Tackling the epidemic of cyberbullying needs a coordinated response

This week, the Anti-Bullying Alliance is running 2018’s Anti-Bullying Week – a timely reminder that, despite our best efforts, bullying remains a serious problem for many schools, children and parents. Bullying is a major factor behind the growing mental health crisis in schools – one in three 13-15 year olds are suffering from a mental health problem according to a recent survey by charity Action for Children. It’s also linked to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts in young people, as well as a higher risk of substance abuse and alcohol problems in later life.

Although government research has found that in-person bullying within schools has lessened over the last decade overall – most likely thanks to increasing awareness of the seriousness of bullying and a no-tolerance policy in schools – bullying is increasingly migrating to online channels, primarily through the social media platforms that have become a central part of young people’s lives. The figures are alarming. In the UK, incidents of cyberbullying have grown 37% year-on-year according to a report from internet safety company Smoothwall, and one recent study by international anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found that 17% of British children have been victims. Elsewhere in the world, the picture is very similar, with a new Pew Research Center survey finding that 59% of U.S. teens have personally experienced at least one of six types of abusive online behaviours. The US-based Cyberbullying Research Center furthermore says that the number experiencing cyberbullying has doubled since 2007.

While in-person bullying can often be effectively tackled within school premises and primarily involves students, schools and parents, cyberbullying is more pervasive and comes in more forms. Victims can be targeted anywhere, at any time, and can feel like there’s no escape from the abuse. Cyberbullying therefore presents a different challenge to in-person bullying – one that requires coordination from stakeholders across not only education, but also wider society as a whole. Tech giants such Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – whose platforms play host to the majority of cyberbullying – are now central figures in the debate. Just as UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds recently called on large tech companies to do more to drive a technological revolution in education, so to do they need to take more responsibility for the products that they produce for young people and help protect their users.

That’s not to say they are ignoring the problem. Facebook operates a bullying support hub where users can block people and report content that is then taken down if it violates Facebook’s Community Standards by intentionally degrading or shaming. Both Facebook and Instagram also use artificial intelligence to identify abusive language, and Facebook has also committed to funding anti-bullying training in schools. Nevertheless, the Ditch the Label survey found that 70% of teenagers questioned thought that social media companies do too little to prevent bullying, and both non-profits such as the NSPCC, teachers, parents, even the UK government, believe they can do more.

The issue of cyberbullying isn’t so far removed from the complex debates currently raging around hate speech and free speech, trolling and fake news on the social media sites we use. For example, the Canadian province of Nova Scotia recently introduced an anti-cyberbullying bill after a high-profile teenage suicide, but the law was later removed by the courts for violating free speech, demonstrating the difficulty in using legislation to curb the problem. We’re still grappling with our relationship to the new hyper-connected communication media available to us, and what it means to use these responsibly. This ability to use technology and media in safe, responsible and effective ways – often termed digital citizenship – is a vital competency for the 21st century, though we’re still some way from seeing the topic introduced into national curricula around the world. So far, non-profits are taking up the task. Common Sense Education, for example, offers a free K-12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum that has cyberbullying as one of six core curriculum topics, with over 500,000 teachers now using this resource worldwide. Meanwhile, The DQ Institute, an international think tank that provides solutions and policy recommendations to help nations build ethical digital ecosystems, have created a Digital Intelligence Quotient, or DQ number. Derived from eight core digital citizenship competencies – digital safety and cyberbullying management being one of them – the DQ number aims to set an international standard of digital citizenship, and I believe this level of global integration and awareness is needed if cyberbullying is to be tackled effectively.

Both teachers and parents share the same concerns about online safety. This year, a back-to-school campaign launched by UK non-profit Internet Matters revealed that 73% of Year 7 parents were anxious about their child’s ability to manage online relationships, and 80% were concerned about cyberbullying. But schools and teachers often feel ill-equipped to deal with the problem: the Smoothwall study found that 62% of teachers do not believe they are fully supported to tackle the issue, and 84% believe the government should be doing more to help train them. Tech companies once again shouldered much of the blame; 77% of teachers do not believe that they are doing enough to protect young people.

