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”.
Response sent to the ICTRN reflector
This conversation reminds me of the emphasis placed by Becta on “e-maturity”: the theory that you should have a lot of technology in education because that was self-evidently the right thing to do. The trouble is that this is self-evident only to the ed-tech/ICT community which increasingly talks to itself on lists like this one.
In order to “take a stand” you need arguments and evidence. That means that the introduction of digital technology to schools must be requirements-driven. There are two completely different, legitimate requirements which are met by technology.
1. The teaching of technology (or “Computing”). This actually requires relatively little technology to do – a few standard desktops and Raspberry Pis go quite a long way.
2. The use of technology to improve education (or “ed-tech”). This is potentially a much more far-reaching ambition but the trouble is that there is no serious empirical evidence, as yet, that technology improves learning. And there is no reason to suppose that, if current uses of technology *did* improve learning, such evidence would not have been forthcoming. Until this community faces up to that fact, it will continue to marginalise itself from serious political debate.
There is a third requirement, which I class as illegitimate. It is to use technology as a vehicle by which to change the aims of education, particularly by the introduction of a sort of relativist learning culture, based on an extreme form of child-centred education theories. This is what “independent learning” is all about. I class this as illegitimate only in the context that it is presented as technocratic theory, supported by experts, when it is in fact an ideologically driven ambition and belongs within a political, not a pedagogical debate.
From the UK perspective, the political conversation about ed-tech is looking fragile. Since January, we have had a government consultation running about government ed-tech policy but, in a recent government reshuffle, all three sponsoring Ministers have been replaced. Even before they were moved on, the Junior Minister with direct responsibility for the project was complaining that the case for ed-tech amounted to little more than “anecdotes and war stories”.
It now seems to me to be unlikely that any substantive action will be taken in the UK before the next election in May. Maybe that is no bad thing because I am not sure that the ETAG consultation was going to produce anything particularly persuasive in the time-scale it was given. The community could use the extra time to construct a more considered argument for ed-tech (i.e. requirement 2), based on argument and evidence and not just anecdote and assertion, with the aim of influencing the political programmes of all the major parties as they go into the next election.
This would require the ed-tech community not to “make a stand” but to make an argument—and one that is cool, pragmatic, thorough and evidence-based. I have made my own suggestions for how we should go about doing that. But, from a UK perspective at least, I think we need first to wait for ETAG to report. It would be helpful if ETAG supported such a suggestion, particularly as any recommendation for substantive government action (whether or not the recommendation is a good one) is likely to be ignored at this stage in the electoral cycle.
It would be better to keep the conversation open and make a small but constructive step forwards, rather than to talk about making the big leap, only to fall over backwards.