Education: a promise from the rich

If you are one of the 20,000 or so teachers and head teachers that attends London's annual edtech show, Bett, you will be familiar with the idea that technology is 'transforming' education.

The invitation to next January's Bett reads: 'Let's transform education together'.

Invitation to  Bett 2018 , London's edtech trade fair.

Invitation to Bett 2018, London's edtech trade fair.

Before taking up the offer, however, it is worth considering who the invitation is from. 

Who is driving the call to 'transform' schools with tech?

It's a global message that has the support of, and has been spread by, the world's elite, including some of its biggest companies, richest men (and they are predominantly men), as well as their political counterparts.

Technological 'innovation' in education, for example, was among the topics discussed by Bill Gates (no1 on most rich lists) and Donald Trump just weeks before his inauguration.

Rupert Murdoch declared that ‘digital innovation... can transform education’, a belief he shared with then-education secretary, Michael Gove.

Microsoft had a similar conversation with Gove in 2010.

Letter from President of Microsoft International, Jean Philippe Courtois to Michael Gove, December 2010 (released under freedom of information law by the Department for Education).

Letter from President of Microsoft International, Jean Philippe Courtois to Michael Gove, December 2010 (released under freedom of information law by the Department for Education).

Within a few years, Gove himself was plugging the idea. Addressing the Bett audience in 2014, he said:

'Innovative, transformative educational technology is already transforming education; has already transformed education; in ways that we could barely predict.'

The ‘transforming’ effects of technology in education were mentioned no fewer than four times by Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan a year later in a speech in which she also name-checked Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg (no6 on a rich list recently compiled by Oxfam).

Zuckerberg has committed to spending a significant proportion of his $45bn fortune disrupting education through technology (disruption probably being the worst term you could come up with to describe to teachers what technology was going to do in their classrooms).

Add to these: Jeff Bezos (no5 on Oxfam's list), founder of personalised shopping platform, Amazon, which seems keen on doing similar things in education; Oracle founder Larry Ellison (no7), who was an early investor in for-profit online schooling; and Michael Bloomberg (no8) who, as Mayor of New York, sought to make the city's schools a laboratory for edtech.

No fewer than five of the world’s eight richest men have backed technology as a means of reforming education.

Taken from  Oxfam report , January 2017

Taken from Oxfam report, January 2017

It is no surprise that the global advisory firms that serve these interests also support this reform agenda. Or that the global gatherings populated by the above, like the World Economic Forum, also promote (PDF) ‘transformative innovation’ in schools. In 2011 the World Economic Forum handed one of its awards for innovation to Knewton, a software firm on a mission to transform education through digitisation and what the industry call's 'personalisation'.

Still from Forbes  interview  with Knewton then CEO, Jose Ferreira, 2012

Still from Forbes interview with Knewton then CEO, Jose Ferreira, 2012

Jose Ferreira, Knewton’s founder and former CEO, sees humankind on the cusp of a fourth big revolution brought about by these changes in education (on a par with the other big three he cites: Greco-Roman civilisation, the Renaissance, and the industrial revolution).

These are leaders with a shared vision and language. The ideas are spread through education and technology summits around the world, rolled out through the media and online, shared around and reinforced through social media.

It is only when you get to Bett, 'the world's largest edtech exhibition', or London's annual edtech ‘jumble sale’ as one commentator recently described it, that the penny drops.

When the message of transformation isn’t coming out of the mouths of a tech billionaire, or world leader, in Davos, or the Whitehouse, and instead it’s stuck on temporary walling next to the logo of an edtech company, aisle after aisle of it.

This is marketing hype.


View of Bett, in London's Excel centre 2017

View of Bett, in London's Excel centre 2017

Things now start to make much more sense. The messages are slogans. Their job is to dazzle and draw us in. None of the claims of transformation need to stand up.

Nor do they.

There is very little in the way of robust, independent evidence to support the idea of digital technology improving education, which is what most people would understand 'transformation' to mean.

What evidence there is largely consists of the industry marking its own homework. Promotional material, in other words. 'Evidence-light' is how one cheerleader put it, with evaluations being far too focused on'advocacy'.

In 2012, the 'innovation charity' Nesta, itself an edtech cheerleader, looked at money spent on technology in UK schools – nearly half a billion pounds in 2009-10, to give you an idea – and found that there was no link to improved results.

Now, you could follow the logic of the UK’s former Department for Education minister, Matt Hancock, and not worry about this. Hancock, a ‘passionate' believer in technology transforming education who has pledged to support the industry ‘in every way I can,’ said in 2014: 'Education might not have the sort of research-driven technology that helps doctors keep up with the latest medical standards. But that’s a reason to start using technology - not to ignore it.' I'm not sure how many parents would agree.

Even Bill Gates, a man who has spent billions on experiments to come up with a ‘fix’ for schools, admitted to a forum of investors in 2016: ‘We really haven’t changed [students’ academic] outcomes’.

Technology is not and has not throughout its long history 'transformed' educational standards.

Which is not to say it is not changing education, just not in the ways we're encouraged to think.