Schools funding and wifi among chief challenges for Ed Tech

Schools funding and wifi among chief challenges for Ed Tech

"Significant pressure" on school budgets is likely to have a knock-on effect on ed tech, trade association British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) has warned, after its research on the impact of budgetary constraints showed it will lead to a downgrading of ICT investments in 2016-17.

Director Caroline Wright, speaking at The Bookseller's Futurebook Conference on Friday (2nd December), shared research from BESA showing that the UK ICT sector will come under additional spending pressure this academic year, with budget allocations for computers projected to drop 15% in 2016-17.

Particular pressure will be exerted on computer purchases, research showed - with nearly a third of primary and a quarter of secondary schools planning to downgrade ICT investments - as teachers choose to spend on lower-cost devices.  

Spending on software, however, including learning platforms and assessment solutions, is predicted to expand 11% (on average across primary and secondary) in comparison to 2015-16, according to the research.

"The next couple of years I think are going to be tough in terms of the finance going into ed tech in schools - this focus is on ICT and technology. But even though it's tough, you're still doing better than lots of other sectors," said Wright. 

"We are seeing such a tightening and contraction in schools that even digital is seeing some hard times. We're only seeing assessment spend in positive at the moment." 

Another of the big challenges for ed tech is the quality of broadband and wifi in schools, the conference heard, with more than half of UK primary and secondary schools surveyed by BESA saying it "wasn't adequate to be able to use digital resources effectively". 

Tom Hall, v.p. for education technology partnerships at Pearson, was also aware of the problem, outlining a dressing down he received from an irate student during a trip to Johannesburg after she was locked her out of her resources when the wifi went down.

What Hall took away from the experience was to set up a virtual student panel to help shape products. Based on the reality of such experiences, he also said publishers really needed to "lock down dependencies", recognising technology that relies on hardware or good working wifi is "likely to hurt how far you can go". 

"The ecosystem or market-readiness for your product [needs to be considered]. You can sit in an ivory tower, and think with your stickies and white boards, and really go to town on how brilliant and sophisticated your product can be - but how the technology ecosystem responds can really, really hurt. 

"Any product experience that relies on hardware, connectivity or good working wifi, it's going to break your product. The product will be fine but the user experience will be terrible."

Hall also said it was vital to include teachers in ed tech product development: "To be frank, the one person who should really be in the room is the teachers. I don't think any new product should be developed without a teacher at the table. I think someone who has struggled with problems in their day-to-day job is going to have way more insight than someone writing a strategy paper in a corporate office."

Kate Worlock, v.p. and lead analyst at Outsell, said ed tech was where the heat was, but agreed there was "no point" in pursuing a product if it couldn't do something "better" than what was already out there, particularly given the profession's natural conservatism. Examples of products which might be "better" included helping students to get the same grades in less time, be more cost effective or help reduce drop-out rates.

"Education is not a market that moves at huge speeds. We often feel as consumers the market is moving extremely quickly, with the changes and new services, but if you go in and talk to school audiences - barring pockets of innovation - you'll find on the whole they're cautious; they don't want to mess things up for their students," Worlock said.

Notwithstanding challenges in the UK schools market, Wright recommended taking products to market internationally, where she has found UK ed tech to be highly sought after. "Even though it can be a tough market in the UK, don't be scared into not being ambitious and going into the international. Spread your resources and look to other markets internationally that can help you to ride the storm."