NOVEMBER 2017 by Ji Li, published on New Statesman Skills Spotlight

A boom in education technology would benefit the UK’s overall economy, writes Ji Li, managing director of Plum Innovations

How a country structures its school system is usually a good barometer of success. Education underpins a host of wider social and economic issues, including determining career prospects. And while methods might differ from party to party, the end goal for any government should remain the same: to make what is learnt in the classroom applicable outside of it. The challenge that arises, then, is in ensuring that teaching is modernised alongside society’s changing needs. The advent of education technology (EdTech) signals that this is a matter which is being recognised.

It’s not about ripping up textbooks and throwing all of the old teaching techniques out of the window; it’s about replacing them with something better. It’s about delivering education, both core subject knowledge and brand new digital skills, in way that is more efficient and more engaging for students. Education should be less constrained by physical documents and delivered in real time, while innovating beyond a series of comprehension exercises. Cloud computing, one of the principal tenets of EdTech, can help to achieve better outcomes for pupils. Schools’ broadband connectivity and wider IT infrastructure, therefore, is crucial to how teachers track students’ progress with paperless databases, improve communication, and use gamification or interactive techniques to pique people’s interests.

As industries and businesses continue to digitalise, observing the benefits of data centricity, greater audience reach and more attractive content creation, it makes sense for the United Kingdom’s skills pipeline to be sensitive to this trend at an earlier stage. Rob Carpenter, the CEO of Inspire Partnership, suggests that a change in the focus of education needs to see a shift away from a “knowledgebased curriculum” and towards one that concentrates on “functional skills”. He says: “There is a substantial mismatch between work-related skills and future skills requirements. While our school curriculum continues to lean against a knowledge based curriculum, across the globe, business leaders are desperate for a workforce strategy which deepens cross-functional skills which are more flexible, applicable to different work contexts and more refined to our globally more sensitive preferences.”

Patrick Hayes, director of the British Education Suppliers Association (BESA) says: “The digital skills gap is a growing concern among businesses in the UK. According to the British Chambers of Commerce, 75 per cent of businesses believe there is a skills shortage among employers.” He adds: “Without the necessary IT infrastructure and a sufficient budget allocation on education software, pupils and teachers alike may fail to have access to the great promise of a ‘digital classroom’ and could end up being disconnected from its benefits.”

Digitalisation, though replete with opportunities, also carries a number of risks. Training people to be more aware of these at an earlier age will improve their experience of and performance with technology in the long run. Policymakers should aim to embed digital intelligence into the way we learn and work so that people become informed users and creators. A grasp of cyber security is a must have for any organisation.

Technology, ultimately, should be used to empower rather than alienate its users. When it comes to schools, Plum doesn’t want to view IT simply in the context of maintenance; we want to make sure that EdTech can improve learning outcomes and staff work efficiency. So, let’s modernise education.

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