Clearly, there’s no easy answer to the growing problem of cyberbullying, the responsibility for tackling the problem falls on many shoulders. Certainly, banning social media or certain apps doesn’t work – that would be like trying to put the genie back into the bottle. Besides, social media and the internet offer extraordinary opportunities that young people should feel confident to be able to use at any time without the threat of abuse. Instead, we need a coordinated response from those across education, government and industry. Tech companies should be looking to collectively commit to tackling the problem, agree on industry standards of what constitutes abusive content, as well as provide a single source of information for users on how to address it. We need to advance the digital citizenship agenda so that both adults and children learn the digital skills necessary to navigate internet safely. As part of this,
the government must listen to schools and teachers who call for more training and resources on how to teach students to be more responsible digital citizens, as well as consider introducing more online safety related material into the curriculum.

But for any measures to be effective, different stakeholders mustn’t just point fingers of blame but rather approach the problem of cyberbullying from the same angle. Parents, educators, governments, tech companies, and of course students themselves must reach a common understanding. It’s a challenging project, and the only way forward is to foster communication and cooperation between groups who may not ordinarily find themselves talking to each other. At the Tmrw Institute – a new organisation from Tmrw Digital that curates conversations between the varied stakeholders in the EdTech industry – we have this cooperative outlook at our core. Maybe the growing problem of cyberbullying is where this approach will yield the greatest results.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital

This article appeared on The Educator UK on 21st November 2018

The Rise of the “Teacher-preneur”

Why educator involvement in edtech isn’t merely a nice idea.

Last week we held our inaugural event in London, where two inspirational edtech entrepreneurs spoke about how they made the leap into starting their own businesses, what drove them to take on the challenge, and how they achieved remarkable results in such short spaces of time. They had one thing in common: both used to be teachers.

The growing trend of the “teacherpreneur” is timely, and a potential solution to the impasse afflicting educational technology – edtech – in its current state. Despite all the hype, it’s fair to say that edtech isn’t living up to its potential.

Addressing the Facts

In the developing world, governments and NGOs have had little impact so far in addressing the shocking fact that over 260 million children and young people are not in school, and that of the 650 million primary school-age children that are, 250 million are not learning the basics.

Meanwhile, across the developed world, many edtech products are not yet making the educational impact many had hoped for. For instance, in 2015, an OECD report found that there was no noticeable improvement in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science in countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education. And in the US, only 33 per cent of parents surveyed by the Learning Assembly agreed that their child’s school did an “excellent” job of using technology to tailor instruction. The sector is not yet producing the sort of innovation that will bring about macro-level changes in how education is delivered across the globe to those with fewer resources.

A Key Ingredient

A key ingredient that could make a huge difference to this apparent lack of progress is the involvement of teachers in edtech development – educators are all too often left out of the picture by the current norms of the sector. In all the conferences I have attended around the world, I’m struck by the absence of teachers at edtech roundtables, discussions, and panels – which usually revolve around policymakers, CEOs, tech entrepreneurs and investors. It’s a shame, since the conversations I have with teachers who are on the front line, in my experience, are always the most productive.

Teacher involvement is crucial, in part because one of the main reasons that many edtech initiatives fail is a lack of grounding in the real experience of students and teachers. Designers and developers often miss failings that would be obvious to those on the front line. By contrast, teachers know first-hand what students need, and what they themselves need as educators – a crucial element in the design process. They also understand the distinction between a superficial innovation and one that will actually help pupils, and they know how the education sector works from the inside.

Edtech’s Next Paradigm Shift

Now, trailblazing teachers are taking innovation into their own hands, bringing the knowledge and insight gleaned in the classroom to the world of edtech. This is a profoundly positive step, and there are good reasons to think that the next paradigm shift in edtech will come from teachers who combine their classroom practice with edtech development.

