Matthew Hancock speech on education technology at BETT show

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock says technology is changing everything.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP

Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

What an extraordinary show - bigger and better than ever.

And what progress the march of technology makes.

The last year saw headlines about the world’s first 3D-printed kidney, the world’s first artificial heart implant, and the world’s first malaria vaccine.

But there’s more.

Scientists in Australia resurrected a frog species that had been extinct for 20 years - that gives birth through its mouth.

A Japanese inventor designed a light that fits inside your nose - and lights up, every time you breathe.

Researchers in the USA managed to give a mouse false memories - making it react to an electric shock it didn’t receive.

Architects in South Korea unveiled plans for an invisible skyscraper.

And they say necessity is the mother of invention.

But it does show - from heart transplants to high rises, of mice and memory, in every field in every industry - technology is transformational.

I want to talk today about what that means in education.

About new tools we can use. About what we’re doing in government to support innovation - and most important of all, about how technology can empower teachers, raise standards - and lead to a brighter future.

And now, in education

The other day, I had one of those moments that any parent dreads.

When you come home, walk in the door, see your children - and there’s no ‘hello, dad - because my daughter was sitting, engrossed, totally absorbed - in an iPad.

My heart sank.

But luckily for me, she was playing on Math Monsters - a maths app. So it could have been worse.

And it’s a sign of the times: when a 7-year-old thinks of learning maths, they’re as likely to think of an app as the old, traditional image of blackboards and mortarboards.

Which means that teaching roles will change

Technology is changing the world around us. And so it will change teaching.

There’s a big culture change coming. By seizing the initiative, we can make sure it’s good for teachers and children.

One side of teaching is essentially pastoral: mentoring pupils, keeping them on good behaviour, instilling values - nurturing a sense of possibility about life.

But there’s another side to the job. Late nights marking. Early mornings lesson planning - paperwork, and the administration of education.

Technology can help with the drudge - allowing teachers to focus on inspiration.

Take marking.

In subjects like maths, online marking is already advanced. We’re now seeing the same in the arts, too.

EdX, an online course provider, say they have developed computer essay marking as accurate as human marking.

It’s not perfect - but it’s no worse than human error.

While the University of Edinburgh have pioneered a peer-based approach using online feedback - and found that if 6 students mark a paper, it’s just as accurate as a lecturer.

Use technology properly, and teachers save time.

Or look at lesson planning.

Teachers talk about ‘freshening up’ a course - which usually means time-consuming tweaks to lesson plans, or creating new exercises for the same content.

But technology can help.

Take Udacity, another MOOC provider. Because their courses are running all the time, they can fine tune them, almost in real time. They see exactly where people switch on or off - and which materials should change.

And that, in turn, drives up attainment. Because rather than just refreshing the same content, working largely on instinct - they can scientifically track pupil understanding, and design more effective courses.

Use technology properly, and attainment can improve.

Or look at the progress of each child.

Even the most experienced teachers can’t know exactly how each child is doing every single second of the day.

But software can adapt lessons to the exact requirements of each child.

Many of you will have seen the film Slumdog Millionaire. It was inspired by an experiment in computer-led education.

In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra loaded education programs onto a computer and put it in a kiosk in the middle of a Delhi slum. And then watched, as the children taught themselves.

The concept has been refined since.

Visit the School of One, in New York. Their pupils use a digital learning program. Each day, it tracks their individual performance, what information they retain, how they engage and work with new content.

An algorithm then takes that data, and works out how each child could learn more.

Use technology properly, and children get a bespoke education.

And it motivates children, too.

We know more and more about how the brain works.

If material is structured and presented in the right way, it provides a dopamine hit - a chemical reward for learning new information.

We all know the feeling: the ‘a-ha’ moment - when you suddenly just get it.

Some kids fall behind, though - so as the rest pull away, instead of that hit, they get bored, frustrated, or disruptive.

Yet we’ve all seen people frantically reloading Twitter to get their next dose. Or seen people miss tube stops because they can’t stop playing Angry Birds.

Software can replicate that addictive effect in education.

Some of the students on EdX courses will talk about wanting ‘the green tick’.

When you get an answer right, you get a tick: that feels good, and before long, the brain starts to crave that reward. You’re addicted to learning.

It’s mind-altering and it gives you a rush: the green tick is the best form of legal high.

So technology can revolutionise marking, lesson planning, individual achievement and motivation. And that’s just a few of the most exciting technologies.

Use technology properly, and standards rise.

But teachers still important

But that doesn’t mean teachers don’t matter. Quite the opposite.

We should judge technology not by technical terms, but by its ability to drive up standards.

We should think about changing the ethos - not just changing the equipment.

Because in each of these cases, technology makes teachers more valuable.

By saving time on routine tasks, teachers can concentrate on encouraging and mentoring pupils - the vital, high-end, pastoral role only they can do.

And it’s what most teachers want to focus on, too.

No teacher wants less time with children, and more on admin.

No teacher wants their profession to be an evidence-free cottage industry for the well-intentioned.

No teacher wants less efficient lesson planning, more time-consuming marking, less individual attention for children.

Technology can help with all these things. And free up teachers to do what really matters: inspiring children.

Against the naysayers

If, that is, we are prepared to embrace technology.

Because there are always naysayers.

There was once a respected Swiss scientist, for example, called Conrad Gessner.

He wrote a ground-breaking book, just as a new technology swept across Europe. He argued passionately that it would overwhelm society with too much information - and called on governments to regulate it before it was too late.

That book was written in 1545. And he was talking about the printing press.

Luckily, Gessner didn’t have his way.

