Edtech and the role of technology in education

Hanging on my “wall of inspiration” in my maths classroom is Nelson Mandela’s famous quote on education.  Given that modern technology has, without question, revolutionised the way we do almost everything in our lives, it is a reasonable question to ask, whether using technology effectively could help improve education and, as such, in Mandela’s words change the world.  Read around the subject of the use of technology in education, aka, edtech and you will find as many studies and people saying edtech is the solution to all education’s problems and just as many others stating how ineffective it is and, in some cases detrimental to learning.  The answer I believe, as with most things, lies in the shades of grey between the two viewpoints.  With careful application, thought and obsessive focus on the science teaching and learning, I believe technology has the power to make a meaningful difference in education but blanket application of “tech” to “ed” without thought and we should prepare to make some edtech companies very rich and leave our children no better off whatsoever.


What is really driving the push for edtech?

Globally, after healthcare, education is the second highest worldwide spend with $4.5tn yet the digital share of that spend is 2-3% as compared to all other industries which average at 35%.  Many see a great opportunity for edtech to fill this huge spending differential.  Are the people who spot this market opportunity the same people that care about the opportunity for students?  I believe that is an important question one should consider when listening to the case for the pervasiveness of technology in education.





Do we want disruption?

People often call for technology to disrupt the state of play in education. When talking about the big disruptive businesses’ currently dominating the world markets, the sharing economy seems to be the powerful idea. This picture (right) sums up this mood quite nicely. Would the natural way to “disrupt” education be to follow the trend in the picture to have no teachers.  In my opinion, absolutely and 100% not.   Every single study shows, without doubt, that the single biggest impact on pupils’ outcomes at school is the quality of the teaching/teacher.   Furthermore, I think we need to be extremely careful to think about calling for the education system to be “disrupted” in the first place.  On the ground, in a classroom teaching a group of students, sometimes from difficult home lives, any teacher will tell you the last thing students want is disruption.  Students want stability in their lives and, in certain circumstances, school is the place where they get this the best.  On a higher level, when policies are changed in a school environment at the same rate the wind changes, teachers will tell you the stress this brings and ultimately this negatively affects the students.  Finally at governmental level, when Ministers change policy so fast that nobody can read it quickly enough, never mind keep up, this just adds to the problems.  This, by no means, is to say change is not needed or can be good (see below for some amazing movements and changes).


For me, it is imperative that for any disruption or application of edtech, three key factors must be at the forefront of our minds:


1)     Is the technology designed with obsessive focus on the science of teaching and learning?

2)     Is the technology genuinely beneficial to the pupils who will use it for?

3)     If there is a genuine benefit, is that benefit sizeable enough to outweigh any other downside application of this technology e.g. if the learning curve for teachers or the cost is huge are there other changes that could be made e.g. hire more teachers that would require a smaller learning curve and cost less?


If we can be certain that the answers to the above three questions is “YES!” then we should be compelled to investigate whether we can implement these ideas.  Now, at this stage you may think having read the above that I am clearly an edtech sceptic.  I am.  That said, you may now think it unusual that I am the current winner of the UK Teacher of the Year Award for Outstanding Use of Technology in Education.  I won this award for my efforts to democratise access to quality maths teaching for student who cannot afford tuition and, as we speak, am close to releasing a website that I believe will help millions of pupils with access to quality maths education.  For some things I see, I am an “edtech evangelist” but for others I sigh a sad whimper and get annoyed at some of the “solutions” available.


I want to finish with the ways in which I have seen genuine and large benefit from using technology in education:


1)     Access to quality information

It is awe inspiring to think that anyone and, in particular, students with the Internet, can have access to the world’s highest quality information at any time of day or night.  Examples of the most inspiring content are numerous and too long to list but my personal favourites, as a geeky mathmo, include Numberphile, VSauce and TED talks.  There is no one that can tell me this is anything but one of the most amazing outcomes of using technology in education.  


That said it is crucial, and I am compelled, to state the associated problems.  1) In amongst all the great material there is truly awful, inaccurate and distracting material.  We owe students more than just saying “google it”. We MUST help them sift the wheat from the chaff.  2) Access to this quality information is only useful when the student has that hunger to learn and focus on that material.  Bringing the Internet and access to this information to countries where teachers are sparse could be a disruption with a truly transformational positive impact.  Having this access in other places where the child is more entertained with the latest Vine clip, and I think that impact is less prominent. 3) There are voices arguing that given one can access so much knowledge, one does not need to learn or memorise facts as you can “google them”.  I don’t want to get drawn deeply into this debate here other than to say I disagree with this.   It is only with knowledge that other knowledge becomes interesting and I believe creativity comes from someone who knows things.  Any great person in their field has put in hours of dedicated and deliberate practice to know more / be able to do more than anyone else and for me, it is dangerous if one thinks access to this information replaces the need to make the effort to learn things.