With such a large role to play, people are looking for teachers to enter this debate, and it was therefore heartening, but also no surprise, that last week’s event was oversubscribed, where we listened to Colin Hegarty and Emma Rogers tell their stories (pictured above; Colin middle, and Emma, left).

In 2011, while working as a maths teacher in London, Colin started making YouTube videos explaining important maths concepts for home study and revision, which eventually attracted millions of views from around the world and grew into Hegarty Maths – an online platform that teaches, assesses and tracks everything a child needs to learn in maths from upper primary to IGCSE level. Colin, a Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize Finalist, emphasized at the event how important it is for students to not only receive quality instruction, but for teachers to be supported in helping their students develop metacognitive awareness of how they study – which is why Hegarty Maths offers in-depth student tracking and analytics for teachers to use.

Similarly, Emma Rogers was a school Head of Department and a children’s writer and illustrator before founding Little Bridge, which helps children learn key English skills through its immersive digital world containing hundreds of carefully designed activities, stories and characters. Emma noted that too many products solve a problem that students and teachers don’t really have; her advice to attendees was to find an actual, specific problem – and then solve it.

Emma and Colin’s backgrounds were instrumental in how they developed their products, as is the case for Adam Still, a Teach First alumnus who recently founded Ripple Education, a digital lesson-planning tool designed squarely with teachers in mind. Adam observed that lesson planning – crucial for developing high-quality lessons and driving positive student outcomes – is currently a major time sink for teachers who tend to do it by themselves. Ripple’s easy-to-use and comprehensive platform aims to address this problem, freeing up precious time for teachers – who spend over 50% of their time outside the classroom – to let them do what they do best: teach.

A First Step

To encourage and support this growing trend of teachers using their expertise to build the next generation of edtech products, I will be guiding the new Tmrw Institute to help bring the worlds of education and technology together.

Founded by Sunny Varkey, the Institute will aim to increase teacher involvement in edtech, explore the edtech innovations that make the most difference, and tackle the problem of global education capacity using the best ideas from the edtech world.

Last week’s event was just the first step of our journey – hopefully it inspired and informed potential entrepreneurs and helped place teachers at the heart of edtech.

Vikas Pota is group chief executive of Tmrw Digital.

This article appeared on EdTech Digest on 1st October 2018

Stop worrying about grammar schools, teacher recruitment is the real problem

Those countries with the best education outcomes – from Finland to the Asian education powerhouses of China, South Korea and Singapore – have a deeply ingrained culture of respect for teaching.

Rarely have debates on education electrified party conferences, but yesterday Theresa May won the loudest applause for her promise to “bring back the first grammar schools in fifty years.” Jeremy Corbyn won an equally giddy reception last when he told Labour conference that he would oppose it.

Though this is retro political comfort food for left and right, it is a distraction from the overwhelming education issue that has barely featured in the conference speeches: a crisis in the recruitment and retention of teachers. In the UK, half of schools think that the teacher shortage is affecting GCSE performance; according to a poll last month by the Association of School and College Leaders 80 per cent say the recruitment situation is “worse or significantly worse” than a year ago.

While shortages are damaging in the West, their impact in the developing world is catastrophic. Across Africa, the only region of the world with a growing school-aged population, 70 per cent of countries face critical teacher shortages at primary level, and 90 per cent at secondary. In Pakistan, Cambodia and Ethiopia – where class sizes already average 64 – attrition rates are so high that the total number of teachers is shrinking year on year.

The causes of the crisis are not hard to understand. Throughout the developing world teachers are underpaid, undertrained and under-appreciated. In Kenya, teachers have been in dispute with the government over pay so low that they live a hand-to-mouth existence. Teachers’ wages across Africa are thought to be lower in real terms now than they were several decades ago.

In India the World Bank estimates that up to 40 per cent of teachers are regularly absent from class. One case emerged of a teacher who has been absent for 23 years of her 24 year teaching career. But teacher idleness is not generally the cause of absenteeism. More often, teachers are out of the classroom working in a second job because they can’t rely on their government salary being paid on time.

