There are 3 discrete teams
- the Technology Research team which investigates new and emerging technologies and their potential/ appropriateness for education;
- the Exemplars and Models team (formerly known as the Awards Team) which looks at innovative / good practice in schools and also runs national award ceremonies programmes to reward the schools and to disseminate this "good practice" to the wider community;
- the Educational Research and Evidence and Analysis team which looks at Academic research and studies of ICT in Education and then analyses this information and acts as an internal store of information on research evidence.
When looking at "innovation" one needs to ask "What is innovation" and "Innovative by whose standards?" We often see practice which is considered innovative in a particular region; but is regarded as "standard" or worse, "old hat" in others. On a larger scale, do we restrict our definition to the national picture; or look for comparative practice abroad. Being a national agency, Becta is able through its research to get an overall UK picture of practice. Clearly, groups such as PIC serve an important function for educational
policy professionals to get a broader picture of what is happening internationally.
One of the dangers with new and emerging technologies is to be overly impressed with the technology itself, rather than its effectiveness in addressing educational aims. We need to ask critically "Yes it’s innovative, but is it is any good?" "Is it adding anything to either teacher or learner outcomes?" and "what metrics do we apply to assess this innovation".
From a research perspective, assessing the impact of innovative and good practice needs to be backed up by robust research evidence showing or implying measurable outcomes. This can be difficult.
In a political environment, exam results tend to be the most important driver and this can be problematic especially if exam success is the determinant factor for whether practice is to be transferred or not. Assessment can define the teaching system and can limit innovation. Traditional assessment doesn’t capture many of the skills which can be developed through ICT.
The Beacon schools initiative was designed to raise standards through the dissemination of good practice. They were schools which had
been identified as amongst the best performing in the country and represent examples of successful practice which are to be brought to the attention of the rest of the education service with a view to sharing and spreading that effective practice to others. In the DfES publication "Factors Influencing the transfer of Good Practice" one head teacher expressed his dissatisfaction of being expected to copy practice from Beacon schools on the basis of the Beacon school’s good exam results.
"We got fed up with the export of crap from Beacon schools … Because an English Department gets 75% A* - Cs that doesn’t mean to say that what they’re doing is particularly interesting or it’s transferable. Indeed, it could actually be rather boring".
Criteria for innovation
In researching and disseminating innovative practice, Becta uses several methods
- Awards schemes
- Research projects (e.g. Development and Research (this is discussed in more detail below)
For the purpose of awards, seminars and networks, it has often been enough to highlight (and reward) "innovation". One of the criteria being that the approach or technology is new.
Some of the key questions:
- "is the practitioner, institution or local authority doing some activity or practice that has not been done before""
- is the practitioner institution or local authority doing some established activity or practice in a new way"
- "is the project employing a technology which has never been employed before" (our Expert Technology Seminars often featured prototypes and pilot studies of technologies that were not commercially available).
When working at a national or strategic level, highlighting innovation is not enough if we want to transfer it; further criteria need to be met
- Is the innovation scalable?
- Is it replicable?
- Does it work?
- Is it cost effective?
For a national agency scalability and replicability are particularly important.
In the UK, some great examples of innovative practice have happened as a direct result of government
grants and funding. Whilst attempts have been made in recent years to incorporate sustainability into grant led projects, there has been a tendency that once the grant money has run out, the innovation stops. Such examples are not sustainable.
We have seen some innovative commercially funded school projects where the commercial company has donated hardware or software to a school; often for the purpose of a Pilot Study or for product testing or for other research or marketing purposes. For example, when the wireless Tablet PC was first launched, several class sets were donated to schools (by the manufacturers) for evaluation. Such projects are often neither sustainable nor scalable as it is unlikely the commercial supplier would be prepared to donate hardware to large numbers of schools across the country. Furthermore, a school would often not normally prioritise a brand new technology as the cost can be prohibitive; we have seen in the consumer electronics market that leading edge products are initially very expensive, but then suffer a rapid drop in price as the technology becomes widely replicated or supereceded by a newer technology. Schools are aware that cost effectiveness can be achieved if they are prepared to wait.
Some innovation and innovative practice we see is environmentally specific. Examples include practice and solutions in economically deprived regions. These solutions are often only relevant to address the specific problems associated with that area e.g. support programmes for parents to use ICT at home become irrelevant when the demographic of the school is predominantly professional classes who are regular and confident ICT users.
For innovative educational projects using new and emerging technology, cost may be a restrictive factor to its scalability. For innovative teaching practice, replicability is an issue. To what extent is the innovation specifically down to the teacher? It is often argued that a good teacher could make innovative use of poor materials, and a bad teacher could take an innovative methodology and produce a poor lesson. Furthermore, we need to be careful when highlighting innovative practice; the term "best practice" is loaded and can alienate.
In "Factors Influencing the transfer of Good Practice" the authors suggest that for teachers to learn from each other there needs to be some relationship and trust with the person they are learning from. There has to be some identification with the person to learn from. The school environment needs to be supportive for a teacher to try something new out; and transfer has to be sustained over time. It is not a quick fix.
The role of research to transfer innovation
For the reasons outlined above, identifying innovation is in itself not easy. Once identified, the issue of whether the innovation is successful or not arises (and how to measure this). Then the further issues of whether the innovation is scalable, replicable, relevant and cost effective need to be addressed.
ICT changes rapidly and its adoption is costly. The UK has invested heavily in ICT over the last decade and some of the decisions made have had to be a "leap of faith" based on available evidence. This is difficult with new technologies as often there is very little research available. The political world is full of risks and in a fast moving technological environment, waiting for a long term study can mean getting left behind. But equally, taking a leap of faith and adopting a relatively unknown technology can result in mistakes being made.
If we are to take innovation and scale it up to a national level, formal research and robust evidence is imperative.
Currently Becta is managing the implementation of the Government ICT Test Bed project and also oversees its evaluation. The main aims of the project are to determine how the use of ICT can raise standards in schools and colleges, gather evidence about how ICT can bring about significant improvements in all aspects of educational endeavour, and successfully disseminate the lessons learnt from the project.
Becta intends over the next few years (commencing in April 2006) to undertake a number of Development and Research (D&R) projects which will take existing and emerging innovative (and successful) small scale projects and run controlled studies to evaluate their suitability for larger scale adoption. The idea is to "capture" the innovative early and then rapidly build up developmental projects that can test hypotheses in a controlled environment. The process will be iterative which means that we can adapt (to new technologies, developments) as the research is being undertaken, and can then ask and test further hypotheses as we go along.
This allows for mistakes to be corrected and for the technology and practice to be improved as the project progresses. So, in the end, these D&R projects should not only work, but be scalable.
These D&R Projects in themselves have risks. The technology may become redundant before the research is finished, for example, or the results may show that the technology or practice does not give any measurable benefit etc. However, it will be better to find out at this stage that the technology or project is not viable, than to find out after a large scale implementation. This will enable the Government to make decisions based on solid research evidence rather than just being informed by research.
Keywords: educational innovation, educational policy
Last changed: Wednesday, 31 May 2006