Earlier this month, the much-awaited education technology (edtech) strategy for England was launched with a speech by education secretary Damian Hinds at the Schools and Academies Show 2019.
The focus of the edtech strategy is on how tech can be used to make a positive difference in schools, colleges and universities. What changes might be envisaged as the new strategy beds in? In this article, I’ll try to map a path between the direction of travel set in the edtech strategy and the vision of Education 4.0 that Jisc is developing with members.
As Wonkhe's David Kernohan notes, it’s 14 years since the previous edtech strategy, and a lot has changed in that time. Not only has the internet become pervasive and all-encompassing, but the bulky beige boxes we used to have to use to get on to it have shrunk into svelte slabs of glass and aluminium.
The importance of literacy and numeracy
Apps and websites have proliferated to fill just about every need; instantly, and on demand.
But education isn’t like that; tight budgets can mean that equipment is used until it breaks, and let’s face it, nobody wants their kids to be experimental test subjects. And until the skill pill is invented, we have to face the facts that it takes time to learn stuff. And everyone learns in their own way, at their own pace.
Nowhere could this matter more than literacy and numeracy, where, in spite of numerous well-intentioned policy interventions, the UK still struggles to get a third of its 11 year olds up to speed. And for some learners the outcomes are far worse – at a school near me, two thirds of pupils fail to reach expected standard at Key Stage 2.
At the same time, job roles that might once have been regarded as wholly vocational have increasingly been academicised, with degree-level entry requirements now the norm in areas like nursing and midwifery.
As I said in my evidence to the Education Select Committee inquiry into the Fourth Industrial Revolution in January, there is a crisis brewing here - literacy and numeracy underpin the digital skills required by the near-future industries that will be the backbone of the UK’s economy in future decades. And those ‘expected’ levels of literacy and numeracy are also becoming essential for everyday life, as the high street and public services alike move from the world of atoms to the world of bits – from bricks to clicks.
So, while digital skills are seen mainly as an opportunity for people to find their way into new careers and even new industries, it’s important to acknowledge that there are millions who risk being left behind - and need a leg up. The British Chambers of Commerce found that three quarters of UK businesses already had a shortage of staff with key digital skills like word processing and spreadsheet editing, and a survey by Barclays found that nearly half of UK adults lacked these core digital skills.
Commoditised computing and pervasive connectivity have already transformed so many areas of our lives; when did you last plan a journey on a paper map, consult a printed timetable, or visit a travel agent to book a holiday? Education has been changing too, but much more cautiously.
Ten grand challenges
The edtech strategy focusses on immediate practical steps such as helping to build the evidence base for effective edtech and helping educators to learn from their peers. At the same time, it sets out ten grand challenges on which edtech companies and educators are encouraged to collaborate, supported by a £10m innovation fund.
These challenges include reducing teacher workload by at least two hours a week and showing how technology can facilitate flexible and part-time working.
We’ve heard from Jisc members that Industry 4.0 technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) have huge potential in education, with AI especially starting to be used in everything from admissions to assessments. Looking ahead, perhaps the key question now for our policy makers and institutional leaders is really about risk appetite. Do we take cautious incremental steps or bold leaps into the future?
Read all about our Education 4.0 vision and how members can get involved.