Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Schools ICT policy

Schools ICT policy

What are education technology companies hoping for from the government?

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After months of silence on the subject from the government, December finally brought education technology companies some much needed signs that the government hadn’t forgotten about the role of technology and computing in education. Speaking at The Schools Network in December, the Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove said that there ‘is a perception by some that my department isn’t especially concerned about such things – that we care more about Tennyson than technology. That our interest is in Ibsen, not iTunes.’

But that, he said, was false. The government is looking at ‘flexible, adaptable learning within schools, taking advantage of the way technology is transforming education’. He cited examples like the Khan Academy, which provides tutorials on the web, educational gaming, and a pilot programme to teach maths using computers run by the DfE, the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the Stanford Research Institute. He also considered the place of technology for creating better assessment systems and emphasised the need to look at content more than at hardware.

“The challenge for us is this,” Mr Gove concluded. “How we can harness the many exciting technological leaps that are constantly being made? We will be saying much more early in the new year. Make no mistake: this is a priority for me. I believe we need to take a serious, intelligent approach to educational technology if our children are not to be left behind.”

But, at the time of writing, the actual details of what Mr Gove and the DfE are proposing for the use of technology in education were still to be published – and, as with everything, the devil is in the details. So what are education technology companies hoping to hear from Mr Gove this month?

Gareth Davies, managing director of schools learning platform company Frog, says that what’s more clearly needed by education technology companies is guidance from the DfE about the use of technology. “Schools have lost guidance, they’re feeling isolated. The DfE seemed to be saying that technology is no longer relevant. Times are hard and schools are frightened of spending.”

Lewis Bronze, chief executive and co-founder of Espresso Education, agrees: “I’m hoping he’ll provide leadership on how technology can benefit schools – it’s a fact that the government have been slow in acknowledging the benefits of technology in education. So I’d like some very clear messages, not necessarily through legislation or anything like that but reflected through organisations like Ofsted, that a school with a good development plan will be a school that includes a good strategy on the development of ICT across all of its services, all of its subjects and all of its departments.”

But Andrea Forbes, UK and Ireland manager at equipment supplier Texas Instruments’s education technology group, warns against too prescriptive guidance. “If he recommends something like greater access to computer labs, which in a time of cutbacks isn’t available, that can’t be a template. I’ve just been to a school where a class went to a computer lab and that was the first time they’ve been in all term. So it’s got to be tempered with practicality.”

However, she cautions against removing prescription that results in less support for schools. “There are a lot of schools now operating with less support that are doing things independently that could previously have done things collaboratively.” She says having experts at local authorities who “understand the challenges and opportunities in each subject for ICT – different subjects have different needs” would help both schools and technology companies.

One kind of prescriptive guidance that the department should insist on, says Simon Barnes, the founder of specialist maths, English and science tutoring provider TLC Education, is support for British companies rather than overseas companies in technology choices. He wrote to Michael Gove after his speech to complain about the referencing of foreign companies in his speech. “It made me a little bit cross really,” says Mr Barnes. “I’m pleased he’s looking into Internet use for tuition. But the fact he cited going to Singapore and seeing a wonderful online session slightly raised an eyebrow, since we’re doing that – proper high-quality online lessons with good tutors – in the UK. Here we are, a British company, trying to struggle along, trying to get this out there and he starts talking about Singaporean lessons.”

Andrea Carr, head of educational publisher Rising Stars and chair of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), says that her experiences with the Department for Education’s technology unit suggest that British companies could indeed be in the unit’s sights. “There’s a level of engagement with BESA has been quite good. They’ve been engaging with stakeholders and as suppliers, we’ve been invited to show where our products and services can improve standards and raise education. We’ve been feeding in case studies and evidence for the last few months.” She adds that BESA members have been given the opportunity to feed into the department’s research process thus far.

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