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A manifesto for better education products

It seems a lifetime ago that the BBC was pressured to remove its free content for schools by organisations intent on profiting from the increased demand for online learning materials.

As schools and a sense of normality return, however, the likelihood is that schools will continue to need to work digitally – albeit more sporadically. It is therefore crucial that we fix our systems now to avoid a messy second wave of the distance learning free-for-all.

Here’s my fantasy about how we could do things differently so that the interests of everyone involved are better aligned. Let’s be clear, there are real challenges, but change is possible.

To make my point, I want to start with the low hanging fruit of Computer Assisted Instruction – think Seneca or Teach Your Monster to Read.

Computer Assisted Instruction is widely used. There is an abundance of platforms – each with their strengths – but none of them ever quite satisfy me and using multiple platforms is impractical as pupils spend more time logging in than learning.

Using three guiding principles, I think we could have a better system.

Principle 1: fund development, not delivery

Who do you think works for organisations offering Computer Assisted Instruction? That’s right, salespeople.

Curriculum development is slow, technical work so developers face high initial costs. As they only make money once they have a product, the race is on to create one and then flog it – hence the salespeople.

The cost of one additional school using the programme is negligible. Therefore, we could properly fund the slow development and then make the programmes free at the point of use.

Principle 2: open source materials

Here’s a secret: if you look at curriculum mapped resources and drill down to the detail, it’s often uninspiring because – as we have already seen – rationale developers create a minimum viable product before hiring an ace sales team.

Our second principle is that anything developed has to be made open source – in a common format, freely available – so that good features can be adopted and improved.

This approach could harness the professional generosity and expertise that currently exists in online subject communities, like CogSciSci and Team English.

Principle 3: try before we buy

Most things do not work as well as their producers claim – shocking, I know. When the EEF tests programmes only around a quarter are better than what schools already do.

Our third principle, is that once new features, like a question set, have been developed, they have to be tested and shown to be better than what already exists, before they are rolled out.

By designing computer assisted instruction systems on a common framework – and potentially linking it to other data sources – we can check to see if the feature works as intended.

A worked example

Bringing this all together, we end up with a system that better focuses everyone’s efforts on improving learning, while also likely delivering financial savings.

It starts with someone having a new idea about how to improve learning – perhaps a new way of teaching about cells in Year 7 biology. They receive some initial funding to develop the resource to its fullest potential. The materials are developed using a common format and made freely available for other prospective developers to build on.

Before the new materials are released to students, they are tested using a randomised controlled trial. Only the features that actually work are then released to all students. Over time, the programme gets better and better.

The specifics of this approach can be adjusted to taste. For instance, we could pay by results; ministers could run funding rounds linked to their priorities, like early reading; we could still allow choice between a range of high quality programmes.

Further, the ‘features’ need not be restricted to question sets; a feature could be a new algorithm that optimises the spacing and interleaving of questions; a dashboard that provides useful insights for teachers to use; a system to motivate pupils to study for longer.

This approach allows the best elements of different programmes to be combined, rather than locking schools into a single product ecosystem.

I think we can do better than the current system – but are we willing to think differently?