresh start and introduce a truly effective model of education technology into our schools.
Those of us advocating new approaches to ed-tech in UK schools need to take the time between now and the next election in May to build a case that does not assume that the argument for technology in education is self-evident.
Two days ago, a UK government re-shuffle removed from their current posts all of the sponsoring Ministers for the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG). The likelihood that this report will now have any significant influence is slim. This might represent a lucky escape because I saw no evidence that ETAG was going to produce any convincing or coherent argument for ed-tech that went much beyond saying we should adopt it “because it’s there”. This is not a position that is going to cut any ice with Ministers of any political party. The following post is copied from an email sent to the ICT Research Network, a reflector originally established by Becta and now managed by ALT and NAACE. It responds to a conversation bemoaning the uneven extent to which schools have pursued “digital normalisation”.
Why Liz Truss was right to call for more professionally produced learning resources; and why the profession misunderstood her when she talked about “textbooks”
Liz Truss, Minister in the UK DfE for Education and Healthcare, has been calling for a return to textbooks. The headline story masks a more complex argument that bundles together several different strands. Instead of dismissing Truss’ call as regressive, it should be brought together with Matt Hancock’s ETAG initiative to stimulate a serious debate about how teachers can be given better tools of the trade, which exploit the opportunities provided by digital technology.
The DfE should reject the FELTAG recommendations in order to ensure that all the same mistakes are not repeated by ETAG
At the same time as the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) got ready to submit its recommendations to government for action to support ed-tech in Further Education, a new group was set up to propose similar recommendations that would cover all education sectors. But the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) has inherited all of the same flawed assumptions that were made by FELTAG and by BECTA before them. If Matt Hancock wants to be the man who ends the long history of failed government initiatives and the man who helps introduce genuine, transformative education technology to the UK, he needs to insist that the government is given a much clearer and more convincing rationale for action than the FELTAG report has offered.
The Education Technology Action Group, set up by the DfE and BIS and announced by Matt Hancock at BETT, has made a shaky start. This is what I think they should end up saying to Ministers.
In my post “Land ho!” of 16 December, I welcomed the noises being made at that time by Matt Hancock, Minister for Skills & Enterprise at BIS, about the government’s new, more proactive approach to education technology. This led to the announcement at BETT on 23 January of a new advisory group, the Education Technology Action Group, to be chaired by Stephen Heppell. The most that could be said so far is that ETAG has had a slow start.We didn’t hear anything of substance until 23 April, when it published a series of questions that are to form the basis of a consultation, which is to run until 23 June. In my view, the questions are not particularly helpful. Nor have they attracted any significant response in the first couple of weeks, there having been only a couple of dozen substantive tweets using the #etag hashtag. But I am looking forward to engaging in the consultation and, by way of encouraging the debate, publish below my own views on what ETAG should say to Ministers.
Matthew Hancock,Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for further education, skills and lifelong learning, announced in the Sunday Times yesterday that the government was setting up a Whitehall unit “to examine how children can be taught by computers that use sophisticated algorithms to set the pace according to individual ability”. After three and a half years of virtual silence on ed-tech, this is a welcome and exciting announcement. Online tuition, he says, is the key that “could help to raise Britain from the bottom of the international educational league tables”, using technology in a complementary role to teachers, so that “computers [will] take the lead in ‘imparting knowledge’ while teachers focus on ‘mentoring, coaching and motivating’”. Not only does this statement put education technology back on the political agenda in the UK, but it does so on completely different terms from those previously proposed by the advocates of independent learning, twenty-first century skills, and the wisdom of the crowd. Instead, it reflects something very similar to the position that I have been arguing on this blog. There is even a sense of urgency detectable in the fact that Mr Hancock wants “the changes…to be implemented as soon as possible”.
A copy of a comment regarding the difference between customisation and adaptation, and the importance of the latter to learning content that encapsulates pedagogy.
It is a central argument of this blog that the attempt to apply technology to the improvement of education has been held back by the lack of education-specific software. Such software will generally encapsulate pedagogy. An objection to this approach was recently raised by Peter Twining in a useful discussion on his blog, EdFutures. It is a little difficult to link directly to the part of the conversation where this occurs – the best way is probably to follow the link to the discussion page and then to search for “Re Technology Enhanced Learning”, which is the title of the thread in which this discussion occurs.
To paraphrase the general objection to software that encapsulates pedagogy, such software might be seen as a way of scripting lessons that dis-empower the teacher. At the top level, I would respond that many teachers have a pretty shaky understanding of pedagogy, so the ability to put pedagogically proven tools into their hands is a key way in which we will empower (not dis-empower) teachers (see my Education’s coming revolution). As for the nature of those tools, I certainly accept that the way in which software is used in the classroom needs to be flexible, allowing the teacher (the professional on the spot) to apply the software in the right way. This provides the background to my conversation with Peter Twining regarding the customisation or adaptation of education-specific software.
Peter’s argument is that, according to an OU project in the 1990s called SoURCE, in which he was involved, the pedagogy encapsulated in software often needed to be subverted by the teacher—and that this suggested that the encapsulation of pedagogy was something of a blind alley. I copy below my reply to Peter, followed by my conclusion.