Public sector productivity in education

Policy Exchange's digital government consultationA copy of my response to the public consultation by Policy Exchange on digital government

The think tank Policy Exchange has been running an online consultation on digital government (closing at midnight on Friday, 20 April). Most of the questions are about central government but question 4 is relevant to education technology: “How might modern tools and platforms help enhance public sector productivity?”

I am copying my answer, which provides a summary of the argument that I have developed on this blog.

There is an immense potential for enhancing productivity in education through the application of digital technology.

1. Education is not about the dissemination of information (as is often assumed in the public debate and which the Worldwide Web already makes easy) but about guided activity. Being inherently interactive, the computer presents considerable potential for the development of instructional software based on established paradigms of gaming, simulation, social interaction and the use of creative tools.

2. Much of the job of the classroom teacher is essentially administrative, ensuring that the right instruction is given to the right student at the right time and that an iterative performance-feedback loop is maintained. Much of this administrative function is predicated on a good understanding both of the competencies of each student and of the essential structure of the knowledge being taught. Educational analogues of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and analytics software have an important role to play in assisting the teaching team with these complex tasks.

3. Pedagogy is a systematic design process akin to engineering. Most of us learn in very similar ways and the international PISA research programme is producing compelling evidence that some approaches to teaching work better than others. Yet there is a weak relationship between academic educationalists and teachers, to the detriment of both. Little effort has been made to develop systematic programmes of study since the 1970s, when the Nuffield Science programme and SMP Maths were produced. Instead, thousands of teachers typically produce very similar, poor quality, home-made resources. This tendency has been encouraged by the fashionable doctrine of the “autonomous professional” and by the spread of desktop computers that enable self-publishing.

4. The fundamental problem with universal education systems is the endemic under-supply of well qualified teachers, particularly in shortage subjects and particularly at secondary level. Yet the productivity of those good teachers that we do have is limited by the assumption that the front-line teacher will develop their own course materials, do their own routine marking, and supervise and lecture relatively small class groups. These assumptions place a productivity ceiling on the best teachers, which could be lifted by appropriate uses of technology.

The potential for the productive application of digital technology to education was not realised by the last government, despite considerable investment. Programmes delivered by the government agency Becta were generally  based on a mistaken belief that digital technology would free the student from knowledge-based curricula and from dependence on the teacher. These assumptions lay behind a series of prescriptive central procurements that imposed unproven products and pedagogies onto schools and colleges. The teaching of ICT was conflated with the use of education technology and there was a failure to recognise the need for industry-led innovation in the development of new, education-specific technologies.

A more successful approach would avoid central prescription and instead concentrate on stimulating the emergence of an internal market for new education technologies. Robust standards for data interoperability are essential if such a market is to develop.

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