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16 June 2014


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Hi Josie,

I agree with you that the focus has been on teaching technology (as a specialist subject: Computing) rather than using technology to assist learning across the curriculum (ed-tech / technology-enhance learning). But I believe that the two categories are distinct in a more radical sense than you suggest. It is not just about "embedding" technology across the curriculum: it is that "technology enhanced learning" is not a curriculum issue at all. It is a pedagogical issue. You can use technology to enhance learning without teaching anything to anyone (except, perhaps, how to press the "on" button).

This is why I disagree with your basic premise that "school staff are best placed to effectively develop practices that make best use of technologies".

The reason why I am against this is:

1. that pedagogical expertise is not confined to school staff - academic researchers and neurologists might have some useful insights too;

2. that effective education-specific technology (which so far, we have failed to develop) will embed pedagogy into the software, just as a Sage Accounting software embeds accounting practices into its software - and to do this, you need a combination of pedagogical and technical expertise, which is not available to the front-line teacher.

As someone else who routinely ignores the ETAG requirement to be "short and terse" (and I make no apology for addressing the rationale that must necessarily underpin any ETAG recommendations to government) I won't respond with a long analysis of your recommendations. Suffice it to say that they all depend on this being led by front-line teachers - which is the general approach that was tried under Becta and it didn't work.

Imagine we went on a kite-surfing course. I imagine that the first lesson would be to introduce us to the kite-surfs that we would be learning to use: here are the foot-straps, this is how you rig the lines etc etc. But in ed-tech, we don't have the kit - just the ingredients. Here is some nylon webbing, here is some fibreglass, and here are some examples of what previous students have bodged together etc. No wonder we are still splashing around in the shallows, with no serious evidence that the billions of pounds spent under Becta led to any significant learning gains.

So in my view, the first priority for ETAG should be to stimulate the market for ed-tech by stimulating competition and teacher-led demand. Developing the skills required for implementation will follow.

Thanks, Crispin.

Hi Crispin, thanks for taking the time to comment.

A quick reply to your comment that “I disagree with your basic premise that "school staff are best placed to effectively develop practices that make best use of technologies".”

I agree that pedagogical expertise is not the exclusive domain of school staff. Of course I am keen to see staff supported in connecting to external expertise and research, as well as to the expertise and experience of other educators. To be explicit: I am not suggesting that the best way to support school staff is to encourage them never to talk to anyone outside of their profession, or read anything not written by a school employee, or use any technology not developed by a teacher. Educators and schools of course connect to and work in the context of a wider range of practitioners, organisations, experts, research and practices. This is not an easy thing to do, and more difficult without the confidence and skill to use technologies to develop professional networks and collaborate at distance.

I have confidence that school employees are best placed to do their own jobs and develop their own practice (which includes using technologies), and I don’t see how it is possible to meaningfully work with school leaders, educators and support staff without having this confidence.

Your point is of course that in relation to the consultation scope, we don't have to work with education communities, or at least that shouldn't be a priority - that the market should be supported to lead, and if effective technologies are developed, schools or the government will buy them and staff will learn to use them. Personally, I'm significantly skeptical about this claim. I also think that there are technologies that can be used effectively to support learning, teaching and school communities, but for a wide range of reasons, aren't being made use of by all staff or all schools. My priority would be to invest in the development of school communities, and increase staff confidence, in making use of the wide range of technologies that can effectively support learning and teaching practices.

Hi Josie,

Thanks for the reply.

Of course, none of these things comes down to either/or - and we have to find the synergies between different elements. But also the priorities - which piece you move first in what is a complex puzzle.

I agree that teachers are best placed to do their own jobs - almost by definition because as soon as someone else does their job, that person becomes a teacher. I am also a passionate believer in the importance of the teacher - I have publicly opposed MOOCs on this basis. But there are many parallels with situations in which new technology changes the best way to do any particular job. It may be galling for an experienced handloom weaver to be told that technical advances have changed the skills that are required to do the job - but if that happened to teachers, they would not be the first group have workers to be affected by technology in this way. And that may be a reason why teachers who have developed their skills in non-digital classrooms may not be best placed to develop the ed-tech that will supersede that environment. It might be a bit like asking a committee of horse-drawn carriage drivers to design the first steam engine.

But I am not advocating that ed-tech should be specified by non-teachers and given to teachers to use whether they like it or not. This is what has tended to happen in the past, with the result that truck-loads of useless kit were unloaded on schools. In my view, teachers must drive the market, holding the upper hand in telling their SMTs what to buy because it works in the classroom. Only then will we get the right sort of industry: one that holds a mirror up to the wishes of the classroom teacher and not to the wishes of the bureaucracy (or the capitalists or the politicians - choose your favorite conspiracy theory).

