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Technology companies and teachers – what problem is your product solving?

Written by: Rachel Evans
6 min read

Even though ICT and digital technology have been on the agenda in education since the first BBC Micro rolled off the production line in 1981, a debate continues in which the signal is often lost in the noise. New products, ideas and initiatives come and go but as a profession we still seem undecided on a fundamental point: how, if at all, can technology be used to benefit teaching and learning? Too often the debate is polarised – evangelist versus sceptic – complicated by issues of funding (lack of), spending (too high or low) and training (never enough).

Despite the launch of the BBC Micro being almost 40 years ago, we still seem to be going over the same ground. Explicitly focused on the education market from the start, the BBC Micro was part of the ambitious BBC Computer Literacy Project (BBC, 2018). Digital literacy seems as pressing now as it was in the recession of the early 1980s, informed by the anxieties of our own decade about knowledge, skills and how best to equip our students for a rapidly changing economic and employment landscape.

Discussion around the role that artificial intelligence might play in education is also a prominent topic. Machine learning may help to deliver benefits to the education system, but there are important questions to address around impact, efficacy and the risks of bias and inequality (Luckin , 2018). With these ongoing developments and debates, teachers have an opportunity to rethink approaches to the provision of technology in schools.

What problem are we trying to solve?

Too often in selecting software for our classrooms we are starting with the wrong questions. A plethora of apps and products fills a crowded marketplace. Before visiting BETT or tapping the download button, we should be asking what problem are we trying to solve? By starting here, we can approach the selection of the product by first asking two straightforward questions: is the product based on sound pedagogical principles and has the developer engaged with teachers when developing the product? By plunging into using an app and then assessing its usefulness, we are only doing half the job; and when in due course that app is using an algorithm to direct student progress or process our students’ data, wouldn’t it be better to know from the start that it was going to be fair, safe and effective?

Nesta addressed this point back in 2012 in their paper Decoding Learning  (Luckin et al., 2012). The authors report spoke strongly of ‘the significant disconnect between educational technology’s key partners – industry, research, teachers and learners’, and issued a call to arms:

Industry, researchers and teachers need to work closely together to test ideas and evaluate potential innovations before they are taken to market. Such a process would benefit industry by providing clear evidence of effectiveness that would potentially boost sales; it would benefit teachers who would have access to better products on the market; and, ultimately, it would benefit learners.

Has any progress been made in this regard in the past six years?

By 2016, a cross-departmental ministerial and expert group, ETAG (ETAG, 2016), published a series of recommendations about how technology could be used in education, which, while thorough in its survey of the research literature, did not tackle the issue of product development.

The UCL Institute of Education established EDUCATE in 2017 to bring together start-up tech companies and researchers to develop products with a research basis built in (EDUCATE, 2017). Four cohorts of companies have participated in the programme so far, producing research-led products, including some that use machine learning systems. One may or may not agree with the direction in which innovations of this kind might take education, but at least they are thoroughly and reliably researched, and are not making unsubstantiated claims about effectiveness – there is recognition of the nuances of human learning.

So, progress is being made, but it feels slow and often confined to academic research projects rather than spreading more widely through the marketplace and schools. Anecdotal experience would suggest that tech companies are keen to hire teachers for their teams, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that evidence-based research is being baked into the product: it may just be that a teacher offers greater credibility on the stand at BETT. Meanwhile, the juggernaut of the tech companies rolls onward in a market that is estimated to be worth £129 billion by 2020 (Manning , 2017). If, as a nation, we are spending that amount of money on services for education, we surely have a duty to ensure not only that it’s spent well, but also that the products are pedagogically sound.

In the summer of 2018, the Minister for Education, Damian Hinds, challenged the tech industry to launch ‘an education revolution for schools, colleges and universities’ (DfE, 2018), saying  that ‘It’s only by forging a strong partnership between government, technology innovators and the education sector that there will be sustainable, focused solutions’. The bulk of his statement, however, focused on trials, reviews and evaluation of products. While laudable, this does not tackle the need to improve the quality of the products in the marketplace in the way that Nesta and EDUCATE suggest is necessary, by involving teachers and education experts at the development stage.

The research that is being undertaken by technology companies and within universities may be of excellent quality, but how quickly can these ideas reach individual teachers? Talking to teachers and tech entrepreneurs last summer at events during London Tech Week, I was struck by the eagerness of many start-up companies to hear from teachers, but with little sense of how to go about finding them.

How might change come about? I’d suggest the following:

For organisations, research institutions and government
  • More initiatives from technology companies to incubate pedagogically sound products, modelled on EDUCATE’s work.
  • Nesta and the government have identified a lack of clarity about digital strategy in schools as a barrier to innovation. Let’s create toolkits to help school leaders tackle this , drawing on the experience of groups or schools with effective strategies that are delivering on their aims.
For tech companies
  • Be open to a dialogue with teachers that would promote greater understanding and more open conversations. Tell us about your research rather than give us a sales pitch. Involve us in developing your products. Use existing teacher networks to find the right people to talk to.
For schools and teachers
  • Define the problem. Be specific about the problem you face and whether technology might help you solve it.
  • Read widely – the research is out there. Do your own action research to clarify what you need in your school and classroom (Nevill , 2018).
  • Move beyond being a consumer by engaging with developers to create products that are informed by practising teachers. Ask developers how they create their product and how they measure success.

Alongside the development of evidence-based products, we can work to share our knowledge and evaluation of existing education technology. In the USA, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE, 2018) plans to launch a review and evaluation site for educators to share their knowledge and assessment of technology products – the larger market and extensive adoption of education technology in US schools may provide a wide-ranging and useful source of data. The school-led education technology evaluation platform announced in October 2018 (see edtechimpact.com) could do the same for the UK market, particularly if it is connected to existing organisations offering joined-up thinking about pedagogy and technology.

With AI around the corner, offering both potential benefits and risks, we as educators must take the lead now in focusing our attention on getting the best possible products to best serve our students.

References

BBC (2018) Computer Literacy Project Archive. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/pilots/computer-literacy-project (accessed 2018).
DfE (2018) New Technology to spearhead classroom revolution. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-technology-to-spearhead-classroom-revolution (accessed 2018).
EDUCATE (2017) Education, research, edtech. Available at: https://educate.london/ (accessed 2018).
ETAG (2016) Education Technology Action Group: Our reflections. Available at: http://etag.report/ (accessed 2018).
ISTE (2018) ISTE announces new platform to help educators share reviews of tech tools with confidence. Available at: https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=2225&category=Press-Releases&article (accessed 2018).
Luckin R (2018) Machine Learning and Human Intelligence. Available at: http://instituteforethicalaiineducation.org/ (accessed 2018).
Luckin R, Bligh B, Manches A, et al. (2012) The Proof, Promise and Potential of Digital Education. London: Nesta.
Manning E (2017) Out with the old school. The rise of ed tech in the classroom. The Guardian, 1 August 2017.
Nevill M (2018) Action research in the classroom: A quick guide. Available at: https://www.tes.com/news/action-research-classroom-quick-guide (accessed 2018).
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