This is a copy of an article originally published on: Tes Magazine

A MAT chair of trustees and edtech CEO outlines why, despite reforms aimed at helping schools with their buying decisions, there will always be a need to know how any tool fits into a wider strategy.
In the aftermath of the rush to edtech caused by the pandemic, there are growing calls for edtech vendors to provide more direct evidence to back up what they say their products can do – and be utterly transparent on how they handle personal data.For example, a recent Digital Futures Commission discussion for its Education Data Reality report launch debated the challenges of managing students’ personal and educational data and the importance of transparency in how this is done. You can read the report here.
These issues were also touched on in a recent Tes article, ‘Should schools have greater oversight of edtech?’, which also discussed whether more oversight is needed of the edtech market to help schools make informed decisions – and the role that vendors have to play in this.

Speaking as an edtech vendor and MAT chair, I have a foot in both camps in this debate, and it is definitely a positive to see such conversations rise up the agenda – and the proposals put forward to make life easier for schools certainly bear consideration. For example, one suggestion in the Education Data Reality report and that arose in the Tes article is to set up a body to regulate edtech vendors. This would help give schools more confidence in who they are buying from and what standard they adhere to.

However, one of my concerns is that whenever there is a public or external body setting standards, those standards tend to get skewed by the perspective of the organisation creating them. In a fast-moving and innovative marketplace such as edtech, we do not want to find that the few who have access to the standards are in some way advantaged over the majority who are trying to innovate and develop new technology to move education forwards.

That said, a baseline for best practice could work. It could set benchmarks for vendors to adhere to, such as not sharing student and staff data with a third party without explicit consent – and an obligation to supply plain English information about what happens to personal data and how it is managed and kept secure.

I think every good vendor within the tech space would embrace this route and those not currently complying would soon need to up their game.

In my view, transparency is a better and more effective approach, alongside providing schools with the tools to make sure that they can challenge vendors. Vendors will soon adapt if it becomes apparent that opacity is a barrier to schools buying their technology. Furthermore, many vendors take great care to reinforce their product’s purpose with evidence of its impact, its approach to data protection and more; those who do not are certainly in the minority.

I support the need to be ever-vigilant about data but we should not lose sight of the fact that, if used in the right context, it unlocks the potential for better technological development and insight – providing clarity and vision of where interventions are needed.

The evidence to call on

In the meantime, schools are still left trying to make the best edtech purchasing decisions they can. From my role in a MAT, I know how tricky this can be. However, while it is hard, there are unquestionably good strategies that schools can use to make informed purchases. The first is simply to get out there and ask others what they are using, how it works and if they would recommend it – impressions and opinions from others who have used particular pieces of edtech, if offered transparently, are worth their weight in gold. Education is a sector that is usually happy to share, so we should be willing to ask questions because answers will usually be forthcoming.

Next, there is descriptive evidence, such as product white papers, website information, summaries from vendors and so on, that can highlight a solution’s effectiveness. You may have to look through some of the marketing claims but a thorough read should set you right. Then there is correlational evidence, where schools have the opportunity to evaluate the technology themselves, perhaps comparing and contrasting the impact on one cohort of students versus another. Finally, there is causal evidence, which tends to focus on a single aspect of a solution and relies on independent research, research journals and peer reviews outlining the solution’s specific impact measured in a controlled way.

Time to evaluate

If from this there is confidence that a product is suitable for the school’s needs, then there are two more steps to consider.

Firstly, knowing how it fits into the school’s digital strategy from a curriculum perspective is vital. This is where the peer reviews and case studies from other schools using it in similar situations can help. Avoiding duplication by checking that the school does not already have a tool in place that fulfils more or less the same function is also wise and can prevent unnecessary spending. This may happen more often than you’d expect.

Then, from an operational perspective, some different questions come into the mix – for example, will the solution be effective within the current and future IT landscapes? As wider technology evolves, solutions will need to flex with the devices and platforms they work on so they do not prevent the school from pivoting and embracing other technologies in the future.

Finally, schools must also consider products in terms of their data collection, privacy policy and data protection obligations. They can do a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) and look at the data processing agreement to find out what data it captures, where it is stored, how securely and how long for. It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a need for greater transparency from vendors about how they process data, who has access to it and, crucially, who they share it with.

The way forward

This is a lot for schools – and is no doubt why some are keen for a regulator to step in and answer some of these questions. But even if that happened, schools would still need to be the ones making the final decision on what best suits their needs at any given time. As such, if you’re someone with responsibility for edtech in a school or MAT, or would like to be in the future, then being engaged, active and involved in these discussions and understanding how the market evolves is crucial.

Al Kingsley is chair of two multi-academy trusts, chair of his local Governors’ Leadership Group and a member of his local authority’s Scrutiny Committee for Children and Education. He is also the CEO of the NetSupport Group of companies.

He is also the author of two books, My Secret Edtech Diary and My School Governance Handbook

© TES magazine 2022

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