A troubled relationship

[ File # csp7413021, License # 1569209 ] Licensed through http://www.canstockphoto.com in accordance with the End User License Agreement (http://www.canstockphoto.com/legal.php) (c) Can Stock Photo Inc. / MassonforstockAn analysis of Nicky Morgan’s speech at BETT 2016, with reference to the ETAG report

This article first appeared in Terry Freedman’s Digital Education (formerly Computers in Classrooms). In it I analyse the Secretary of State’s excellent speech on edtech at BETT 2016, comparing the views she expressed with those of the ETAG report, and analysing what this might mean for the relationship between government Ministers and edtech. And I observe, along the way, that the course of true love never did run smooth.

For those of us who gather round the office coffee machine, the relationship between government Ministers and education technology is matter of intense interest. Is it really love – or just an awkward encounter with the oafish youth next door?

A couple of years ago, there was no sign of any tender feelings between them. The Conservative-led Coalition closed Becta in 2010 and cold-shouldered the whole sector for the next four years. Although Michael Gove came to BETT in 2012, it was to lavish his attention on his precious Computing Curriculum. Edtech (the use of IT to improve teaching and learning) only caught the Ministerial eye two years later, when he commissioned the ETAG report.

When the time came for the first proper date, it was not Michael Gove but Nicky Morgan who turned up on the government’s side (this is a gender-neutral love story, you see). Everything seemed to go well enough—indeed, judging by her 2015 BETT speech, the Minister appeared to have gone quite weak at the knees.

Thank you all for choosing to listen to me when all around us there are so many exciting and eye-catching attractions that might justifiably have received your attention instead… It’s…a great honour for this city and this country to host this fantastic conference.

But what would happen when the Minister got past the glitz and the glamour and settled down to the small talk? What would she think of the ETAG report, which had been published that very morning?

For those of us still waiting at the coffee machine, it was difficult to find out. The DfE gave us no news. We had to wait for a whole year before we saw Minister meet edtech once more. Only then could we judge the body language for ourselves. When Mrs Morgan came to BETT for the second time, what would she say about the ETAG report?

Nothing. Of the report that, last we heard, the Minister was so looking forward to reading, she made no mention at all. And if the silence seemed ominous, what the Minister did have to say only confirmed the impression that the two had not hit it off at all well.

The pivotal conclusion of the ETAG report was that:

Competence with digital technology to find information, to create, to critique and share knowledge, is an essential contemporary skill set.

In other words, ETAG thought that success in the 21st century hinged on the ability to discover and curate information online. What did the Minister have to say about this?

Probably the worst attitude we can take is that access to search engines is somehow a substitute for knowledge. It isn’t.

If that wasn’t enough of a slap in the face, there was more to come. The ETAG report had said that…

fundamentally, we concluded that the use of digital technology in education is not optional

…and that…

evidence is a problematic concept when thinking about digital technology.

In other words, the government should be supporting edtech on principle, regardless of what the evidence said. But clearly this was not a line with which to woo the Minister, who was not going to give unconditional support to anyone:

Where technology is evidence based and outcome driven – where it really works – we will back it all the way.

The ETAG report went on to make a big fuss about connectivity, recommending that all schools and colleges should:

provide learners with an entitlement to a substantial minimum level of fast broadband connectivity [and] a minimum entitlement to a safe, secure, resilient and robust organisation-wide Wi-Fi system for all their devices.

Not such a big issue, Nicky Morgan replied. The government was already:

backing broadband to the tune of £1.3 billion. So that it doesn’t matter where our children are – at home or at school, inner-city academies or countryside schoolhouses – they will have that access.

No education-specific initiatives or entitlements were required: if teachers judged that fast broadband was pedagogically useful, they would have no trouble in laying it on.

But it was on the issue of workload, so close to the Minister’s heart, that ETAG made its most embarrassing gaffe:

Teachers who move to online teaching will be aware of a significant, but only initial, increase in their workload.

