Implementing US-style edtech

Martin McKay

Martin McKay is chief technology officer and a founder at Texthelp. He directs all R&D at the company, with a focus on developing new technologies to assist people who struggle with reading and writing. Martin served on the board of ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) and sits on the steering committee of the AIA (Accessibility Interoperability Alliance). He also sits on the NIMAS board (National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard) and the Architecture Committee of the GPII (Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure).

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Originally published on 31st August 2016. Originally published on 31st August 2016.

After spending twenty years of my life working with educational technology and seeing how people utilise it in a number of different global markets, I’ve learnt that schools across the globe are worlds apart when it comes to the application of technology in the classroom.  This is most apparent when we look at schools in the UK compared with schools in the US. Teachers using IT in the classroom in the UK are likely to feel frustrated when looking across the pond where technology has become truly integrated in the classroom. So, what can we in the UK learn from our friends in America about incorporating edtech in the classroom?

"A large school district in the USA or Canada is similar in many ways to our old Local Education Authorities."

For context, a lot of the edtech that we see in schools now in the UK had its seeds sown in the nineties, when UK government policy saw an end to the influence of Local Educational Authorities on IT and Purchasing and, more recently, with the demise of BECTA.  

As a direct result of this, every school was encouraged to go its own way and start making its own decisions on IT provision. Though the goal was laudable, it has made IT an uneven playing field in the UK.

In contrast, a large school district in the USA or Canada is similar in many ways to our old Local Education Authorities. They are responsible for the operation of many schools, and control and manage the IT budget and policy, including the employment of a Chief Information Officer who is responsible for the system.

The result is that the UK and US operate very differently when it comes to the use of technology in the classroom – and I think the US success stories could provide some inspiration for the UK!

Here’s the key things I’ve learnt from my career in edtech about how the UK can benefit from the US when it comes to technology in the classroom:

Social media is your friend

In the US, I’ve seen constant idea-sharing between teachers. They share tips, chat to each other about teaching advice, tools they use in the classroom and how they develop lesson plans incorporating technology. It’s always worth talking to your fellow colleagues about how best to use edtech in your next lesson, or how to keep your students engaged using technology. You’ll find that in a group you can generate better ideas, and you’ll realise that you share a common problem that you’ll want to overcome together.

A difficulty in attracting the best IT talent

In the US, a chief information officer (CIO) is responsible for the IT in districts, which is in itself a prestigious role attracting great talent. Bright and ambitious CIOs do not enter the education market in the UK, primarily because school networks are not big enough or challenging enough or funded enough to build a long-term career in IT.

Expensive IT

Schools in the UK also face the daunting prospect of having to buy software and hardware for one school at a time, which in very simple terms means there is no volume discount when purchasing technology! If schools in the UK were to group together at a higher level and agree to large-scale pricing, it would help lower the cost and in turn improve the quality of their IT. For example, the David Ross Education Trust has rolled out Google Apps for Education Apps and Chromebooks to all schools in the network, effectively creating a chain of schools with the same IT solution. Are there any other teachers in your county or region wanting to buy cost-effective technology for the classroom? It might be worth ‘buddying up’ with other colleagues near to you to see if this is a viable solution.

The UK market could become more addressable

International companies who are looking at market expansion are unable to effectively enter the UK education market at scale, so they tend to overlook the market in favour of opportunities elsewhere. The result is that new technology is not effectively promoted in the UK. Together, we need to make the market more addressable. In honesty, this is something that has to happen at a macro level, but if schools can begin to work together in localities to address IT issues, this would be a great first step.

Where then does this leave the UK when it comes to edtech? Teachers in schools should continue to push the use of technology in classrooms, but I would encourage you to look beyond your school’s walls when it comes to buying and implementing a product. Can you cooperate with neighbouring schools to make technology decisions collaboratively? This will also be a good way of attracting top, forward-thinking talent that will put UK edtech on a par with our US neighbours.

What do you think of the differences between the UK and US’ approach to edtech? Let us know below.

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