2)     Making life easier

Some technologies make life faster, more efficient and easier and the same applies in the teaching and learning field.  Anything that genuinely saves the teacher time (something that is their most precious commodity) or helps them be more productive, allows them to focus more on their students.  This type of technology can help teachers and, in turn, help students get better teaching.  There are technologies out there that do this to a meaningful extent and as such are priceless.  One personal favourite includes using Google docs to be in the same document with students giving them live feedback rather than resending “draft” versions back and forth on emails for every iteration.


3)     Social media and teacher CPD (continuous professional development)

This is where the “sharing economy”really comes into play for education.  Over the last few years the sharing of ideas and  resources on Twitter and other social media for education has been incredible - the best CPD I have ever had since I started teaching.  Teachers pooling together, sharing strategies, ideas, resources, visions is really taking great shape and, I think, the growth in this area has the ability to make genuine differences to our pupils.  Anything that helps the teachers save time, improve, collaborate with other great teachers helps them become better teachers and so our students benefit.


4)     Disrupt in the right ways

Linked to the above point, social media in recent years, has allowed teacher voices to be heard and even impact government policy.  The use of technology and social media in this way either to gain critical mass for ideas that we know work or to question the efficacy of ideas/policies is powerful. This can only be only be a good thing.  Movements such as Tom Bennett's ResearchEd typify this so well and have the potential to make genuinely beneficial changes to our education system. Other noble ideas include the Global Teacher Prize with the aim to improve the status of teachers across the globe.  Another brilliant edtech solution I have seen is Founders4Schools, founded by Sherry Coutu.  It quickly and effectively allows teachers access the countries greatest business leaders from their LinkedIn profiles and invite them into schools to inspire the next generation.  The simplicity and ease of this service means it’s almost a click of a button to inspire your pupils.


5)     Teaching coding/computing

In the UK, the recent focus on teaching coding and computing is a needed, although uncomfortable, change.  For me, this is a crucial subject for the future and I think that making this disruption is needed.  Careful planning needs to be in place to help teachers be able to effectively help students and adapt but, in the long term, this curriculum change is in my opinion something that will be beneficial.


6)     Student collaboration and sharing

There is great potential for students to communicate at the click of a button with other students, their teachers or anyone else in the world.  This must be  good thing.  Used in a gimmicky way and this means nothing but allowing students to genuinely collaborate and work together could have huge impact on learning.  In my role as judge of the UK Teaching Awards, I have observed students working together using technology on projects in meaningful ways, akin to how people work together in the workplace.  One group of students, worked online together to make a computer game for a European competition, which they won.  The technology for them to collaborate when they were at home to the same extent as when they were together at school can only be a great thing for their project.  Imagine a class of English students learning Mandarin having a voice call once a week with a group of Chinese students learning English.  Something like this has the potential to meaningfully impact learning.  There are many other examples that are too numerous to mention.


7)     Custom built learning platforms

Finally, this may be a harder “sell” and certainly harder to make work but I believe there is scope to create learning platforms that helps both teachers and students and make meaningful differences to students’ learning.  Often edtech created in this arena is pitched at teachers but has little thought for the final user, the student, or the other way around, are aimed at the student but want to “replace” the teacher.  There is a niche space I believe to create platforms that help teachers and help students and so improve learning.  Any such product, for me needs to be created with an obsessive focus on the science of teaching and learning.  Without this, it will be a gimmick.  Example of  products I have high respect for are Membean, Memrise amongst others as they are clearly developed with clear focus on learning.  I, myself, am releasing a website at the start of 2016 that I believe has the potential to genuinely help teachers and students in their maths journey at school.  I am so excited to release this product as it is something I have been wanting to build since I started teaching.  Everything in my platform focuses on two things:  (i) the student learning and (ii) how to help the teacher save time and put the focus on how the student is learning.  With this combination I believe there is big opportunity to impact learning in great ways.




In summary, the blanket belief that edtech will solve all education's problems is a simplistic and erroneous view.  Edtech can, however, have a great impact and it already is in some cases.  I call for teachers out there, if possible in their busy lives, to make or call for the changes from the ground up that they know their students need.  If there is an edtech solution that you thinks needs building could you make it or shout loud enough until someone does ? That is what I am trying to do.  I also call edtech companies to please not plough all their VC funding into flashy solutions that you think teachers and students want.  It’s not even good enough to consult teachers and students.  Hire teachers and students to make the edtech that they need and only then might you make the product that actually makes the difference we would all like to see.

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