2020 vision: edtech in 2020 with Alexander Shea

Q. What should schools, colleges and universities be focusing on for 2020?

Alexander Shea: Edtech training for teachers. Since Margaret Thatcher introduced the first micro-computers into British schools in 1981, UK governments have spent £3bn on providing schools with computers, laptops and other forms of hardware. By contrast, in the same period only £220m has been spent on training teachers in the digital skills necessary to successfully use these devices in the classroom.

In 2003 the Department for Education noted that, for every £1 spent on edtech hardware, 30 pence would need to be spent on teachers’ digital training. We have clearly fallen short of this benchmark.


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The result of this asymmetry in investment has been the proliferation, in schools, of ‘cupboards of shame’. In our 2018 survey, only 40% of schools in England reported that education technology has helped them achieve their objectives, and this has not been helped by the images of cupboards stocked full of unused devices going to waste for want of digital training for teachers.

Fortunately, schools are prepared to give edtech a second chance: 68% of schools note that training teachers to integrate edtech into the classroom is their priority for the coming year.

Q. What, if any, policy changes would you like to see in education this year?

AS: Recently, the UCL Institute of Education published a study that found that, outside of natural pupil ability, family background and random variation, the scale of a school’s investment in learning resources is the biggest predictor of its students’ exam results.

The importance of investment in learning resources is so obvious, yet it has not been reflected in schools’ spending patterns since 2003.

The importance of investment in learning resources is so obvious, yet it has not been reflected in schools’ spending patterns since 2003. Schools spent four pence in every £1 on learning resources in 2003, and this figure remains the same today. By contrast, schools’ spending on teaching staff, energy and catering have increased by 138%, 75% and 184% in the same period. This is, of course, not the schools’ fault: it is the result of the budget pressures that have seen per-pupil spending decrease by 8% since the 2008 recession.

However, with academics showing that spending just £100 more per pupil on learning resources increases exam scores by 5%, and is cost-neutral as a result of the increased taxable earnings these students generate, it is surely time to take stock and change path. It’s time we properly resourced our schools.

Q. What policy changes do you actually expect to see in 2020?

AS: Boris Johnson has appointed Rachel Wolf, former director of the New Schools Network, as the chief author of his party’s manifesto. Given that Wolf’s views on education are well known among policymakers – she authored her first major publication on education reform at the age of 23 – and that her views are shared by Johnson’s other key advisers, it looks clear what a Conservative government would offer us.

I’d expect the Conservatives to outline commitments in three areas.

Firstly, given that Wolf herself engineered the inclusion of the Curriculum Fund (an online portal where teachers will be able to access curriculum resources paid for on their behalf by the DfE) in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, this will remain government policy. This will cement the move towards a model where teachers are channelled towards certain ‘authorised’ resources.

Secondly, with Wolf being of the view that schools fail ‘bright but poor’ students, there will be more assisted places for state students to attend private schools. Lastly, I’d expect some form of edtech initiative. Wolf is a former director of the US edtech company Amplify, and wrote in this year’s Google in Education report of her belief in the virtue of edtech.

I think the most useful change would be a move away from the mode of thought that has seen us identify issues such as assessment, teacher workload or accountability as discrete areas, each of which can be separated from one another.

Q. If you could pinpoint one area of improvement for the education sector during 2020, what would it be?

AS: I think the most useful change would be a move away from the mode of thought that has seen us identify issues such as assessment, teacher workload or accountability as discrete areas, each of which can be separated from one another.

It’s this way of thinking that has got us into our current predicament. Take teacher workload: the DfE reported last year that it has worked with 94% of teachers on actions they can take to reduce workload.

If these efforts have failed (and with this summer’s report that England’s teachers work eight hours a week more than the OECD average, they clearly have), it is a result of the incompatible reforms in the adjacent areas of ‘assessment’ and ‘accountability’. One team in the DfE has worked to reduce workload; another has introduced 13 new school examinations since 2010. These policies are clearly at odds. Similarly, an accountability system that, until recently, has focused exclusively on exam results is not going to help teachers.

Q.Is there a particular area within edtech that you think should be the main focus for 2020?

AS: Rather than focus on developments to edtech product ranges, I’d like to comment on an area which I believe should be of broader focus to the sector as a whole.


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The UK is a global leader in edtech. As the Financial Times has reported, of Europe’s 20 fastest-growing edtech companies, half are based in London. This is one of the densest concentrations of edtech companies seen in any city in the world. There are 75 edtech companies per million people in London, outflanked only by Beijing and Shanghai.

Nevertheless, with 99.5% of our edtech companies currently classified as SMEs, the next challenge we face is helping them mature into the next ‘unicorn’ companies such as Tencent and New Oriental.

W: besa.org.uk

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