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The DfE EdTech strategy – abort, retry, fail?

David Kernohan casts a critical eye over a strategy that seems to do more for vendors than it does for learners.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Everything is always new in education technology. But the release of a new “EdTech Strategy” from the Department for Education just makes me feel even older than I already do – I remember the release of the last one, in 2005.

The newer iteration is at least as focused on supporting the education technology industry as it is learners. Though in 2005 we did look to the “ICT industry” to bring forward innovations – particularly in the world of educational content – in 2019 we are looking at three clear commitments to support the industry hanging under the industrial strategy.

But the industry capture only really hits home when you consider the number of actions aimed directly at supporting learners – none. The older language around information, advice and guidance – and around personalised learning (once the great hope of EdTech, and still current in marketing) – is nowhere to be seen.

This is primarily a strategy aimed at getting technology into schools and universities. Where the text does address what actually happens in classrooms and lecture theatres, we see some indication of the contemporary hopes for an edtech revolution. We can cut educator workload by at least 20%. We can identify ways to improve “anti-cheating software” to help tackle the problem of essay mills.

It’s not exactly earth-shattering. Technology apparently has (like facebook political advertisements and Twitter harassment) ” become embedded throughout society and has transformed the way we expect to engage with services and consume content.” And though there are “pockets” of “good practice” the central call is for modern infrastructure, digital capabilities, digital procurement and something to address concerns around privacy, safety, and data security. Though many providers are now considering retreating from using “cloud” services for these reasons, the strategy is keen that schools stick with the “cloud first” approach first used in government in 2013.

There is a lot to “demonstrate” and “prove”. Can technology level the playing field for learners? Can technology support flexible professional development? Can technology improve the delivery of online basic skills for adults? Can the research community identify the best technology that is proven to help level the playing field for learners? DfE is are not sure.

The promise of technology

Technology in education is already doing all of these things but has yet to provide the transformational moment that has been long promised. It is a useful tool, which in certain circumstances can benefit some groups of learners. There is already research (of variable quality, to be fair, but some very scholarly research) that sets this out.

But the whole strategy makes two fundamental errors. Firstly, it assumes that the benefits from new technology will be universal. And secondly, it fails to take any account of the vast amounts of existing technology in the education sector.

Look around the seminar room. An ageing tower PC is embedded in a small, locked cabinet with a wireless keyboard and mouse sitting on top of it. A projector points to a patch of wall where the old and nearly-useless electronic whiteboard used to hang. There’s a box of remote response devices in the store cupboard, next to an ancient set of VR goggles from the last time virtual reality was cool. An academic is late to arrive, having spent two hours uploading powerpoint slides to Blackboard. She forgets to start the lecture capture process and pauses during her introduction to do so.

The walls of universities teem with abandoned initiatives, the days of staff and students are spent battling with incompatible and sluggish institutional systems. IT departments, contrary to cliche, are more likely to rant about terrible vendors than useless academics.

You would think – with a decade and a half of at best limited success to reflect on – that we need to consider what technology actual educators would make use of. And if the answers are negative – not this, less of that – we should be respecting these expertise and experience-driven answers.

Damian Hinds briefly reflects on this state of affairs in the introduction:

Yet all too often technology initiatives have failed to deliver value for money and, crucially, failed to have a positive impact. We know that not all education settings benefit from the modern broadband infrastructure needed to capitalise on the use of technology. It can be hard for leaders to understand how technology can support positive change and teachers are often told to just ‘find a way to integrate technology or devices in the classroom’. It can be difficult for education leaders to separate evidence-based practice and products from a vast range of gimmicks.

But this is a deficit model of change – initiatives have failed to fly because the infrastructure wasn’t ready, or because leaders and teachers lack skills. Never because the education technology itself was deficient in design or development. And the idea that technological interventions in teaching require at least some knowledge of the practice of teaching or the process of learning is not even considered.

Get on the tech train

The 2005 “eStrategy” named Jisc and BECTA (the old British Educational Communications Technology Association – memorably closed by Michael Gove in 2010, literally his first act as Secretary of State for Education) as key delivery partners. Jisc’s HE and FE connectivity, training, security and licensing work warrant a mention – the schools equivalent these days seems to be BESA (the British Educational Suppliers Association).

So the body charged by the government with promoting education technology to the compulsory sector – in its own words “the trade association for the UK’s world-leading education suppliers”. The people promoting technology to schools are the people that want to sell as much technology as they can to schools.

The strategy will be overseen by an “EdTech Leadership group” – representatives across the education sector and industry – to continue to drive this agenda forward and to produce an “EdTech Agreement” by the end of 2019. Progress, after all, waits for no-one.

“I believe technology can be an effective tool to help reduce workload, increase efficiencies, engage students and communities, and provide tools to support excellent teaching and raise student attainment.” says the Secretary of State.

