Kriss Baird explains the TSB’s new £1.1m Learning for Impact competition

With some ten million people in the UK currently in full-time education, it’s no surprise that education is not only one of the most important, but also one of the largest sectors of the economy.  While the ‘business’ of education is unequivocally secondary to the practice and values of teaching and learning, the economics are impressive. The turnover of the UK’s education sector as a whole is in excess of £130 billion, equating approximately to 9% of GDP, while every year it accounts for almost £100 billion of government expenditure.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing amount of this spend dedicated towards technology. This includes specific education technologies as well as more generic ICT tools and platforms that are used in schools, colleges and universities. The modern classroom will often now include not just a PC, but also tablets, an interactive whiteboard and audio-visual equipment, while virtual learning platforms allow children and parents to view content and undertake further learning exercises back at home.

The UK is at the forefront of deploying technologies in education. Building on traditional strengths in teaching and educational publishing, particularly in English literature and language, UK businesses are developing learning products that are used around the world. In doing so, they are tapping into an enormous global customer base. There are thought to be more than a billion people currently learning English, while the global education market is worth well over four trillion dollars, with e-learning the fastest growing sub-sector within this. Public bodies have been important in this regard, with programmes supported by institutions such as the British Council, the Education Endownment Foundation and Nesta, among others, helping to unpack many of the challenges faced by technology-enhanced learning and to understand the steps needed to foster meaningful outcomes.

Despite the size and strength of the educational technology sector, however, there are still concerns that innovation isn’t taking place quickly or effectively enough. The market might be large, but it’s a fragmented one and difficult to access. With 25,000 schools in England (an increasing number of which are becoming independent from local authorities and have their own procurement budgets), the task of getting significant market uptake for a new product can be daunting. Teachers and educationalists are, unsurprisingly, reluctant to pay attention to new offerings, however innovative, unless there is credible evidence of improved learning outcomes. But the resources to undertake the necessary trials and to build the evidence base are considerable, will often require specialist academic expertise, and are beyond the reach of many SMEs.

At the same time, when it comes to the supply side, there are frequently expressed concerns that learning products are being developed with insufficient understanding of the context in which they are used. There may well be tremendous scope for computing devices to enhance the educational experience and impart skills in new ways but unless they are made to work with and support the learning process, and can be used intuitively by teachers and other front-line staff, then uptake will be a struggle. A friend of mine that teaches Maths recently illustrated this ground-level problem. She says she would happily use more technology in the classroom so long as it is fast to set up, simple to understand and use, and works every time. She needs to be able to hold the attention of her class and not lose credibility or the patience of the students should the tech awkwardly fail. At the heart of this, there needs to be a focus not so much on technological capabilities, but rather a broader approach encompassing educational expertise, contextual knowledge, user-centred design and the application of creative thinking to the development of digital learning tools.

In order to address these issues, the Technology Strategy Board and BIS are launching Learning technologies: design for impact, a competition to stimulate innovation in the application of technology in education. There will be up to £1.1m available for exploratory studies with projects welcome across a variety of fields, from interactive multimedia to adaptive learning journeys. The competition is intended to encourage businesses (especially SMEs), educational institutions, designers and academics to develop the kinds of prototypes and approaches that have the potential not only to succeed in the market place, but to improve the learning experience for millions of young people.

Kriss Baird, Lead Technologist for Education, Technology Strategy Board describes the latest developments, challenges and innovation funding in the education technology sector. @krissbaird