Blog: Notes from BETT 2015 - Michael O'Sullivan

Blog: Notes from BETT 2015 - Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan, Chief Executive of Cambridge International Examinations, blogs from London at this year's Education World Forum event.

I was at the opening day of the BETT Show at ExCel London, which must be the world's biggest education technology exhibition, with over 600 companies exhibiting.

Looking at the range of software and hardware on offer, you feel for schools who have to make choices about what to buy and how to use it. The vast exhibition space is packed, and many of the visitors are teachers on fact-finding tours.

The English Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, made an enthusiastic speech at the opening ceremony, much of it about what technology can do for education. She is surely right to foresee an ever-growing role for digital technology in teaching, learning and assessment, and I was delighted to hear her praise an initiative which my exam board is involved in: free multimedia textbooks published online by the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge.

Amongst other encouraging examples of progress, however, she did mention a couple of future applications of digital technology which worried me - especially as it seems they are under serious consideration. Both seem to me to illustrate the important truth that data are neither good nor bad - it depends on what you do with them.

Example 1: Rather than just ranking schools by exam grades, government could, says the Secretary of State, mine income tax data and link young adults' income-earning performance back to their school. I think the idea is that schools are meant to prepare children for career success and so we can track their careers and see how well the schools have been doing. To me that sounds like an interesting direction for some social research but I doubt that ranking schools on that basis makes much sense. Attributing causation would be hellish, and there are likely to be large "Matthew effects" (a new, likeable term I learned yesterday at the Education World Forum. The reference is to Matthew 13:12 "For whoever has, to him shall more be given.. But whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." ) Schools in socially privileged areas may do better on these measures for reasons that have nothing to do with school performance. And as most secondary school leavers don't enter the workforce for three or four years, at best the data would tell you something about the school's performance under the previous principal. Worth it?

Example 2: Computer-based formative tests of kids' progress in maths could generate daily (yes I think it was "daily") feedback to parents about how their children are progressing and where they are struggling. We know that children do not progress at even rates in their learning, rather they advance in spurts and we cannot expect all in the class to learn at the same speed week in, week out. That is not the way kids learn. That is why teachers need to be flexible and aware of individual students' progress. Letting angry or alarmed parents, supplied with daily data feeds, loose on beleaguered teachers at the school gate each evening is going to have at least one highly predictable effect. An already considerable problem of early teacher drop-out from the profession will get worse. And why test kids that often? These are powerful tools for empowering parents and supporting students and teachers. But just because the stuff will be cheap and easy to use does not mean we should use it every day. Maybe future governments will have to introduce minimum test pricing for the same sorts of reasons that now make minimum alcohol pricing attractive.

10 or 15 years from now, I don't think there will be much more paper-and-pen testing and most learning materials will be digital, all over the world. Digital technologies will be a great force for improvement and for greater equity in education.... used with some wisdom.

Michael O’Sullivan 
Chief Executive, Cambridge International Examinations

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