Ploughing the same old furrow

Inside Government’s forthcoming conference, “Innovation in Education”, has a tired agenda which shows the ed-tech community still obsessing about the failed orthodoxies of the last decade

The agenda for Inside Government’s conference, Innovation in Education (, provides a nice illustration of the point I argued in Scrapping “ICT”. The ed-tech community still seems to believe that that the only way to use technology to transform education is to teach it.

The agenda’s first substantive session, led by Ian Livingstone[1], is called “Boosting the UK’s economy through educational innovation”. The bullet points detailing the substance of this keynote include:

  • bringing computer science into the National Curriculum;
  • offering careers guidance for high-tech creative industries;
  • developing industry-related skills through ICT;
  • ensuring workers are equipped with ICT and digital skills;
  • guaranteeing the UK as a world leader in creative and digital industries;
  • ensuring that the ICT curriculum benefits the UK.

I do not count Ian Livingstone as a member of the “ed-tech community” or rank his message as a “failed orthodoxy”. Mr Livingstone’s position is challenging and new—but it is not about educational innovation, in the sense that most people would understand it. It is about changing the curriculum, about changing what we teach and not about improving the effectiveness with which we teach it.

The next session sounds as if it might balance the scales: “Innovative Models for ICT Procurement: Ensuring Creative and Efficient IT Systems for Education”. The substance of this session, given by Matt Clegg from the Education Funding Agency, includes:

  • collaboration and shared services to guarantee value for money when procuring IT provisions;
  • the benefits of creating a central framework for schools;
  • local authority and school partnerships—working together to ensure IT provisions are a top priority.

This is not an entrepreneur telling us about innovation. It is not even a debate. It is a bureaucrat telling us about the virtues of bureaucracy. It is a talk in which we will be told that central procurements, influenced by collaborative networks accessing shared services delivered by local authorities lead to more “creative and efficient IT systems for education”. Over the last decade at least, this approach has had completely the opposite effect. Simon Shaw, an ex-Becta employee, commented on my previous post, Stop the IMLS Framework: “While not wishing to sound disloyal to ex-Becta colleagues I fully agree with all the points that are made in this blog post. I think the facts speak for themselves”. The facts may well speak for themselves, but only if they are allowed out of the box under the stairs, which is where Mr Clegg will want to keep them.

A closer look at the title of Mr Clegg’s session shows that the “innovation” buzzword has again been sneaked in under false pretences. This is not after all a talk about creating a procurement regime to encourage the development of innovative technologies or even innovative pedagogies—it is about creating what are supposed to be innovative ways of buying the same old tat—the great innovation being that you should use Mr Clegg as your middle-man.

The first session of the afternoon looks at “Games as educational resources”. There is no mention here of developing education-specific or so-called “serious” games to model new pedagogies—the talk is just about using off-the-shelf commercial games or, at best, encouraging students to create their own versions of their favourite shoot-em-up. It is difficult to see how this activity will help the return of academic rigour.

Next comes “E-learning and e-assessment”, which will make the case for “the importance of distance learning”. Distance learning has been around for two or three decades and is a paradigm that has worked well enough for motivated adult learners studying at the Open University or undertaking training in order to achieve a promotion at work. The few experiments that have been conducted with distance learning at school (like the work with excluded children done by Stephen Heppell at Ultralab or projects to deliver education to remote communities in the Scottish Highlands and Islands) have shown that, at school level, the requirement for distance learning is the exception rather than the rule. For children, distance is not the problem and models of e-learning developed for isolated adults are not the answer.

Further sessions focus on developing digital literacies, the future of ICT education, and how to engage young people to learn about ICT. The final session of the day is called “Innovating education: how will changes to the curriculum impact on student’s 21st century skillset?” and is given by a member of the Director of the 21st Century Learning Alliance. The assumption that the core curriculum in the 21st century requires a substantially different skillset to the 20th century is a piece of nonsense which is addressed in my previous post on Sir Ken Robinson.

If you were to study innovation, let us say in the context of transport, you would want to find out how people developed new methods of getting around faster, going further, carrying heavier loads, moving more cheaply, more comfortably, and more reliably. Most people would not consider it as an “innovation” that people decided to use this improved transport to go to Bognor Regis rather than to their local market town—as far as transport is concerned, the desire to go somewhere different is not the innovation but its cause or its consequence. Yet it is in this confused and facile sense that the Inside Government conference understands the word. The overwhelming focus of the conference is on what schools should teach and not on how they should teach it. Brief forays are made away from the curriculum into supposedly innovative approaches to procurement and distance learning. These are neither innovative, nor has a decade of empirical evidence shown them to be remotely successful. In a full day’s conference on “Enhancing Education Through ICT and Innovation”, costing up to £500 a seat, there is not a single session which focuses on the development of new technology to support more effective types of teaching.

Discussion about the ICT curriculum is legitimate and timely. But changing the curriculum should not be confused with innovation that improves the way we teach; nor should it be allowed to eclipse what is ultimately the more significant question about the use of technology to improve educational outcomes across the curriculum. It is time that the ed-tech community took off its blinkers and started to address the real opportunities presented by an intelligent use of technology in education.

[1] The fantasy games author asked in 2010 by Ed Vaizey to look into the video games industry, which resulted in the Nex Gen Report, criticising the failure of the ICT curriculum in schools to serve the needs of industry.

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