Skills minister on path to 'ICT for learning' strategy?

At the BETT 2014 show at the ExCeL Centre in London’s Docklands, skills and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock MP announced the creation of an Educational Technology Action Group (Etag). Chaired by Professor Stephen Heppell, this starts next week (February 4) to look at the ICT needs of the UK’s education community from schools through further education to universities.

The irony is that this development hasn’t come from where it might have been expected, Michael Gove’s Department for Education (DfE) but from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills where Matthew Hancock, who also has a brief for the DfE, has been instrumental in setting up the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group (Feltag) in 2013.

Gove announced 400 computing 'master teachers' but only has 120 for 20,000 schools

Matthew Hancock has been tipped as the politician with the best understanding of ICT for learning, and as the one who is serious about creating something substantial and lasting to help education institutions and their communities get best use and value from their technology, rather than simply issue sound bites like his colleague over at the DfE. Many in the BETT Arena to hear silver-tongued Michael Gove’s ministerial address will have been aware that fewer than half of the 400 computing “master teachers” he blithely announced would help other teachers deliver the new curriculum in September in England’s 20,000 schools have actually been engaged – so far there are a mere 120.

It never helps to denigrate your workforce, as he did with his throwaway comment: "When I last spoke at BETT, in 2012, I announced that the then ICT curriculum – universally acknowledged as unambitious, demotivating and dull – had to go." So it was no surprise to see teachers leaving the BETT Arena. Despite any shortcomings of the "old" curriculum, many teachers were doing excellent work with their learners, including coding from an early age using 'floor turtle' devices like Roamer and Beebot.

Very few of the current administration had any understanding of this field when they took office, and none of them acknowledged it, so it's no wonder that many in the BETT audience were angered by Gove's description of the “old, discredited ICT curriculum” as, "teaching pupils, over and over again, how to word process, how to work a spreadsheet, how to use programs already creaking into obsolescence; about as much use as teaching children to send a telex or travel in a zeppelin". That description might have been better suited to the European Computer Driving Licence course which was, of course, being peddled by the British Computer Society, the very people he outsourced his curriculum to.

Both ministers played to their BETT audiences with their references to cutting edge and popular (for now) technologies, much like Tomorrow's World presenters. Michael Gove revealed that he's a fan of Snapchat. Very apt. If only he had used this service, where users can set their messages to self-delete, instead of Gmail he might not have been ordered to reveal the Google messages between him and his spads (special advisers).

A problem for politicians at BETT in recent years has been that this community has, in general, been more knowledgeable than them about learning and teaching with technology. That’s probably why so few politicians take part in any meaningful debates or press conferences. Even at the Education World Forum at the beginning of BETT week you could find education ministers from all over the world taking part in panel discussions but not a single UK minister. At EWF Gove was, as always, lavish in his praise of the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher but he wouldn’t deign to sit on a panel with him or anyone else to discuss his own education policies with the experts. Bear in mind that the UK is the host country for about 90 education ministers representing around 83 per cent of the world's learners.

'Technology makes teachers more valuable'

Matthew Hancock appears to be different, maybe because he is also an economist. A visit to the Edmix stand at BETT 2014 (see photo above), which featured innovative education products like learning platformMobento and infant computer construction kit Kano, was a natural choice given his interests.

Although he paid tribute to his DfE colleague Michael Gove, his BETT address was far better nuanced for educators as he explored what rapid advances in technology could mean for learning, "About new tools we can use. About what we’re doing in government to support innovation – and most important of all, about how technology can empower teachers, raise standards - and lead to a brighter future."

After teasing out the various ways in which technology could support teachers, for example by removing the "drudge" of admin to free up more quality time with learners, he added, "We should judge technology not by technical terms, but by its ability to drive up standards. We should think about changing the ethos – not just changing the equipment. Because in each of these cases, technology makes teachers more valuable."

In 2013 he worked carefully with partners – educators, ALT (the Association for Learning Technology) and representatives from industry – to take a close look at further education and how this community could benefit from more effective deployment and use of technology. One of the first things the Feltag group did was to create a website to share its notion of the key “workstreams” needing attention and recommendations in FE and asking for feedback and help from educators to focus and re-present them properly. There are six work streams and the kinds of things they looked at were colleges' awareness of funding and how to exploit potential, how changes to inspection and assessment requirements might increase appropriate use of technology and horizon scanning to keep abreast of change. The final report and recommendations are yet to come.

Etag should extend this work to schools and higher education, and it holds its inaugural meeting on February 4. In Professor Heppell, Etag has a chair who has extensive experience across all education sectors, who commands widespread respect in their communities and in industry, and is sufficiently removed from the cut and thrust of party politics to be able to help develop a policy consensus. .He says that he is pleased to have been asked and thinks the task really matters, particularly that it has a world view.

Making the announcement at BETT 2014, Matthew Hancock warned, "New technology brings out sceptics on one side, and utopians on the other. The lesson is to fall into neither trap. We must neither fear nor fetishise technology. We must be clear about its potential to raise standards, without wanting tech for its own sake."

ICT 'can help elevate teaching to the status it deserves'

With evident pride he went on, "Today I am delighted to announce a new Education Technology Action Group. This group of experts will identify how learning technology can be best used – across schools, universities and colleges. I’m hugely proud that we have a distinguished membership – chaired by Professor Stephen Heppell – and that Anant Agarawl, President of EdX, will attend our first meeting in February.

"By next year’s BETT show, who knows what sort of inventions will have been unveiled. If 2013 gave us confused mice, invisible skyscrapers and resurrected frogs, maybe we really will have hoverboards by BETT 2015. None of us can say where sheer human ingenuity will take us next. None of us can say what the imagination and vigour of our scientists and entrepreneurs will discover. But one thing is clear, education technology has immense potential. Used properly – seen as neither a solve-all solution, nor as something to be rejected out of hand – it can raise standards.

"And most important of all, it can help elevate teaching to the status it deserves. A high-end profession, that focuses on what really matters: the honest, human work of inspiring, leading – and educating – our children.

The announcement was welcomed by an ICT community that has been dismayed by the Government's evident lack of understanding of the importance of technology for teaching for learning, and especially in the context of rebuilding the UK economy. There was a feeling that the ground was being prepared for a significant step forward.