Land ho!

land_hoMatthew Hancock, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for further educationskills 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”.

At this stage, all we can see is a faint smudge on the horizon. Maybe it is nothing more than a low cloud or an uninhabitable rock. But it is hard not to feel hopeful that, after what might have been a necessary four-year detox, we may at last have a prospect of making substantive (maybe even rapid) progress with a brand of education technology that delivers genuine improvements to formal education. Through this blog, I will take a close interest in the initiative as it develops.

Update: 17 December.

A blog by Harriet Green at City AM welcomes Matt Hancock’s announcement under the somewhat provocative title, “4 reasons to be happy about the end of teaching”. I have commented on that site, and a conversation is starting to develop.

But not everyone is so happy. At Schools Improvement, a large number of teachers dismiss Matt Hancock’s announcement as various equivalents of “bonkeroony”, (to use a current Govism).

But as a result of finding this stream, I also struck up what proved to be a great discussion with Meraud Hand (@Meraud_Hand) on Twitter. With Meraud’s permission and my thanks for such a good discussion, I copy it here where I hope that it will be easier to follow. Meraud’s comments are in blue and mine are in purple.

Too late for #AskGove, sorry, but could you ask if he’d seriously consider this? As a parent it’s v worrying. …
Are you worried by the use of books to support good teaching? If not, why can’t we use computers too?
Proposal is not presented as using computers to support teaching, but in part to replace it. I’d be worried if the same were proposed for books, yes.
Books *do* replace teachers “to a certain extent”. Without them, teachers would have to read out texts verbatim.
Books do not currently leave teachers as purely mentors & supporters of what’s in the book. iPads are not in MH’s scenario being presented as functional equivalents of books, pedagogically speaking.
Agreed! Because teachers can choose book & how to use it. Will have same “leadership” role in use of digital activity
Not the way that article describes it, & not in many current US cases I’ve heard about. It’s a deep issue about responsible use of tech, & I don’t see in the current market-driven environment that we’re going to get what’s really of benefit to all of us.
Agree current tech inadequate – due to *lack* of markets, which meet customer needs if well regulated.
Education about practice & feedback. How much personalised feedback do you think average school child gets in a day?
How personalized can feedback be from an iPad that cannot smile?
Smiling is part of “mentoring, coaching and motivating” that this will allow teachers to do *more* of. But factual feedback is also vital and at the moment we have v. little of it. Education not just an emotional feel-good experience.
A smile is not just feel-good. A smile can be about success, achieved together by teacher & pupil. tech not the solution to improving that aspect of classroom environment.
Agreed & Matthew Hancock does not suggest that it is. Which is why teacher will continue to have key leadership role
But I see his suggestion as worsening the situation. That’s one of my main worries, as is your siloing off off mentoring etc. Another worry of course is that it further increases monitoring which can create all kinds of emotional stress on all concerned.
So you oppose any automation or division of labour in what is a complex, underperforming service?
I agree that they are not the same because computers deliver activity & management support – better than pure info.
They [computers] are also worse because they can impose greater control and monitoring. You have to be really sure you trust the people behind choosing the programmes. Which, currently (and sadly) I don’t.
Control and monitoring is vital to teaching & management of any organisation. But privacy/trust also needs to be sorted
That’s the crux of it, I think. If that were sorted, & everything was *really* led by educators not politicians & money interests really good things could be achieved…
Agree – this is critical. Teachers must choose the programmes & drive the market, not govnt. I will argue for that.
…But under this current regime that’s not going to happen.
IMO unfair on the regime, which is defining ends and ensuring accountability, but not dictating means.
Can’t separate these in real people. In your scenario teacher & pupil = detached from ‘stuff’ being ‘learned’, however ‘stuff’ & ‘learned’ might be defined…. 🙂
Ah! This is the real point. You don’t think e.g. particle physics can be defined separately from teacher & learner? You think that education is *all* about relationships and not about objective knowledge and skills?
I think you cannot truly separate the two. That’s different from thinking that’s all there is.
Sorry, don’t want to keep you! But it’s no good bashing teachers & presenting tech as a partial ‘replacement’ if regime is to get buy-in of any kind.
Agree polarised debate not helpful. But IMO teachers often to blame for vitriolic reaction to reasonable ideas. I do not bash them because they are being asked to do what is virtually impossible (personalised feedback at scale). But no slight to professional to give them better tools. I think that’s what this proposal can & must become. One more point. Nothing must be imposed. Teachers must be given opportunity to pick up tools that they believe help.
I’m not suggesting you do! It’s the surrounding politics/debate which are problematic. Not good change management.
Yes. Sooner we can remove ideology from both sides (at least to the extent that this is possible) then the better.
Most definitely.

So the devil will lie in the detailed implementation. Thanks again to Meraud for such a constructive and lively discussion which (please bear in mind for both our sakes) was conducted at speed on Twitter. And I think we both hope that the issue of education technology in general (and Matt Hancock’s announcement in particular) will come up in the Education Select Committee discussion with Michael Gove tomorrow.

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