But he wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, is rumoured to have claimed in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.”

History is littered with bad predictions about new technologies.

No matter the innovation, there have always been people who say it won’t or can’t or shouldn’t work - and we don’t want it.

Imagine, for a moment, if doctors had said the same thing about medicine. If when you went to see the GP, they said they’d just ‘refreshed’ their diagnosis - rather than referring to latest medical research.

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.

And the utopians

Yet at the same time, there are always utopians - who say that technology is the answer to everything.

Over-claiming for technology is equally misguided.

The 1980s film ‘Back to the Future’ predicted hoverboards by 2015: no sign of them yet.

It’s easy to recall short-lived tech: MySpace - Bebo - and does anyone here still use a Minidisc player?

And past governments made a similar mistake - assuming expensive IT will improve things. That having a touchscreen whiteboard counts as e-learning. That just showing a video counts as interactive learning.

New technology brings out sceptics on one side, and utopians on the other.

The lesson is to fall into neither trap.

We must neither fear nor fetishise technology.

We must be clear about its potential to raise standards, without wanting tech for its own sake.

Education learning from other sectors

What’s exciting is that education can learn from others.

Economists talk about ‘convergence’ - the idea that poor countries can catch up very quickly with rich ones - because they can leap-frog to the most advanced technology and institutions.

We could see the same effect in education technology.

A few years ago, big data was the idea on everyone’s lips.

For the first time, vast quantities of data could be stored and processed. So in theory, businesses could get an instant, rich analysis of their environment.

Except at first, companies were just swamped - paralysed by too much information.

But by now, many have refined their analytical tools, what sort of information is useful - and how to use it in decision making.

This cycle is a well-studied pattern: first, hype - then, doubt, as a technology hits problems of scale and practicality - and finally, resolving those problems, and becoming useful.

Just like convergence between economies, in education, we can borrow straight from the mature stage of other sectors.

Like big data. We can learn from the experience of making data useable, and apply those lessons to analysing pupil performance.

Or virtual reality - which is now sophisticated enough to use in teaching. I’ve done it myself. I was once taught to weld this way - without wasting my body weight in steel - or burning anyone.

Or augmented reality. We’re past the hype, through the doubt - and now, institutions like Kendal College have worked out how to use it well - supporting a plumbing course, for example.

So not only can technology transform education - it’s a good time to try.

Britain a world leader

And what’s more, Britain’s got a head start - because we’re already home to some cutting-edge companies.

Look at King’s College London and Reading University. They combined virtual reality with hands-on learning to create a new method for learning manual skills.

This ‘haptic learning’ means, say, dentists can train without having to practise on real patients - and we should all be very grateful for that.

Trainee vets can practice on a ‘haptic cow’ - which presumably, most cows are grateful for, too.

That sort of product is sellable across the world.

And they’re not alone.

Our education exports are worth about £18 billion each year. Half of Europe’s biggest and fastest-growing education companies are based in the UK.

And I’ve just come back from a trip to Saudi Arabia and India. Two very different countries, but both with enormous hunger for education.

The Saudis are embarking on a radical reform of their education system - and British providers are there, helping it happen – while India is a huge potential market for British companies - especially MOOC platforms, like FutureLearn.

I met British firms like Floream and AAT - who were launching India’s first-ever skills MOOC, teaching finance and accountancy.

Or Vodafone, who linked up with an Indian charity called the Pratham Foundation to take smartphones into classrooms - aiming to reach 50,000 children in 1,000 schools across India.

Or Pearson. They got together with an NGO called Village Capital to run an ‘edupreneurs’ programme - a competition for education start-ups to improve education in low-income areas. One hundred and twenty-six entered. Fourteen were shortlisted. And 2 winners - Sudiksha, a chain focused on early years education, and Experifun, who make hands-on science learning kits - will receive mentoring and investment.

These companies are supporting innovation across the world.

And there is no reason we can’t have more like them.

Which is why we’re supporting it

That’s why we’re supporting technology in education.

Many of you will have heard Michael Gove talking on Wednesday.

Sometimes people confuse his passion for rigour with a distaste for technology.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I hope his session conveyed his enthusiasm for ground-breaking inventions in education.

You can see that commitment in the work of FELTAG, the FE learning and technology action group - which produced a wealth of ideas, and is still online for comments before we make our formal response.

You can see it in the Small Business Research Initiative, where government challenges SMEs to come up with solutions to policy problems - like helping people with learning disabilities access education.

You can see it in the capital support for broadband across all colleges, improving bandwidth and resilience, which I announced last November.

And today, I am delighted to announce a new Education Technology Action Group.

This group of experts will identify how learning technology can be best used - across schools, universities and colleges.

I’m hugely proud that we have a distinguished membership - chaired by Professor Stephen Heppell - and that Anant Agarawl, President of EdX, will attend our first meeting in February.


Because I have no doubt that the opportunity is great.

By next year’s BETT show, who knows what sort of inventions will have been unveiled.

If 2013 gave us confused mice, invisible skyscrapers and resurrected frogs, maybe we really will have hoverboards by BETT 2015.

None of us can say where sheer human ingenuity will take us next.

None of us can say what the imagination and vigour of our scientists and entrepreneurs will discover.

But one thing is clear.

Education technology has immense potential.

Used properly - seen as neither a solve-all solution, nor as something to be rejected out of hand - it can raise standards.

And most important of all, it can help elevate teaching to the status it deserves. A high-end profession, that focuses on what really matters: the honest, human work of inspiring, leading - and educating - our children.

Thank you.

Published 24 January 2014