At the same time, the population explosion in much of the developing world – combined with the (vital) efforts to get every child enrolled in school – is creating a huge additional demand for teachers. Many of those teachers already in the classroom are so badly trained that they cannot teach effectively. Too often they rely on rote learning and dictation from the front of the class, techniques that fail to inspire curiosity or critical thinking. In most countries, a teacher is never tested again or given further training once they have been recruited. In some cases, the problem is not just training but the education levels of the teacher at the front of the class. Just one in five teachers in Uganda meet the minimum proficiency standards in numeracy and literacy.

So how do we recruit and retain the army of well-trained, well-motivated teachers the world desperately needs? Firstly – whether in the UK or in Uganda – we need to raise the status of teachers. Those countries with the best education outcomes – from Finland to the Asian education powerhouses of China, South Korea and Singapore – have a deeply ingrained culture of respect for teaching.

In China, the public likens the status of teachers to that of doctors. According to the Varkey Foundation’s Teacher Status Index, three quarters of Chinese people would encourage their children to become teachers – far higher than elsewhere in the world. On China’s Teachers’ Day pupils send flowers and write them letters to tell them how they are appreciated. The authorities even had to intervene to prevent parents proffering gifts of iPads and expensive perfumes.

Teacher pay has an obvious correlation with teacher status and recruitment rates. Higher salaries attract the best candidates into the profession and give them an incentive to stay. Research by the economist Peter Dolton shows that a 10 per cent increase in teachers’ pay tends to result in a five to 10 per cent improvement in a country’s educational outcomes.

Improving teacher quality has a far greater impact on educational success than other expensive investments such as changing the curriculum or even cutting class sizes. Given the stretched finances of developing world governments, the international community should prioritise helping funding good teachers’ salaries because it simply makes social and financial sense.

Yet international education aid has been falling since 2010 – even as spending on global health has continued to grow. Education once again has fallen down the political agenda. Shamefully, the number of children who are out of school is rising again in the developing world. Of those in school, half the children in South Asia and a third of children in Africa lack basic reading skills after four years of education. At current rates of progress, we will be 50 years late in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal commitment of a good education for every child – when today’s children will be long past retirement age.

But before despair sets in, we should remember that South Korea was, 50 years ago, in the same situation as many developing countries today, with similarly high levels of illiteracy. Now it is among the best education systems in the world. How? It recruited the best young people into teaching, trained them well and then showed them respect. As Education Secretary Justine Greening rightly said in her conference speech: “no other profession has the power to transform futures so much.” Empowering teachers is the most important measure that ministers around the world can take to improve education – even if it isn’t a message that gets standing ovations in the conference hall.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

This article appeared in the Independent newspaper on 6th October 2016

How to teach children so they will be able to compete with robots

This article appeared in The Independent on 19th January 2016.

“Digital disruption” may have become a threadbare cliché in tech circles, but it barely does justice to the head-spinning scale of economic change laid out in today’s Future of Jobs report published by the World Economic Forum. Based on a survey of executives in fifteen of the world’s largest economies, the report sees us entering a “Fourth Industrial Revolution” which will transform labour markets in just five short years. 7.1 million jobs will be lost – with the greatest losses in white-collar and administrative roles. At the same time, some of these losses will be offset by the creation of 2.1 million new jobs in sectors such as nanotechnology and robotics and ever-more important functions within companies such as data analysis and sales. The report estimates that 28 per cent of the skills required in the UK will change in the four years to 2020.

The WEF report is reinforcing a message that others have delivered. Last year, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England warned that nearly half of all jobs in the UK are under threat from automation in the next two decades – affecting people at all levels of the workplace.

