The expert panel set up to look at tablets and apps for children under five is all very worthy and traditional, says Tony Parkin. But it’s a modern problem that needs a modern solution, such as crowd-sourcing classroom expertise

So the Department for Education has decided to set up an expert panel to identify high-quality educational tablet or smartphone applications, aimed at children in the early years. Hopefully this marks an end to the era of Goveian “we have had enough of experts” thinking that seems to have been prevalent at the department for the past decade.

You might think that I am uncharacteristically over-optimistic, but I would point to the new Centre for Excellence for Languages at York University, and the new funding directed towards sharing expertise in computing or, rather, computer science. OK, both are seen by education experts in those fields as inadequate responses, and not as good as what we had before, but at least they are moves in the right direction.

The really good news on the technology panel is that a key criterion for recruitment was “practitioner experience in early years teaching, with particular emphasis on use of technology with young children”. The experts need to be expert in learning in early years – and should include those wary of excessive screen time in children five and under. Education technology always needs to maintain a relentless focus on the first word of that phrase – the education is always more important than the technology!

It does seem odd that the initiative aims to inform the home market, rather than schools. The expert panel will draw up quality assurance criteria, and then produce a list of “quality marked” apps. It will also draw up guidance for parents in how to maximise the effectiveness of their children’s use of apps, and be asked to advise on the best means of promoting this guidance to reach as many parents as possible. So that’s quite an expectation of publishing and marketing expertise, alongside the pedagogy.

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic in thinking the DfE would put THAT much faith in practitioner expertise

All very worthy, and very traditional. Meanwhile, all over the country, early years’ teachers are spending their valuable time exploring and testing apps with their charges. Seeing what works and, more importantly, how to maximise learning and develop strategies to tailor the use of apps for maximum benefit. So here’s a more modern solution: why not crowd-source this expertise to inform the expert panel? Why not use web technologies to create a reactive and dynamic resource that capitalises on this learning?

Teachers are always hard-pressed for time. Evaluating ed tech resources such as apps takes considerable time and effort. Each year, in the US, Jane Hart uses her digital learning survey to produce a league table of the top tools for learning, including for use in schools (see EDU100 at https://www.toptools4learning.com/home/). This helps teachers to see what tools have been found worthy of use by fellow educators, and can help them to decide which to explore next.

Still in the US, EdShelf, another one-person operation, offers a practitioner-curated discovery engine of websites, mobile apps, desktop programs and electronic products for teaching and learning. This has voting and feedback systems to allow practitioners to indicate the apps that they have found useful, and even gather collections of apps to address specific learning outcomes to share with peers, children and parents.

I am sure some naysayers are thinking “Hang on a minute, haven’t we tried this before, isn’t this reinventing Curriculum Online”? (If you weren’t around then, you can get up to speed via the National Archives at https://bit.ly/CurriculumOnlineArchive). Well, no… that was a typically bureaucratic, top-down, government online initiative to support eLearning credits, with an unusable first version improved only after massive practitioner intervention.

What I am suggesting is a lightweight, practitioner-led, crowd-sourced, collaborative learning tool that would massively help to reduce teacher workload in the area of app discovery. Something like EdShelf, maybe under the management of the expert panel?

Although maybe I am being uncharacteristically over-optimistic in thinking that the DfE would ever put THAT much faith (or funding) in practitioner expertise?