His 2005 counterpart, Ruth Kelly, suggested that “For teachers, lecturers and tutors [technology] means easy and efficient ways of keeping in touch, giving feedback on students’ progress, and managing marking, and assessment” and “imaginative use of ICT should help engage more learners in the excitement of learning”.

It is difficult to be sure whether Hinds was aware of the previous strategy – or if he thinks that just one more push (and a lot more support for industry) will make these dreams reality.

If Britain’s “world-leading EdTech sector” was genuinely offering radical solutions to problems faced by learners and educators, rather than useful if dull iterations to existing systems or flashy gimmickry – we wouldn’t need this strategy to help them.

4 responses to “The DfE EdTech strategy – abort, retry, fail?

  1. Hi David, thanks for a good review. I agree with a few of your statements but I read the strategy document with a different lens. It is written not only for universities and we are a group where I think best practice has been embedded more than in other sectors. And we are not yet there.. how many universities have a digital strategy?
    I more baffled by the focus on wireless connectivity over hardware: it has been years since I had connectivity issues but I don’t have easy access to a flexible enough computer to do what I would like in my teaching; as a governor in a small primary we have managed to improve wifi but there is no way battling with budget costs can allow us to provide all students with access to the technology they will need to effectively integrate into an ‘EdTech’ revolution (we have 3 old desktops per class, some old laptops and have just acquired a small number (I think 15) IPads – for 200 students.
    I will leave it there as it seems I could go on for ages.

  2. The fundamental flaw which you have highlighted is this is a joint strategy developed by DfE and BEIS. There are two main drivers which reflect a schism. The DfE driver is defined by the restrictive definition of Educational Technology confined by Nick Gibbs obsession with ED Hirsch and Daniel Willingham. It only mentions technology for teaching and administration nowhere is learning mentioned. The BEIS driver is the export value of the products and services from UK companies to the big markets in the Middle east and Asia. So products and services trumps pedagogy and people. Finally there are eight million children in twenty six thousand schools and four million further and adult learners in colleges. £10m will not go far? Contrast that with £90m for computer science gcse and A levels and £50to expand Grammar schools.

  3. Thanks David for drawing attention to the announcement. Your concerns are valid, as always, but let’s not forget that fourteen years is a *very* long time in any technological industry. The EdTech community was nascent in 2005 (I won’t upset you further by revealing my age) and your analysis may overlook some significant grass-roots changes in the EdTech industry since then. Many key industry initiatives such as our incubator (Emerge) and startup community (The EdTech Exchange) are less than 5 years old, so it seems appropriate to me for the government to try to reengage vendors now that we have developed a stronger infrastructure. This strategy feels different for those of us developing EdTech because there is so much more support and expertise to work with.

    You are of course correct that learners’ needs are absolutely key for the success of any EdTech. My own organisation was awarded one of the two recent EdTech investments from DfE and I can confirm that user-testing was absolutely central to the ongoing monitoring and assessment of their funding. It seems that the government has learnt lessons in the past 14 years, and partnering with Innovate UK and SBRI was smart to use their existing frameworks to monitor this new funding. We’re only 4 months into a 9-month timeline but we have a stable enough Beta ( that we can now take to 25 schools around the country to continue to better understand the needs of students and improve our service over the next 3 months. In my experience at least, the DfE were very aware of the need to user-test and put learners’ needs at the heart of the apps, and were helpful in providing opporunities for us to test our services.

    Lastly, whilst I agree that the UK EdTech scene needs to discover its poster child, companies such as UniFrog and BridgeU are making great strides in influencing the future of thousands of students. However, UK EdTech currently receives significantly less investment than comparable companies in the US – and I believe that this will be to the detriment of the education system in the long run. This is why the UK government can (and I think should) invest in EdTech to make up the difference until that poster child is found, and the private sector catches up. [Source:

    As Bob Harrison correctly points out above, £10million is a fairly small commitment from DfE. I believe that they positively tested a paultry £300,000 of investment for the LEO apps, and are now testing a larger sum. If they are happy with the results – and it’s up to the EdTech companies to deliver now – this may unlock further funding. It’s now on us to use this opportunity wisely before DfE and BEIS commit anything further. Seems smart to me.

  4. Great article, these 2 lines sum it up for me:

    “The people promoting technology to schools are the people that want to sell as much technology as they can to schools.”

    “If Britain’s “world-leading EdTech sector” was genuinely offering radical solutions to problems faced by learners and educators, rather than useful if dull iterations to existing systems or flashy gimmickry – we wouldn’t need this strategy to help them.”

    The input on the strategy is by people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. We need more innovators who have the best interests in improving the learning experience involved. Sadly, most EdTech lacks innovation and is designed for an outdated system, and this strategy seems designed to help sell said EdTech.

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