How the EdTech Demonstrator Programme is aiming to raise the capabilities for online education in England’s schools
Schools have suddenly been forced to do things very differently as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
They have had to tell most children to stay at home and quickly gear up for a big expansion in remote learning, using education technology and any appropriate online content to maintain the momentum in this year’s teaching.
Some schools had already made big steps in the area, most had not, and the Department for Education (DfE) has backed a programme aimed at enabling the former to support the latter in managing the change quickly.
Last week the DfE highlighted the EdTech Demonstrator Programme as one of the initiatives aimed at helping schools get the best from remote learning technology, with a pledge to award the ‘demonstrator schools’ taking part with between £70,000 and £150,000 each to support their work.
The consortium is led by the London Grid for Learning (LGfL), the membership organisation that provides technology for schools, and involves the Education Foundation and the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.
Change of focus
It was set up late last year, with an original focus to provide schools with support in the use of a range of edtech applications, from classroom teaching tools to the use computing power to manage complicated data in multi-school trusts.
But the spread of the pandemic and school closures prompted a rethink and a rapid change in priorities.
Sean Cavan, head of business engagement at the Sheffield Institute of Education, explains: “When the coronavirus came along the Government decided it would be eminently sensible to focus on the issues around remote learning as the majority of children are at home.
“The DfE has been working with us very rapidly to refocus the project. It’s about how the demonstrator schools can perform the process and publicising that they are available as a resource.”
The consortium has mobilised a nine-strong ‘field force’ of experts and enlisted 20 demonstrator schools that have shown an expertise in specific areas of edtech. Cavan said this is varied and that the programme is “quite agnostic” about the technology choices that schools make.
It has also put out a call for expressions of interest in an effort to recruit around another 20 schools.
Schools looking for support can register a request with requirements on the website and the programme team pairs them with a demonstrator school.
“You can characterise it as being ‘by schools, for schools’, and our consortium is about mobilising the expertise that exists in the demonstrator schools and maximising its accessibility to those that need it the most,” Cavan said.
“The demonstrator schools have a track record of looking at edtech, seeing how it can be best used, building an infrastructure, and most importantly having the pedagogical approach that works. We are facilitating the linkage between the schools that need it and those that can offer it.
“There is tremendous enthusiasm among the demonstrator schools in wanting to respond to this national emergency by using the skillsets they are good at.”
He adds that the schools asking for support need not necessarily be starting from a low base: they could have some good technology in place but have not developed the capability to use it effectively in remote learning.
The Sheffield Institute of Education is adding a further element to the programme with the development of an evaluation process for how it is working overall.
“One of the things we want to do, particularly in light of the virus, is explore how we could develop long term resilience in the system in the face of new demands on education.
“We are building a community of the demonstrator schools so they can share good practice and expertise, and be a real resource for education. This is not just for the immediate term but in identifying strategies and feeding into government policy around what will make the system much more resilient.”
Other elements of the programme involve building a central repository of advice and best practice to help teachers and school leaders become comfortable with remote teaching, and linking to other initiatives. These include the Oak National Academy – a bank of sequenced video lessons and resources – and the BBC Bitesize daily lessons for home learning.
Cavan says there are currently a lot of variations in schools’ capacities to handle remote learning on a large scale, reflecting the fact that until now the expectation has not been built into the system. The consortium is not involved in helping to build up the technology infrastructure and capabilities, but he points to the DfE’s pledge to provide over £100 million to boost remote education, and provide technical support in accessing Google and Microsoft platforms, as evidence of an improvement underway.
He concludes with the point there is nothing prescriptive in the programme about how schools should use the technology. They have their own approaches to teaching, and it is more about equipping them with the skills to do so at a distance from their puplils.
“It’s in the hands of the schools themselves to bring their staff along in terms of their attitude and confidence,” he says.
“For us it’s about explaining in a way that is meaningful so that schools can see this is something they will want to take advantage of in fitting their policies, capabilities, cultures and ways of working.”
Image by Ivan Radic, CC BY 2.0