Every teacher knows that education is key to improving children’s life chances.
Poor education amplifies risks in the labour market, with people who have not attained upper secondary education having lower employment prospects, lower earning potential and lower life expectancy.
Now, more than ever, we need to leverage educational technology to reach all learners, support new ways of teaching, and enable learning under new conditions.
Therefore, the announcement of the relaunch of the Oak Platform as an Arms Length Body (ALB) on 7th September 2022 and the accompanying award of £43,000,000 of funding could be seen as a good thing for the provision of free online curriculum resources.
The disruption caused during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of online learning resources and the need for all schools to have access to high quality online tools to support their pupils’ learning.
It is estimated that, around the world, 94% of education ministries provided at least one form of remote learning involving digital technology during school closures, and the speedy provision of the Oak platform was an important part of the UK’s provision.
It was a truly collaborative initiative, with many educational technology providers and publishers offering their own content and resources. Many of these commercial organisations also made their products and services available free of charge during the height of lockdown.
However, the reality is that this move by the DfE is unlikely to provide the high-quality support that teachers and learners deserve. There are many challenges in what is being proposed, but I will focus on just two here.
Firstly, the importance of teacher choice, autonomy and access to the best possible resources; and secondly the lack of evidence about the potential efficacy and impact of Oak.
For any online platform of resources to be successful, it must be provided in a way that enables and engenders teacher choice and autonomy to select what they know is most suitable for their pupils.
The only way to provide a full and free choice for schools is to maintain the vibrant educational technology ecosystem that exists within the United Kingdom, and to foster innovation and a diversity of options from which schools can choose.
However, the new Oak platform will make content procured through partners available internationally on a creative commons license, thus acquiring a company’s intellectual property and then offering it to everyone for free.
This will, of course, damage the commercial sector and reduce competition and choice. In addition, the selection of resources for Oak will be driven by ‘subject expert panels’ on which Ofsted will hold a role.
With tight school budgets, it will be increasingly hard for schools to justify paying for commercial resources, when there is a state-owned platform with government-approved resources available for free – even if the school and its teachers know that what is being offered by Oak is not always the best suited to their pupils’ needs.
Evidence is essential. The 2021 Building the Future of Education report from the OECD makes it clear that assessing the evidence about technology and its impact on teaching and learning will be vital for the future of education.
As an expert with decades of experience in the design and evaluation of educational technology, I agree wholeheartedly. If we are to assure value for money through positive educational impact, then we must provide accessible high-quality evidence to schools and parents to help them make the best possible choice when buying resources, and when deciding how to apply and implement those resources with pupils.
As yet, I have seen no rigorous, convincing evidence that demonstrates the Oak platform would be more effective, or even as effective, as the commercial alternatives already available.
Teachers and students deserve the very best. One size does not fit all when it comes to education, and yet that is precisely what the latest Oak initiative is offering.
The ALB approach will stifle competition, diminish the commercial sector and in doing so reduce teacher choice and school autonomy. Worse still the offer is unproven and unsupported by any consistent body of research evidence to demonstrate it will be world leading and yield positive impact for pupils.
Rose Luckin is Professor of Learner Centred Design at UCL Knowledge Lab, and founder of Educate Ventures Research.