You have every right to be sceptical of my belief that the right industry, operating in the right market, can develop technology that will make the difference. We can discuss at length what that kit would look like and how plausible it is that it would work - but in the end there can't be any empirical evidence to back my position because none of it has happened yet.

But I cite two facts which I think support my position.

1. By analogy with other sectors. If you look at business or transport or war or science or sport, they are stuffed with the sort of application-specific technologies that we lack in education - and (unlike in education) it makes a huge difference to the efficiency with which they operate. I think the onus is on your side of the argument to explain why education is so different to everybody else.

2. While I can't produce empirical evidence because my proposed strategy hasn't been tried yet, yours has. Under the last government, there was lots of money pumped into generic technologies (e.g. file-sharing, multimedia, social networking) in the expectation that teachers would develop tech-enabled pedagogies using OER, Teachmeets to share ideas etc. But even in the 20% of schools which Becta always claimed were making good use of this stuff, no-one has been able to produce the quantitative evidence to show that this has improved learning outcomes. Before you say to government "we need to replicate the excellent practice found in a minority of schools to the majority", you need to produce some solid evidence of the benefits of the practice of the minority. There may be many reasons why that evidence isn't there - but it certainly isn't for want of trying to collect it.

So I think the problem with ETAG is that it is led by teachers and teacher-representatives who, almost as a matter of principle, are against involving anyone outside their own circle in moving ed-tech forwards. People like me who challenge the shibboleths of that community are dismissed as trouble-makers and degenerates.

But I think that attitude is not only mistaken but also short-sited. Because (as I said at the top) it is not either-or, it is about building synergistic relations between kit and practice. Teachers, educationalists and visionaries would have much more likelihood of achieving their desire for pedagogical transformation if they moved beyond the metaphor of the boy-scout modelling club and found that they had some industry-strength kit at their elbow. Having the right tools of the trade will not de-skill teachers, it will empower them.

Best, Crispin.

Hi Crispin.

I haven’t previously talked about teachers - I’ve been referring to school staff throughout my response here, not just teachers. My experience of working with teachers doesn’t really relate to your characterisation of them.

In relation to quantitative learning outcomes I presume you mean research that can be directly related to improved results. I’m not personally of the mind that the only purpose of the school system is to produce good grades, and that there can be no value in any other use of technology. I think technologies can be used in ways that are very valuable for supporting community development, inclusive governance, and also for just having fun. Some of the schools I work with use technologies to support learners with severe learning difficulties or disabilities which reduce their life spans, and I believe these uses are incredibly valuable, but won't produce the kind of evidence you refer to here.

I also think there is an existing body of evidence about what works in terms of raising attainment, and what approaches have made a difference to learning outcomes. Many of these factors can be implemented, supported, or extended by the use of technology. Informative feedback is an example of this. Building effective partnerships around the school is an example of this. Improving professional expertise is an example of this. Peer support is an example of this. Given that we do have evidence about what works, I don’t understand the value of dismissing technologies on the grounds that just using them for their own sake doesn’t improve anything, or what the point is of looking for ‘solid evidence’ that just using technology will make things magically better.

In terms of ETAG, I can see one teacher who is a member of the action group, and one organisation which works with schools and industry partners. I don’t know how many teachers and teachers representative organisations responded to the open call, but hopefully it was quite a few. I don’t think that this represents a monopoly on opinion though.

Hi Josie,

I don't agree with you that the purpose of the education system is to support community development, inclusive governance or having fun - though some of these may be useful *means* of achieving the true ends of education, which are to induce students to achieve the right sorts of learning. And learning can be measured.

Quantitative research evidence is not confined to measuring exam grades. Impressionistic grades can be given to every other aspect of student achievement (motivation, creativity, teamwork) and this data can also be aggregated and analysed. At least in principle. I would agree with you that we have not been good at doing this and the quality of our education research has been very weak, as the Tooley report showed in 1998 and as Ben Goldacre has been underlining more recently (https://twitter.com/bengoldacre/status/479194509495259137).

But we do have exam data. This might not be hugely reliable at the individual level (as the frequency of re-marks shows) or comprehensive in its coverage of all aspects of learning - but in aggregated form, it provides a pretty good measure of the success of the school at addressing at least one important aspect of what schools need to be doing. If education technology cannot influence the one set of data that we do have, which in aggregated form is reliable, and which is responsive to changes in performance, why then should we believe that it is influencing other measures of success?

