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.
I gave this talk at Research Ed 2015 on 5 September, the latest in a series of three national conferences organized by Tom Bennett.
Research Ed has grown into a vital event in the annual calendar for teachers interested in the theory of teaching. Nevertheless, my impression is that the centre of gravity of many of the talks at ResearchEd has veered away from an agenda that tries to promote sound, quantitative research, and is replaced with a softer account of both the role and methodology of research, as is suggested by the language of “action research” and “research-informed” teaching.
I believe that the problems with research are systemic and not just the result of incompetence. I argue in this piece that these systemic problems can (and can only) be solved by seeing teaching as a business which has a larger technical element than we commonly admit, and one that is less dependent on personal intuition (or what some call “tacit knowledge”). Such a realignment of our views on what teaching is, and how research into teaching should be conducted, will also underline a radical reevaluation of the role of technology in the classroom.
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.
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”.
Liz Truss, Minister in the UK DfE for Education and Healthcare, has been calling for a return to textbooks. The headline story masks a more complex argument that bundles together several different strands. Instead of dismissing Truss’ call as regressive, it should be brought together with Matt Hancock’s ETAG initiative to stimulate a serious debate about how teachers can be given better tools of the trade, which exploit the opportunities provided by digital technology.
To many on the ETAG committee, I am undoubtedly seen as an awkward and disruptive influence—something like the know-it-all who keeps putting their hand up at the back of the class. They have already changed the medium through which their consultation is conducted, shifting the emphasis away from Twitter (which provides me with the opportunity to challenge poorly justified contributions) to an online form, which keeps submissions private and unchallenged. At the same time, the committee retains in public a stony silence in the face of my arguments, while one prominent member of the committee complains (in a context in which he is clearly referring to myself) of the activities of “trolls, spammers, abusers, and self-publicists”.
Well, as its formal consultation finishes, it is time that ETAG publicly acknowledged the debate and made a serious, substantive response to the criticisms that I and others have raised. Because if they do not, it is increasingly clear that their report will be ignored by government, just as the FELTAG report was effectively ignored before it. This post contains a list of links to my various substantive contributions to the debate, most of which are on other people’s websites.
At the same time as the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (FELTAG) got ready to submit its recommendations to government for action to support ed-tech in Further Education, a new group was set up to propose similar recommendations that would cover all education sectors. But the Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) has inherited all of the same flawed assumptions that were made by FELTAG and by BECTA before them. If Matt Hancock wants to be the man who ends the long history of failed government initiatives and the man who helps introduce genuine, transformative education technology to the UK, he needs to insist that the government is given a much clearer and more convincing rationale for action than the FELTAG report has offered.
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.