The disingenuous nature of empowerment in edtech

I originally wrote this piece for the LKMco blog, off the back of my attending Bett 2018. It can be found on their website at the link below.

Original article

Technology is often presented as a means of empowerment within education, but we are in danger of actively holding pupils back by ignoring the inherent class bias of this narrative.

I recently attended Bett, a large educational technology expo held annually at the ExCeL London. There were many impressive products available to preview, from a broad variety of vendors, and a long list of speakers from the great and good of the edtech sector. I began my day at Bett by attending a talk by a headteacher and multi-academy trust leader, in partnership with Microsoft.


The talk was entitled 'A day in the life of a digitally enabled child'. It featured footage of Beth, a Year 6 child attending a primary school in which every child is provided with a Microsoft Surface tablet.

"Technology is, as it has always been, a tool that is empowering the daily life of the children."

This was one of the speaker’s opening statements, and highlights an issue that I would like to address both within the context of his talk, and in the wider sphere of educational technology. Personally, I’m quite picky about how we use words like “empower”, so it’s worth thinking a bit more carefully about how Beth and her peers are “empowered” by this particular vision of education. But before we do that, allow me to introduce you to another child. Amy is also in Beth’s class. She lives in a women’s refuge with her mother and younger brother. She has missed a non-trivial amount of schooling due to her circumstances at home, and has only recently moved into this unfamiliar area. Her mother works shifts at the local hospital. Let’s have a look at how Beth and Amy spend their day.

Beth’s day

Beth began her day by using her tablet at the breakfast table to check her agenda for the day using various pieces of the latest Microsoft software. In the car on the way to school, she accessed learning materials and games on her tablet. At school, she used the Accelerated Reader software, and worked on projects using more Microsoft products. An actual human teacher was very briefly seen facilitating the use of the technology (amongst a class of sixty children), but all tasks shown were being conducted on the tablets. Recorded video and written feedback were given remotely by the teacher, and Beth was able to review her targets on her tablet. Mum had reminded Beth to preorder her lunch at home last night, and Beth was able to feed back on the quality of her lunch whilst she sat in the lunch hall. Once home, Beth carried on working on her home learning projects through her tablet; reviewing and recording video responses to feedback from her teacher.

Amy’s day

Amy began her day by waking herself up, making her own breakfast and getting her school things together. There wasn’t much about for breakfast – they’d have to visit the food bank again later – but Amy made do with what she could find. Mum was very tired from her late shift last night, and was trying to manage Amy’s younger brother. He was having another meltdown and throwing objects around the room. After all, that’s the behaviour that Dad had always modelled to him in the past. Amy would be lucky to make it to school on time today.

Amy arrived late, not having seen an agenda for the day. The other kids all seemed to know what they were doing. Amy sat down and got out her tablet. Everyone knew which tablet was Amy’s. It was the one with the crack in the case from where her brother had thrown it at the wall a couple of months ago. She turned it on, and tried to load up the software. Amy hadn’t had much experience of using a tablet, so she wasn’t not quite sure how, and had to ask for help again.

An Accelerated Reader report showing pupils' estimated "Engaged time per day" (Image via Renaissance Learning)

Amy’s teacher wasn’t happy with how she had been progressing in her reading. Her ‘engaged time’ was low, and her quiz scores had been dropping. Mum had had lots of night shifts recently, and hadn’t been able to sit and read with Amy so much. Amy never found reading particularly easy anyway, and sometimes needed to reread bits of a book to make sure she had understood them. Unfortunately, Accelerated Reader’s ‘engaged time’ estimate didn’t show any of that.

At lunchtime, Amy had to wait longer than the other kids to get her food as she hadn’t remembered to preorder her lunch last night. When she got home, she tried to access her home learning, but needed help. Mum was at work again, so Amy tried her best but couldn’t do all of it. She was worried that she might have let her classmates down – after all, this home learning project was supposed to be ‘collaborative’. She looked at some of her teacher’s feedback videos, but didn’t quite get what they meant. She couldn’t ask a video for an explanation, and was worried about looking like she was being left behind, so she recorded a generic, “OK”-type response. If she was lucky, she would be able to have some time with her teacher tomorrow, but there were many other Amys, and only one teacher.

Of course, Amy is not a real child, but her experiences are synthesised from my own teaching experience. Yet her situation is not uncommon; certainly not uncommon enough to safely ignore when ‘innovating’ in the classroom. But let’s look at what the technology has done to “empower” both Amy and Beth.

For Beth, the technology has enabled some new modes of learning. Some are improvements upon more traditional teaching methods; others are expensive novelties. She is tied into a particular mode of learning, in a school that has restructured its education to be entirely centred around a single piece of technology. What happens if she doesn’t get on with that way of learning? Luckily, Beth has lots of parental support at home, not least because her father is the headteacher of her school. If she struggles in school, her family can easily afford a tutor, or the time to sit and work with her.

For Amy, the technology has also enabled some new modes of learning, but many of them are very difficult to access for her. Many are reliant upon a level of home support that she simply does not have access to. She is marked out as different from her peers by the effect her home circumstances have had on her device, by the level of support she requires from the teacher, by her ability to engage in collaborative projects outside of school hours, and even by the lunch ordering system. Access to her teacher has been reduced by increasing class sizes and greater reliance upon automated ‘teaching’ methods.

empower (verb) /ɪmˈpaʊər/: to give someone official or legal authority, or the freedom or confidence to do something

'empower' at Cambridge Dictionary

Personally, I don’t feel that either child, particularly Amy, has been especially “empowered”, and we can’t assume that their school has been either. Their school is now committed to an expensive programme of subscriptions to proprietary software, and reliant upon a given class of device, which will need replacing for all pupils every few years. If they want to move away from this model, or even to another vendor, there will be significant and likely expensive upheaval throughout the school. They have also had to expend a significant amount of time and money training the staff in how to work in this new way. In the current climate of school funding, the girls’ school is really feeling the pinch. Maybe they won’t hire another teaching assistant to replace the two who left last term. Maybe they’ll only implement their teachers’ pay rise for a couple of pay grades, rather than for all of the staff. Maybe they can’t afford to move anybody up the pay scale this year, regardless of how well they’ve done. Budgetary issues such as these directly impact a school’s ability to put in place measures that may actually empower children like Amy, such as having enough support staff available to ensure that all pupils’ needs are met.

The false narrative around “empowerment” is sadly very common within the edtech sector. Vendors are all too keen to sell the next great educational innovation to cash-strapped schools as some kind of panacæa, a liberating force from some perceived yoke of tried and tested pedagogical methods.

It’s all very well promoting an organisation’s particular vision of the future, but what are the concrete material conditions that schools face? How will your vision be implemented in the current climate? How will the experience of your particular innovation vary between pupils of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds?

Only by unpicking how educational ‘innovations’ impact on different groups, both directly and indirectly, can we really empower everyone. Otherwise, we are just reinforcing existing inequalities. Expecting all pupils to have access to similar material resources, cultural capital and familial support belies a class bias that is endemic in the edtech sector. It is time for the voice of the educator, rather than that of the entrepreneur, to be given primacy in the discussion of how technology can empower our pupils in a meaningful way.

(Beth’s name has been changed to protect her identity)