By this measure, it is by now absolutely clear that education technology has had no significant impact. The assessment of the EEF's 2012 "Impact of Digital Technologies on Learning" is that:

Taken together, the correlational and experimental evidence does not offer a convincing case for the general impact of digital technology on learning outcomes.


Research findings from experimental and quasi-experimental designs – which have been combined in meta-analyses – indicate that technology-based interventions tend to produce just slightly lower levels of improvement when compared with other researched interventions and approaches (such as peer tutoring or those which provide effect feedback to learners).

And if this second passage suggests that current ed-tech solutions have a small impact, one has to take into account that without control groups (which is the case with most educational research) almost *all* interventions show some positive improvement, which can be put down to the Hawthorne effect, the research equivalent of the placebo effect.

The introduction to Rose Luckin's "Decoding Learning" similarly states that:

"evidence of digital technologies producing real transformation in learning and teaching remains elusive. The education sector has invested heavily in digital technology; but this investment has not yet resulted in the radical improvements to learning experiences and educational attainment".

So if ETAG is going to state (on the basis of the unsupported beliefs of its members and a few tweets from technology enthusiasts) that "we do have evidence about what works" - all you are going to demonstrate is that the ETAG group has not even reached square one in the intellectual journey that it needs to take.

And that point hasn't escaped Matt Hancock, who, according to Dominic Norrish, left the recent launch of the Education Foundation's launch of its "Technology in Education" report,

"commenting on the need for evidence (cutting through all the anecdotes and war stories…)" (see https://twitter.com/domnorrish/status/478980686322601984)

Matt Hancock wants hard evidence and hard evidence does not exist. Of course I agree with you that "improving professional expertise" is almost by definition a good thing, and peer support and partnerships and all that stuff is also good. But that is just aspirational motherhood and apple pie without evidence to show that technology delivers these things, in ways that have a consequential impact on learning.

The FELTAG report went in the bin. Unless ETAG faces up to the facts and starts to do some hard thinking (which it shows no inclination to do), the ETAG report will end up in the same place.

With respect to the "monopoly of opinion", I don't say that ETAG is uniquely made up of teachers - but it is predominantly made of people who are committed to (and normally have an interest in) the current model of teacher-led ed-tech. And it has not given any reasoned response to the sorts of criticisms that I and others have been making of its base assumptions.

Hi Crispin,

It's clear from the length of and passion of your response that you, like me, think this is a very important area.

I am not a member of ETAG - I'm an an individual responding to an open call. I understand that you don't think my response is a good one, and you are dissatisfied with the consultation process. I've elaborated on my position above with regard to your comments, but I'm not sure what you think I can do in relation to the eventual ETAG recommendations, or indeed how or if any of these recommendations get acted on.

Consultations of this nature come without any guarantee - between the consultation and the recommendations and the recommendations and any eventual actions or implementation.

The value of an open consultation is in asking for ideas and opinions from a wide range of people, many of who will hold opposing views, and have differing priorities and agendas. I've tried to express mine here, but I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I have said.

I have not made any heavy responses to #ETAG for a number of reasons, partly because I am of a similar mind to a number of members on the group or to submissions already made.

However, in response to bother Josie's original article and the subsequent discussions I would like to raise a few things.

Learning through technology is not something new and is not unique to schools and other academic institutes, and this is sometimes lost. Without harking on to days gone by, a collective meeting of stakeholders in the UK assessments systems (back in 2009) showed that the methods for online assessment used in other training sectors were not being looked at by the then boards / agencies. The structure of the curriculum was being quoted as the barrier here, and yet the present changes to the curriculum seem to move even further away from the chances for online assessment or assessment when ready. Josie, your comment about looking at alternative routes hit to the heart of this. I have to admit that I have little trust for boards and publishers when they have such close ties.

I am thankful that Josie is like a number of members of ETAG, and they accept that a number of people within schools and their communities have a significant amount of expertise that can be drawn on to direct the possible changes ...

Crispin, there are a number of application-specific technologies already in education, but they are often tied in with curriculum specific content (i.e. apps or technology designed to target a specific section of the curriculum) but the market is surrounded by spin and politics rather than outcomes. The other issue on this is when presenting research on the success of these specific technologies there will always be questions about whether the technology had the largest impact or simply having a strategy for change made the difference.

I am more interested in people understanding change and how they plan change, rather than tying people down to specific technology or content.

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