Rethinking School Technology Bans: Embracing High-Quality Tech Through Collaborations

When the UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said that teachers are more important than screens, she brought up an old debate about digital versus human educators. Good education isn't about choosing between technology and teachers - teachers all over the world use technology to enhance their teaching.

The key is to have high-quality technology that helps teachers do their best. How can startups support this process?

Most teachers know what's good quality technology. Studies show that when they have the choice, they pick apps based on science and evidence. But with over 200,000 apps labelled as "educational," even the most tech-savvy teachers can feel overwhelmed. They're not experts in research, and schools often don't have enough staff to filter out technologies of low quality.

Seen in this light, startups hold a crucial role in partnering with teachers, granting them access to good technologies for testing and co-creation, tailored to suit their classrooms. Startups possess up-to-date tech knowledge, and the information gaps between school leaders and EdTech producers, especially within the AI EdTech sector, make it challenging for schools to assess their value accurately. To address this, startups can take the initiative in enhancing teachers’ media literacy, focusing on their specialized area of expertise related to their product or service.

Teachers like a diverse technology ecosystem, embracing tried-and-tested services like learning management and videoconferencing systems over singular products like stand-alone apps. EdTech companies can collaborate to co-create these services, ensuring sustainable and effective implementation across devices. Sure, not all startups have the same access to teacher knowledge. Some companies have direct access through personal contacts (many EdTech co-founders are parents or former teachers) but they may face restrictions on the school, district or national level. When direct contact with teachers is not possible, reaching out to education or technology researchers at universities can create a powerful partnership.

The powerful trio of teachers, researchers, and EdTech developers ensures that technology aligns with scientific research and meets the needs of teachers, ultimately leading to the development of better EdTech solutions. There are some inspiring models of such partnerships, such as the Helsinki Education Hub in Finland, Swedish EdTest in Sweden, EdTech Swiss Coolider in Switzerland or LeanLab in USA. These intermediary organisations are important because they mediate between schools and EdTech founders with established research methods and practices. As a testbed community, they can ensure that only the most suitable technology gets tested in the classrooms, saving teachers’ time and ensuring good learning for students.

However, as the names “hub” reveals, accessing such testbeds is restricted by location, and a challenge for startups, especially those with global missions and limited funds. Thankfully, virtual testing is becoming increasingly viable. International university teams can support access to schools and match researchers with companies virtually. For example, at our university spin-out WiKIT, we can facilitate contacts between startups, international researchers and their connections to local schools. In these connections, the tension never revolves around technology versus teachers. There are tensions around prioritising specific learning outcomes, types of design or extent of teachers’ versus child’s agency. Discussing and technologically exploring these tensions is a much more productive approach towards the goal of creating high-quality technology that creates an optimal learning experience for students.

To sum up, startups can take the lead in breaking free from the screens-versus-teachers perspective by embracing a collaborative approach, where technology and traditional teaching methods unite to elevate education.