The government has signalled its ambition of realising the untapped potential of technology across the education ecosystem - we fully support those aims.
Writing in yesterday's Telegraph, secretary of state for education Damian Hinds outlined his vision for education technology - or edtech - talking about the “revolutionary ways” he has seen it in use.
Students “are able to explore the rainforest, steer virtual ships or programme robots” from their classroom, Hinds notes. Meanwhile, teachers are able to access training, share best practice with colleagues and update parents on a pupil’s progress whilst keeping their main focus on teaching.
At Jisc, we welcome this high level focus on the potential of edtech to support innovation in teaching and learning and were glad to be a part of the discussions with DfE and other industry bodies that led to this high level vision. We’ve seen first hand how nuanced use of digital technologies in education can reduce teacher workload, enhance student success and boost learners’ mental health and wellbeing.
The results speak for themselves, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways.
For example Goole College, part of the Hull College Group, has found that its virtual welding app lets learners on NVQ and BTEC engineering courses progress faster towards their employment goals, making welding training enjoyable, risk-free and even accessible to younger learners on the college’s 14-16 programme.
What can make the secretary of state’s vision a reality?
First and foremost, it is crucial to establish a level playing field across the education ecosystem in terms of ICT infrastructure.
Learners at school and college should have a high standard of broadband and wifi, and access to the devices that will let them use it.
A recent BESA survey found that only 33% of secondary schools and 60% of primary schools consider that they are sufficiently equipped with ICT infrastructure and devices.
Jisc’s high-power Janet Network already connects nearly half of UK schools to the internet, working with NEN – The Education Network. We’re keen to explore the scope for how technologies that universities and colleges already benefit from could also be used by schools, such as single sign-on (one user name and password for everything) and eduroam wireless roaming.
Tackling the digital skills shortage
We need to embed digital skills into the curriculum and give educators the support they need to teach them.
The British Chambers of Commerce spoke to businesses and found that 75% of UK firms are facing a digital skills shortage. There has been some great work done here by the devolved nations, and the Welsh government’s Digital Competence Framework nicely complements the English curriculum’s focus on coding.
But this isn’t just about schools. Jisc’s student digital experience survey in 2017 found that only half of further and higher education learners felt that their course had prepared them for today’s digital workplace.
It’s time to get smarter about supporting edtech innovators and "edupreneurs".
According to Private Equity Wire, the edtech sector is one of the fastest growing digital sectors in Britain with over 1,200 companies and UK schools alone spending some £900m on edtech every year.
Approximately 25% of Europe’s edtech firms are UK based, and the UK is Europe’s number one in edtech venture capital, responsible for a third of all investment.
But even then the edtech startups and scaleups that we work with as part of the Jisc edtech launchpad accelerator tell us that they struggle to sell into the fragmented UK market of some 25,000 schools, and hundreds of multi-academy trusts, colleges and universities.
Working to cut teachers' workloads
As we use apps, devices and websites for work and play, we generate a trail of data. If handled carefully, this could be used to help reduce teacher workload and even nudge learners and tutors - like a virtual sharp elbowed parent.
At Jisc, we’ve been working to harness this "data exhaust" through our national learning analytics service, which has just gone live with 30 universities and colleges in its initial cohort.
We think there’s ample scope for learning analytics to automatically gather data that would previously have required laborious manual work by teachers to capture and moreover, will make a big difference to student success and wellbeing.
I hope you can see that there’s a recurring theme here - edtech isn’t a silver bullet for student success, a magical and sparkly sci-fi solution looking for a problem. It’s here and now, but as author William Gibson once famously wrote, “the future isn’t evenly distributed”.
Our job now is to help translate what works from one setting to another, from schools to colleges, from universities to lifelong learners.
It’s a very exciting time and it’s great to see that the government is lending its support to this work which will be so crucial to the future of the UK.