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BECTA’s closing sends ripples throughout ed tech


The move is part of the government's larger plan to cut 6.2 billion pounds for fiscal 2010-2011.
The move is part of the U.K. government's larger plan to cut 6.2 billion pounds for fiscal 2010-11.

In a move that has sent shock waves throughout the education technology world, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), which has been a leading international voice in research and support for using information and communications technology (ICT) in schools, is shutting its doors—a victim of the new U.K. government’s cost-cutting measures.

BECTA’s closing could leave many U.K. schools on their own as they struggle to integrate technology effectively into teaching and learning, and its absence could be felt in the United States as well, observers say.

A “quango,” or non-departmental body, BECTA is the U.K. government agency that has led that nation’s drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology in teaching and learning. Through BECTA’s work, U.K. schools have received expert advice on ICT purchases and applications in the classroom. BECTA also led the U.K.’s Home Access plan, an ambitious national initiative that sought to offer certain low-income families with children a free laptop computer and internet access.

Most recently, BECTA, with the help of RM Education, was the governing body behind the movement to develop a Common File Format (CFF) for interactive whiteboard content. (See “New standard makes whiteboard content more accessible.”)

However, last month a new political administration came into power in the U.K., putting in motion the Treasury’s decision to close BECTA by November 2010. The move is part of the new government’s plan to cut 6.2 billion pounds from the national budget for fiscal 2010-11, a plan necessitated by the global financial recession, officials say.

According to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, the staff at BECTA’s headquarters anticipated cuts and job losses, but few were prepared for the 12-year agency’s closure. The closure will mean the loss of 240 jobs—and the loss of what BECTA Chairman Graham Badman said are valuable ICT services for schools and their students.

“Naturally we are very disappointed at the government’s decision,” said Badman and Stephen Crowe, chief executive officer of BECTA, in a joint statement. “BECTA is a very effective organization with an international reputation, delivering valuable service to schools, colleges, and children. Our procurement arrangement saves the schools and colleges many times more than BECTA costs to run. Our Home Access program will give laptops and broadband to over 200,000 of the poorest children. Our top priorities are now to make sure we have an orderly and fair process for staff, and that as far as possible schools, colleges, and children continue to benefit from the savings and support that BECTA has provided.”

According to the agency’s web site, 1.5 billion pounds has been spent on technology for U.K. schools through BECTA’s procurement agreements since 2002, and this has saved the nation’s educational system 223 million pounds—or an average of 28 million pounds per year. BECTA also says it has achieved cost savings of 55 million pounds for educational institutions and providers in the past year alone.

One example of how BECTA has helped U.K. schools save money on ICT is its support for open-source technology. In 2005, the agency produced a paper suggesting that schools could halve their ICT bills by adopting open-source software rather than Microsoft’s Windows and other applications. In 2008, it again suggested that schools should adopt more open-source software—which led Microsoft to drop some of its costs for licensing software to U.K. schools.

The U.K. government says BECTA’s closing will mean individual schools will be able to decide for themselves how to use technology. According to the Treasury, the closing aims to cut government spending waste, cut bureaucratic red tape, and protect individual school spending.

According to a report in The Guardian, many U.K. “analysts agreed that BECTA was expensive and, when faced with cuts, teachers would prefer to see it go than make big savings in their own budgets.”

In an ongoing Guardian poll launched recently, teachers voted BECTA the most valuable organization among a list of six national bodies; 49 percent voted it the most valuable, compared with just 3.9 percent for the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency.

However, when asked who should be responsible for procuring technology, only 9.6 percent of teachers had voted for BECTA as of press time, while 40.5 percent voted for independent schools.

Although closing BECTA will save the government money, some analysts say it will only hurt schools and the ICT industry in the long run.

“What happens to the existing technology and the knowledge that has been gained as part of these and other big IT projects?” asked Sarah Burnett, business intelligence analyst at the Ovum Group. “It is a given that the sector has to save money, but the current plans, if rushed through, could lead to good assets and skills being shed only to have to be redeveloped or regained later.”