Given the scale of this change in such a short period, what can the education system do to keep up?  Firstly we should acknowledge the perils of gazing into the crystal ball. As educationalist Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his TED Talk, children starting school now will probably be working until around 2065 – yet we can’t even predict what the world will look like in the next five years. How can we possibly predict the skills they will need? In the 1980s, there were suggestions that Japanese teaching was essential in British schools, as that was seen as the business language of the future – obviously looking at it now time would have been better spent preparing for the digital revolution that was just around the corner.

First of all we need to move to an expectation that workers will retrain and reskill throughout their careers. This has of course often been said, but now the need is becoming urgent. It may be exhilarating or alarming that over 90 per cent of Millennials (those born between 1977 and 1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years, according to the Future Workplace “Multiple Generations @ Work” survey of employees and managers.

We can’t predict exactly what those skills will be, but we can predict the qualities that will be required – soft skills like leadership, flexibility, communication, decision-making, working under pressure, creativity and problem-solving. The drift of educational policy has been to banish much of this from the classroom and fixate on core subjects like science and math to the exclusion of wider learning.

It’s interesting that the demand for a wider curriculum is coming, not from some fossilized relic of 1970s teacher training, but from the world’s largest companies. Laszlo Bock, who is in charge of hiring at Google, said in a recent interview that “while good grades don’t hurt” the company is looking for softer skills too: “leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn”. Julian Thomas, Head of Wellington College – another unlikely revolutionary – has spoken out about his sense that the current education system was “designed for a different era” and, under pressure from constant testing, has squeezed creativity out of the curriculum. Tony Little, former Master of Eton College, has written about the dangers that wider intellectual development is being stifled by an all-encompassing obsession with exams.

Some companies are stepping in to plug the gaps that they think are missing from the education system. Siemens, frustrated with the skills and knowledge among their graduate applicants, has developed its own “future-proofing” training scheme that everyone joining the firm undertakes. By the end of their course, employees are expected to be able to summarise tasks and explain how to solve them in English as well as German.

Technology can make life-long constant retraining and reskilling a more viable option. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) have lowered the price of education and widened access by removing the need for students to be taught at set times or places, facilitating those already in employment to study or those who couldn’t otherwise afford to. Udacity, an online university, recently introduced ‘nano-degrees’ designed to train people for jobs as web developers or data analysts. With the galloping pace of technology, it’s likely that future employees are going to have to take several such courses through their lifetime.

Amid this nervy uncertainty, the WEF report is hopeful about the prospects for the UK economy. For every job lost through automation and technological change here, it estimates that 2.91 new ones will be created – more than twice as many as in the US.  Just as the first industrial revolution created the Spinning Jenny and the steam engine, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is developing artificial intelligence and 3D printing. But far-sighted decisions by policy-makers are required to ensure our education system is rooted in the needs of the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth.

Vikas Pota is CEO of the Varkey Foundation and member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on the Future of Jobs

‘The Gradgrind philosophy endangering education’… To get away from our Gradgrind focus on ‘Facts’, we must free ourselves from the single-minded pursuit of exam success, writes Vikas Pota

This article appeared in the Telegraph Newspaper on 24th November 2015:

For at least the last couple of decades, education ministers from around the world have been in thrall to a ‘back-to-basics’ educational philosophy.

They have preached the time-honoured virtues of learning times tables and to punctuate accurately, and of memorising Kings, Queens and Presidents in the order that they appeared.

They have defined themselves against the wide-eyed ‘child-centred learning’ of the 60s and 70s, in which creativity was more important than knowledge, inspiration more important than structure, and collaboration more important than competition.

Since the 1980s, a hard-nosed case against progressive education has reigned. Who has time to teach these wispy values of creativity and collaboration when students should be cramming for maths to compete with Singapore?

Why prioritise ‘soft skills’ when there is an international competitive race to be won in hard technology and science?

The back-to-basics advocates have some truth on their side. Child-centred learning did lead to a harmful abandonment of basic skills in some schools.

“Who has time to teach these wispy values of creativity and collaboration when students should be cramming for maths to compete with Singapore?”