Such a prospect fell far short of the Minister’s vision of pedagogical bliss:

The instant nature of online and computerised testing has obvious potential to lighten teacher workloads as well as collect data

…and if that potential, which is so obvious, has not yet been realised, then the edtech industry clearly has a lot more work to do to deliver the right sort of technology to schools.

The ETAG report barely mentioned the dark side of the online world, referring only once to the problems of e-safety and online bullying and suggesting that an adequate remedy would be to give children some lessons in “digital literacy”.

From the Minister’s perspective, this looked downright irresponsible. She demanded that schools take “the strongest possible action to protect children from harm online” and suggested that some of the most effective answers would be provided by “clever software”. In a bizarre role-reversal, it was left to the non-technical Minister to suggest to the self-styled technology experts that technology might actually have some solutions to offer, particularly to problems that were of its own creation in the first place.

No, the first date had not gone well at all. The initial bright-eyed enthusiasm had quickly been replaced by a jab in the ribs and a firm invitation to shape up:

we are keen to see what innovations the sector can come up with on this.

The only figure singled out for praise was Colin Hegarty, the developer of Hegarty Maths. Having seen what Colin is doing, I have no doubt that it was a well-deserved bouquet [Note: on the morning that I publish this to my blog, I hear on the Today programme that Colin has been nominated to a $1 million prize for the best teacher in the world]. But it is surely significant that the Secretary of State found that she had to pin her hopes for the future of the national education system on someone who is currently developing a new bit of software in his spare time. If we were told that the future of mobile telephony was hanging on a whizz-kid who was developing a clever new gizmo in his spare bedroom, we would hardly conclude that we were looking at a mature industry, in which the country could confidently entrust its future happiness.

In its careful balancing of correction and encouragement, I think that this was the best ministerial speech on edtech that I have ever heard. Mrs Morgan was right that the edtech community has not yet made the grade; right that the potential is significant enough that it should be given another chance; and right that it will only fulfil this potential if it starts to get its act together. Best of all, the Minister was right in her recommendations for the new year’s resolutions that her suitor should adopt if he is ever to become a reformed character. The key on which the future success of edtech will depend is its ability to improve data interoperability.

I believe that the full importance of this point is evident to very few in the community. I suspect that it is not completely clear even to the Minister herself. When it came to specifying what the new fitness regime should be, she promised a programme based on SIF (originally backed by Becta in 2006) and the Data Exchange initiative, last heard of in 2013, and managed by the DFE’s useless Information Standards Board (ISB), which has been failing to do anything about interoperability since 2008 (see my 2012 post, In the name of God, go!). Presumably the Minister had sent a junior official down to the archives for the file marked “Things that didn’t work last time”, on the principle that the best idea in such circumstances is to try the same thing again.

The problem is not that there is a big stash of interesting data sitting in System A which cannot be read by System B unless some bureaucrat comes along and sets up a national data exchange hub. The problem is that there is very little data about learning anywhere at all. What little there is is out-of-date, unreliable, and difficult to interpret. Even worse, the data definitions (or in digital terms, formats) that are used to describe attainment by teachers in the non-digital world have just been discovered (after 25 years of rigorous bureaucratic enforcement) to be virtually meaningless. This is surely a warning against yet more top-down prescription.

Meaningful data will only start to circulate around our education system when we start to develop software that does meaningful things on the basis of that data. And the software will only be developed when it can share innovative data formats on open standards principles. Just as the Minister might be rightly impressed by the potential for data-driven technology to transform education, so too must she be daunted by the challenge of putting such a vision into effect, by the difficulty of having to solve chicken-and-egg problems such as this along the way; and she must be depressed that the progress that has been made towards the objective so far, on the back of so much time and money, has been so pitifully small.

When out a’ courting, edtech still cuts a poor figure. On a day that the OECD has reported that “Young people in England are the most illiterate in the developed world”, it does not appear to have anything interesting to offer. But it could have. Even the least eligible among us sometimes turn out to be more dynamic than first expected. The figure lying in a pool of filth on the floor of Mistress Quickley’s brothel in Eastcheap, still inert from last night’s debauch, might still just turn out to be the future Henry V, the knight in shining armour and archetype of every true romance.

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