It was Charles Dickens who said of the time of the French revolution that ‘it was the best of times, and the worst of times.’ The same might be said of Covid-19 in the education space.
On the one hand, there was much to celebrate. Some institutions already experienced with digital learning become ‘virtual schools’ within days; others too, prepared for remote learning with mere hours of staff training.
But throughout there was a sense that our educators responded to the learning needs of their pupils during the pandemic with what was available in their schools and colleges and what they felt able to use. The pandemic also laid bare the fact that you can’t afford to neglect infrastructure, teacher training and the provision of devices for our young people. Too many of our schools did not have the platforms, infrastructure and devices for pupils to maximize their use of remote learning.
It was good to see that many schools limited the learning loss as they grew in digital confidence. But on the whole the devolved nations did better than England: Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all had an array of content at their disposal as the virus broke.
In England, we had taken too long to publish and get to work on an Edtech strategy – it was only in 2019 due to the determination of Damian Hinds MP when he was serving as Secretary of State for Education, that DfE began to articulate the ‘Edtech Dividend’ for our system.
The point is that education technology doesn’t replace teachers: it supports them. Technology can consolidate knowledge and maximise learning opportunities for pupils. The introduction of the computing curriculum may have developed some specialised skills in some but has it been at the expense of broader digital skills for many?
In my view, it is not a failure for expensive reforms to be corrected before they properly flourish. In 2020, we can’t afford to be ambivalent about digital skills, confidence and digital literacy for our young people. The essential Digital Skills Framework for adults also shows us how much of a national challenge we have.
And as Covid-19 unfolded, these areas of neglect became clearer. I hope this will accelerate the use of Edtech across our education system. I want our government to be a ‘stubborn organiser’ of modern technology infrastructure for our schools, and promote the positives of digital learning. Nor should they shy away from leadership that liberates the talents of and the entrepreneurial flair of our Edtech company founders.
This is a sector deserving of more than an afterthought on an overlong list of ministerial responsibilities. Education technology is not a ‘mobile phones in school’ scare story or a ‘social media end of days’ nightmare but an imaginative set of tools to support and access learning. For many, it’s easier to lump all technology together in some dystopian playbook.
But this a sector that creates jobs, grows our exports for UK plc and attracts muchneeded investment. Our Edtech sector is vibrant (see panel opposite for some recommendations from the Edtech 50), growing and plays its full part in our ‘New Start’ Industrial Strategy. So what do we need to do? For me there are six easy steps.
Firstly, we need to build on the success of the rural broadband introduction with a staged approach to rolling out access to super-fast broadband to our schools.
Secondly, it’s vital that we become more ambitious about devices for pupils. Digital poverty is corrosive and can be ended. Let’s build national delivery of devices for young people – Year 8 is too late.
In the third place, now is the time for more professional development for teachers. I would argue that peer to peer support like the successful Edtech Demonstrator Programme is a model for national action.
Fourthly, we need to see the immediate changes to initial teacher education with training in education technology. This is another long overdue addition.
Fifthly, I believe we need to see priority for Edtech in the Ofsted Inspection Framework. There’s much to share about effective use of technology and much to learn from Wales and Scotland in their approach.
As a final point, we have to learn to appreciate the complexities of organisational change across our school estate. We need to focus on technology support but also ‘system’ support to introduce and embed changes.
If we can do all these things then I believe we can have a truly 21st century education system.