International comparisons of educational outcomes have created a “race to the top” – a global competition in education standards that means many children are getting a better education than a generation ago.

Measures like the OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance’ index, published today, have focused minds in education ministries around the world on the importance of basic skills.

But there is a growing consensus that in rejecting progressive educational theories, there has been an overcorrection.

As Tony Little, former headmaster of Eton, and Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington College, have pointed out, the side effect of the current preoccupation with hard skills (and incessantly testing children on them) is that room for wider skills – from music to art to broader reading around a subject that is not strictly necessary for exams – are being squeezed out.

Julian Thomas says the current education system was “designed for a different era”

Pressure for change is also coming from employers who think that an excessive focus on ‘hard skills’ is not creating the kind of workforce that they want. In fact, employers say that they value most the ‘soft skills’ of teamwork, resilience and creativity – precisely the values that are being sacrificed in the rush to prepare for the next exam.

In a recent McKinsey survey of more than 4,500 young people and 2,700 employers across America, Brazil, Britain, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, some 40 per cent of employers reported that they struggle to fill entry-level jobs because the candidates have inadequate skills.

The report also found that 45 per cent of young people feel that their education leaves them unprepared for the workplace.

Soft skills are likely to only become more important in the future jobs market. As Andrew Mcafee, co-director of the MIT initiative on the Digital Economy, says, we are now entering the “new machine age” in which machines have skills they never had before.

Technology will cut a swathe through white-collar jobs in the next 50 years, just as it has through blue-collar jobs in the last 50.

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford University argue that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47 per cent of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted – including in accountancy, legal work, and technical writing.

Patrick Allen as Gradgrind in Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1977)Patrick Allen as Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1977)  Photo: Rex

As Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent book making the case for liberal arts education, while robots have taken over the role of making trainers, the ‘value added’ is still the work of people with ‘soft skills’. A $5 pair of trainers becomes a $75 dollar pair of trainers through the work of those who know how to market, design and brand them.

The World Economic Forum in its vision for how to prepare young people for those jobs not taken by machines recognises that critical thinking, problem solving, persistence, collaboration and curiosity will be essential.

The new world of rapidly changing and varied work will require a workforce who can thrive in the face of constant change and frequent failure.

Business is not waiting for education to catch up. Siemens in Germany takes trainees and “future-proofs” them by teaching them soft skills such as team work, how to divide tasks efficiently and problem-solving – as well as ensuring that their literacy and numeracy skills are improved if necessary.

“The new world of rapidly changing and varied work will require a workforce who can thrive in the face of constant change and frequent failure.”

We are in danger of turning our schools into institutions based on Mr Gradgrind’s philosophy in Dickens’s Hard Times: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

The world of work in which today’s school children will enter will be rich with possibilities – but if don’t widen the skills that children are taught in schools, then we are not just giving young people an unnecessarily impoverished education, we won’t even be preparing them with the skills necessary to make their living in an ever-more competitive world.

Vikas Pota is Chief Executive of the Varkey Foundation

Is the UK a corrupt nation?

That corruption in India is an issue is not news to anyone. Just look at the news headlines being generated by Anna Hazare’s attempt to reshape the Lokpal Bill. You see scores of everyday people piling in behind this, BUT…

What I’m dismayed about is the manner in which big business has keep out of the fray. In a country that accords celebrity status to the likes of the Ambani’s and other businessmen / promoter families, why is there such a deafening silence?

I’ve often canvassed opinion on the issue of corruption in India, and the overwhelming opinion of businessmen is that paying people off is justified as long as it progresses their matter! It’s the cost of doing business in India.

Aggrieved that I’m accusing their country of being a shady place, they quickly retort by asking rhetorically whether our business practices are cleaner and cite examples such as BAe systems case dropped by the Labour government in the national interest. Or more recently, the hacking scandal that’s engulfed the media industry. They also cite the parliamentary expenses scandal as another example in which the UK is as corrupt a society as India.

So, what’s your view?