While there are a number of other government bodies that offer procurement expertise, including the Office of Government Commerce and other regional organizations, “it’s not clear which will take on BECTA’s ongoing contracts and programs,” Burnett said. “There is a wealth of knowledge and technical know-how that the body has gained over a number of years and that must not go to waste.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, said in an interview with The Guardian that “scrapping BECTA represents a false economy marked by an overriding principle of political ideology,” rather than a genuine attempt to receive value for money.

“Schools often go for the most expensive systems, and they can fall prey to the slick salesmanship the big companies can afford,” Keates told the newspaper. “They often get stuck with systems that are not fit for purpose, [are] difficult to integrate with other systems, and [are] … expensive to maintain.”

Not everyone agrees. One local school leader posted the following on a U.K. learning technology web site:

“Formed at a time when eMails were considered cutting-edge, BECTA was charged with taking the pain out of ICT in schools—good in theory, but in practice contracts between large software providers and [local education agencies] meant that schools had been under pressure to purchase over-priced, often badly designed systems. … With the freedom from LEAs and BECTA, schools can now choose smarter, user-friendly software from start-up educational software companies, which has already shown to save huge amounts—not just in terms of paying less, but in precious time savings.”

As BECTA prepares to close down, it’s unclear what will happen to its current projects—or how U.K. schools will proceed with their ICT initiatives from here.

“There will be an orderly wind-down of BECTA over the rest of this government year. We anticipate completing all work planned for them and remain committed to CFF despite BECTA’s closing,” said an RM spokesman in an interview with eSchool News.

“There are still too few suppliers who have chosen to embrace CFF, and we will continue to influence the market to embrace this notion of sharing, collaboration, and encouraging true interactive use of devices such as whiteboards and slates. CFF will survive BECTA, as—like many of the organization’s initiatives—it represents a real K-12 requirement, and one that will only increase with further adoption of interactive technologies and use of learning platforms.”

According to reports, BECTA’s Home Access plan hasn’t yet been shut down. The U.K.’s Department of Education said the plan will continue, but not for much longer. The hotline number is still taking applications and will continue to do so; however, additional applications for free laptops will only be accepted until the set amount of allocated funding dries up, which is expected to happen sometime this summer.

A government spending review set to take place this fall will determine the program’s future and whether it is deemed successful enough to continue.

In the United States, education technology leaders agreed the loss of BECTA would be felt by U.S. schools as well.

“BECTA has consistently done some of the most important global research on ICT in education,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit organization that has frequently worked with BECTA. ”Not having them will be a loss to everyone wanting to know about best practices around technology in education.”

But ed-tech experts were divided over how BECTA’s closing might affect ICT investment in the U.K. or other nations.

Krueger said he doesn’t think the move should be interpreted as a sign that the new British government doesn’t value ICT in education.

“The jury is still out on that question,” he said. “Closing of BECTA is specifically a budget-cutting strategy, which the Conservative Party ran on a platform to end ‘quango’ government agencies.”

He also said that while schools in the U.K. might suffer, he’s not convinced it will necessarily discourage other countries from investing in education technology.

“For over 15 years, the U.K. has been a leader in investing in ICT in education. Clearly this is a bump in the road for them, but I think we have to see if it really is a retrenchment of strategy or simply a political decision about one specific agency,” he said.

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, holds a different view.

Knezek, who recently visited BECTA senior staff, said the decision to terminate government funding of BECTA might cause other governments across Europe and throughout much of the former British Empire to re-examine how they provide leadership and support to schools for transforming education through technology.

He said that as he continues to travel internationally, the closing of BECTA is “the ‘shot heard ’round the world’ in the ed-tech community.”

“With the current world economy and the U.K.’s traditional influence on education outside the U.K., I believe it is likely to lead to decreased direct government funding for technology use in schools in many nations,” Knezek said.

He continued, “I am concerned for the schools in the U.K. In situations where there is strong and consistent centralized effort to improve learning with innovative and effective use of technology—Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong—we see not only high levels of adoption of technology, but improved performance on international comparisons of educational achievement and effectiveness as well. The U.K. is facing a more complex landscape now to foster and nurture improved leaning across that nation through innovative and effective uses of technology, and one might reasonably expect slower and less universal progress.”

Links:

BECTA

Consortium for School Networking

International Society for Technology in Education

RM Education

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