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.
Those of us who complain that edtech gets too little attention in the national press should perhaps have been beware of what we wished for. Two recent studies to have hit the headlines both say that the general impact of technology on learning is negative.
Advocates of technology enhanced learning have tended to brush this research aside. Various online commentators have said that the reports were “flawed”, “confused” and “tosh”, and those who reported them were guilty of “lazy and irrelevant journalism”.
The two reports are:
Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance
- written by Louis Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy
- published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics
- in May 2015
- which I will referred to as “the LSE report”.
Students, Computers and Learning—Making the Connection
- published by the OECD under the direction of Andreas Schleicher
- in September 2015
- which I will refer to as “the OECD report”.
In this post I will:
- review what the reports say and why they said it,
- assess the arguments put forward for dismissing them,
- and suggest some conclusions to take away.
At over 14,000 words, I cannot pretend that this is anything other than a long article—but the length is unavoidable given the nature of the topic. What is more, I believe that the reaction of the edtech community to these reports is sufficiently important to justify the effort of writing it. I thank you in advance for making the effort to read it and hope that by the time you finish, you will also think that it was worthwhile.
In the autumn of 2013, I welcomed the Coalition government’s revival of interest in ed-tech after four years of neglect (see “Land ho!” of December 2013). But the process of bringing the ship into port does not always run smoothly. If last January’s report from the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) is of any value, it is only because it shows so clearly how muddled is the thinking of the ed-tech community in the UK.
I do not welcome the opportunity to produce another negative critique (indeed, I have hesitated for four months before doing so). I would much rather move on to make a positive contribution to a coherent discussion about effective ed-tech policy. But so long as a group such as ETAG, established with some fanfare by Ministers, produces such a poorly reasoned argument, there seems to be little option but to offer a rebuttal.
What I want to emphasise at the end of this piece, however, is that the failure of ETAG provides an important opportunity to put aside the muddled vision of technology in education that has dominated our discourse for the last 20 years. Following last week’s election, we have in 2015 the best opportunity since 1997 to make a fresh start and introduce a truly effective model of education technology into our schools.
Baroness Greenfield recently wrote an opinion piece in the TES, restating her view that education technology is not just ineffective but may well be positively harmful. “More pseudo-science poppycock”, harrumphed one prominent ed-tech tweeter, who was quickly supported by others. “Actually, she makes some rather sensible points”, said I. “No, no”, said my interlocutors, “the Baroness has been completely discredited. But if you are going to blog about it, please keep it short”. “1,000 emollient words”, I promised.
I am not sure how well I managed to be emollient—I am afraid it is not a style that comes naturally to me—and I certainly failed to keep it short. But, if you are interested in ed-tech, then I think its intersection with emerging neuroscience, and the controversy that has blown up in this area, are worthy of careful consideration.
In my post “Land ho!” of 16 December, I welcomed the noises being made at that time by Matt Hancock, Minister for Skills & Enterprise at BIS, about the government’s new, more proactive approach to education technology. This led to the announcement at BETT on 23 January of a new advisory group, the Education Technology Action Group, to be chaired by Stephen Heppell. The most that could be said so far is that ETAG has had a slow start.We didn’t hear anything of substance until 23 April, when it published a series of questions that are to form the basis of a consultation, which is to run until 23 June. In my view, the questions are not particularly helpful. Nor have they attracted any significant response in the first couple of weeks, there having been only a couple of dozen substantive tweets using the #etag hashtag. But I am looking forward to engaging in the consultation and, by way of encouraging the debate, publish below my own views on what ETAG should say to Ministers.
I was not able to attend ResearchEd2013 back in September 2013; but ever since then I have been meaning (and not finding the time) to comment on the outcomes of the conference, which were conscientiously videoed and posted to the web by Leon Cych. The conference was organised by Tom Bennett to highlight the importance of (and problems with) current research in education. This was a few months after he had himself published Teacher Proof, mentioned in my earlier post, Why teachers don’t know best.
It struck me that while the attack on quack theories was sound, the conclusions reached in Teacher Proof about the nature of the expertise of teachers were not well justified. Indeed, they seemed to me to be bizarrely at odds with the advertised prospectus of the Research Ed conference.
Just as Gutenberg’s printing press provided the means by which the intellectual culture of Europe was transformed, so ed-tech will provide the means to transform our understanding of pedagogy.
This article was originally published (a couple of days ago) as “The View from Here” in the first edition of Terry Freedman’s re-launched newsletter, Digital Education, to which you can subscribe here. It provides a relatively short summary of the position I have outlined in this blog, arguing for a new approach to education technology that focuses on formalising and systematising the transactions and processes involved in education, rather than chasing after chimera like independent learning and twenty-first century skills. Continue reading
Matthew Hancock, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for further education, skills 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”.
A 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.