Who needs coding when it’s pupil safety that matters?

28 Apr 2019, 5:00

Schools would be better using their limited edtech resources to help pupils to stay safe and develop as informed citizens, argues Laura Larke

As I listened to Damian Hinds announcing the Department for Education’s new educational technology strategy, the question that rattled around in my head was simply “Is this really what we should be spending time and money on?”

As he outlined his plans to support the edtech sector in creating better products and to guide schools in making better purchasing decisions, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu – a feeling that is all too common when it comes to England’s educational policy-making.

Is the mispurchasing of edtech really what’s been plaguing England’s schools as they struggle to produce the next generation of tech users and inventors? Sure, the jury is still out on its role in improving education historically, and the quality and claims about many of the products currently on the market are dubious at best. But with the government cutting funding on education, is improving edtech where the DfE’s efforts should be focused?

The public – and children in particular – face a variety of significant risks when using networked digital technologies, such as the internet. This was demonstrated most recently in the Online Harms white paper, produced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Technical and regulatory solutions have so far failed to significantly reduce these potential harms, as shown by recent scandals involving foreign election interference, serious data breaches, and self-harm images on social media.

Education is the natural next line of defence in our national strategy to protect young people from online harms. However, the DfE’s continued narrow focus on the use of technology in schools for administrative tasks and the teaching of computer science principles (namely coding) above other digital skills does nothing to advance the role of education in protecting young people’s wellbeing.

Digital issues are ultimately social problems

But what does the evidence show that young people actually need to learn? Digital issues such as misinformation, propaganda, cyberbullying, and grooming are technologically facilitated, but ultimately social problems. Therefore, students need to develop their media literacy (identifying author intentions and assessing credibility) and information literacy (the ability to think critically and make balanced judgments), in addition to their digital literacy.

Research has shown the importance of media and information literacy education, as well as the challenges faced in improving it nationwide. However, with this trifecta of modern literacies, England’s young people should be better prepared to face a poorly regulated, increasingly digitalised world.

With schools struggling with severe budget cuts – and insufficient funding for teacher training in those skills that might help students defend against digital dangers – many students are not receiving the modern education that they need to stay safe and develop as informed citizens. With the DfE’s new edtech strategy being informed by an instrumentalist approach to technology and with a disappointingly small pot of funding available for its implementation – none of it guaranteed to reach schools’ emptying coffers – there isn’t much hope that this will be the programme that improves modern literacy education in England’s schools.

In an ideal world, schools would receive the funding necessary to use technology to improve learning, reduce teachers’ workload and make administrative processes more efficient, while also providing the training and physical resources needed to teach media, information, and digital literacy in a rigorous and comprehensive way.

However, if austerity continues, then we must focus our limited time and treasure on the most time-critical of these issues. The DfE must provide teachers with the leadership and resources necessary to protect students’ safety today and our country’s democracy tomorrow, through improvements in information, media, and digital literacy education.

The new edtech strategy – and the computing curriculum that came before it – are ill-suited to accomplish either of these goals.

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