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When it comes to technology in schools, remember skilled teachers are the only ‘killer app’

All around the world, education technology (or EdTech as some people like to call it) is an increasingly booming business. But we’ll only realise its potential if we focus on upskilling teachers to be at the heart of leading its use (or not) in schools.

Billions of pounds is being made by private investors and companies out of education hardware and software. This is primarily through sales to state-funded schools though increasingly directly to parents and learners too.

This is still relatively small change compared to public and charitable funding for education, but it’s growing rapidly. In 2014 the amount of education technology investment in the US increased by 55 per cent to almost two billion dollars (£1.2bn). To give a sense of pace, that’s about five times the $385m figure of 2009.

Silicon Valley is full of stories about EdTech start-up businesses raising hundreds of millions of dollars, with some UK companies starting to see success too. Most of these companies have international growth plans and are already active in the UK as the average teacher’s inbox will probably attest.

Around the world some national school systems are diving right in, aiming to quickly provide education technology to every child in the country, notably 400,000 laptops in Uruguay and nearly a million tablets in Thailand.

In UK schools it’s estimated that by April the total number of computers will have increased by 38,000 to around 2.72m in total. On average that works out to be about 86 new machines in each school and a total of 429 machines per school. This rapid growth even accounts for the falling number of desktop computers.

The British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), which is the trade association for education suppliers (including ‘EdTech’ firms), estimates UK schools will spend about £716 million on software and hardware this year, the highest figure since records began. That’s about £14,000 spent in each primary school and £65,000 in each secondary school, with particularly rapid growth in the latter. This is all within the context of flat or falling funding for schools as well as an increase in learners.

OK, so what? Is all the money schools are spending on these apps and widgets helping students to learn, grow and flourish? The answer is we don’t really know yet and, despite what some people might say, we probably never will. Yes we need more data and evidence about what helps learning and what’s good value for money, but you can’t measure everything that matters. Above anything else, when it comes to education technology what we really need is the engagement, judgement and leadership of skilled and confident teachers.

Regardless of all the marketing and hype, some technology, if used in the right way, can probably really help. However, some of it might do nothing, and some may even be harmful by wasting precious time and resources. The point is schools need to be able to decide which tools are best for their students, and support and develop their staff to use and test them. There’s no silver bullet, no revolution and no killer app. Education is a long-term, messy and complicated business. At the very heart of it we need really great teachers and principled leaders. They need to be able to pick the best tools for the job whether that’s something new and exciting, or something old and tested.

It’s important we give our school staff the support and development they need to make the most of education technology for their students, so we can work out what’s great value for money or digital snake oil. They also need to be able to manage issues like parental engagement, student data privacy, technology equality and fairness, and what’s a good return on investment (ROI).

This is already happening in places, with some amazing and inspiring examples that engage learners and equip them for the (digital) future. I was particularly struck recently by the way special schools are making use of technology, for instance through games, visual learning and touchscreens. But there’s a long way to go; we’re all on a journey that includes both technology and learning. We need good guides on that journey.

Schools are at the heart of our communities and should be able to experiment with new things, be open about successes and failures, and get support in spreading good ideas. So whether you’re one of the 35,000 people going to the Bett show next week, you prefer your personal development online or you just like a good book – I hope you’ll remember the best education technology is a teacher’s brain. There’s no app for that.

NB: The UK figures quoted here are based on analysis of 2014 BESA research. Any errors or omissions are the author’s sole responsibility.

(a version of this blog first appeared through my day-job)

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