The education research problem

Independent consultant and self-confessed “controversialist” Crispin Weston offers a personal view of the current educational technology landscape, and what needs to be done to transform it.


The central challenge to face modern education is how to handle scale. Ever since Socrates, more than 2,000 years ago, we have known how to teach small groups of students through a process of continuous dialogue with an expert tutor. But the Socratic model has never met the need of modern societies to educate the many and not just the few.

Modern research still confirms the vital importance of students receiving timely, actionable feedback, the essence of “dialogic” teaching. But the amount of such personalised feedback in most schools and colleges is extremely limited. While we appear to be unable to respond to the one incontestable finding of modern education research, the 1998 Tooley Report showed that the bulk of education research is either flawed or irrelevant to the needs of teachers. The result has been a proliferation of quack theories. One of the more pernicious of these has been the myth of the “independent learner”, an article of faith for large sections of the ICT community over the last fifteen years.

At the heart of our failure to distinguish effective pedagogy from snake oil is a view common amongst teachers that their practice is something of a mystery, bound up with their own personality, their private experience, their relationships and the infinitely variable objectives of their students. As a result, the education service sees itself as a collective of autonomous craftsmen rather than an enterprise using clearly defined processes to respond consistently to the requirements laid upon it. Teachers should not be surprised if that they are not viewed as a true profession when they produce wildly inconsistent outcomes, when their default position is to oppose the independent evaluation of educational outcomes, and when they cannot point to an authoritative, defensible body of knowledge on which their practice is based.

Never mind the technology?

The failure to produce a rational account of pedagogy has represented a major barrier to implementing education technology. It has become almost a truism of the ICT community to tell us not to mind the technology but to look instead for the learning. But the people who repeat this axiom do not appear to realise that pedagogy is the particular sort of technology that is proper to teaching; or that digital systems offer the best opportunity to formalise pedagogy so that it is applied consistently in teaching practice; or that it is only by teaching that any of us can have any influence on the learning of our students. Like so many orthodox views about teaching, the supposed dichotomy between technology and learning collapses as soon as it is given any scrutiny.

This does not mean that we need to achieve consensus on what good pedagogy looks like before we can move forward with education technology. The invention of the printing press stimulated the writing of books and pamphlets, some good and some bad, but which collectively transformed the intellectual landscape of Europe. In the same way, the emergence of capable ed-tech infrastructures will stimulate innovation in pedagogy by providing the means by which those innovative pedagogies can be encapsulated, disseminated and applied consistently.

The importance of data

Those same ed-tech products will produce the data that will allow us to produce an evidence-based account of what “good” looks like. Over the last year, the government has invested significant funds in promoting randomised controlled tests in an attempt to improve the quality of education research. But it has failed to answer two important questions about this aspiration.

First, how will the outcome of this research be applied in the classroom, when teachers are notoriously resistant to changing their practice?

Second, how will sufficient amounts of data be collected to control for student intake and teaching style while avoiding the distorting Hawthorne effect? There is only one plausible answer and in both cases it is the same: data-driven education technology is the only plausible way of ensuring that new pedagogies are replicated consistently and evaluated rigorously.

Such a new approach to education is already beginning to emerge in America, where the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms are working on automatic essay graders for higher education and where Knewton is producing systems for adaptive instruction. Even in the UK, the flawed assumptions of the Becta era are beginning to come under more general criticism and people are showing interest in the potential in education for “big data”. There is much that remains unclear about how these visions will work out in practice (educational data is more likely to be medium-sized and tightly structured than Google-esque in its vast bagginess). Nevertheless, we have started to move forwards. Education technology (the use of technology to improve teaching and learning) has been teased apart from the computing curriculum (the teaching of technology as an end of education): two quite separate objectives that were previously conflated under the catch-all term “ICT”.

Barriers to progress

In spite of these first signs of progress, we still we lack the sort of dynamic, open market that will foster genuinely innovative ed-tech products. Learning from Becta’s mistakes, the current government has rightly insisted that it cannot lead ed-tech innovation. But in its enthusiasm not to impose top-down solutions, it has failed to recognise that only government can create the market conditions in which innovation can thrive.

Most importantly, government leadership is needed on data interoperability. While this may sound a dry subject, remote from the daily practice of teachers, it is the most important lever for change in our current education system. No ed-tech product (such as the various possible types of learning activity software, activity sequencers, analytics or portfolio systems) will prove effective in isolation. Nor can a single supplier provide a one-stop-shop solution to a requirement as complex as education. Data interoperability is as necessary to the ed-tech market as the three-pin-plug is to the market for electrical appliances. And it is ed-tech that offers the most plausible means of improving teaching and learning across the education system.


After decades of bumping along the runway, the ed-tech aircraft is finally looking as though it might have what it takes to get airborne. But if the UK schools sector is to play any significant part in influencing that transformation, then it will need to demonstrate considerably more ambition, imagination and capacity for self-criticism than has been evident of late; and the Department for Education will need to offer considerably more proactive (though not prescriptive) leadership than it has been prepared to offer so far under this government.

Crispin Weston has spent the last 20 years arguing that better data standards are an essential prerequisite for effective education technology. He has worked on a variety of projects with BESA, the DfE, and US-based LETSI. He challenged alleged irregularities in Becta’s procurement of Learning Platforms in 2007, founded SALTIS, and subsequently worked for Becta on a project to improve the interoperability of learning content. He chairs BSI’s committee for IT in education, representing the UK on formal international standards organisations such as ISO/IEC. Crispin is a controversialist. In the keynote debate at this year’s Online Educa Berlin he spoke in favour of the motion “MOOCs are doomed”; and he regularly challenges orthodox views of the role of technology in education in his blog at

A slightly-modified version of this article appeared in the Digital Education newsletter of January 2014, as part of our regular series, “The view from here”, and also been published on Crispin’s blog.

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