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How do schools buy digital technology?

How do schools buy digital technology? There is a strong sense in the UK Ed Tech community that selling to schools is one of their greatest challenges. Despite this, schools are spending several hundred million pounds a year on the digital technology they use. How are these decisions being made? Last year we ran a national survey of teachers to try to better understand the barriers to technology adoption in schools.

We asked teachers and school leaders what influences decisions on what technology to purchase, apart from cost. Top of their influences was ‘the school’s development priorities (e.g. a focus on literacy)’, with 31% of respondents indicating that this was their main influence. Second was the practical point of needing to invest in technologies that can serve multiple purposes (23%), but third was ‘the specific needs of individual learners or groups of learners’ (23%).

There is a focus on uses of technology for learning and school development priorities, rather than on the technology itself. The use of technology could, of course, be an identified school priority, but this looks less likely when we look at the influences that had low levels of response. Only 10% of teachers surveyed said ‘the desire to use innovative or new technologies’ was the main influence on purchases.

This shows a problem with any education technology pitched as creating ‘classrooms of the future’, or disrupting the educational model. It seems schools are not influenced in large numbers by a need to aim for some kind of technological future. What they are influenced by is the specific learning needs of the students they serve now.

A lack of focus on ‘forward looking’ uses of technologies is often blamed on the reluctance of teachers to try new things, or to learn how to use potentially disruptive new technologies. We didn’t ask specifically about this issue, although in terms of purchasing decisions it does not look like a big consideration. Only 9% of our respondents said ‘teachers' levels of comfort or familiarity with using different technologies’ was the main influence on determining what was purchased. This could suggest that teacher skills with technology are not a major concern, it is the learning intentions rather than any teacher reluctance that is driving purchasing choices.

Purchasing is just one aspect of the use of digital technology in schools - once it has been purchased it has to be implemented in a way that determines the impact it will have on learners. We asked teachers and school leaders what the main source of advice was when implementing technologies. By far the most popular option was ‘senior leaders’ own ideas/plans for the technology’, with 38% indicating this was the main source of implementation guidance. Recommendations from class teachers in the school was only chosen by 10% of respondents, with recommendations from senior leaders at other schools chosen by 8%. Collaborative planning with other schools was cited by just 3% of respondents.

This paints a picture of a top down approach to implementing technology, yet one that is not influenced by sharing practice and successes between schools. The use of digital technology in schools is often characterised by ‘islands of excellence’, where some well-informed individual schools, or individual teachers, show innovative practice, but little spreads beyond the context in which it is first implemented.

Given the huge variations in the use of digital technology in schools across the UK, we explored what support teachers and school leaders thought would be useful in its implementation. Only 3% responded that no support was needed, yet there was not strong agreement on the suggestions we presented, with the most popular choice only being chosen by 11% of respondents. However, the top two areas chosen were focused on the learning impact that technology can have, with ‘planning the implementation of educational technology in school to have impact’ and ‘knowing what impact on learning outcomes the education technology that is available can have’ cited by 11% and 10% respectively.

Only 6% said that using research evidence to inform decision making is a priority area for support. As our own work has found, there is a lack of evidence of the impact at scale that digital technologies can have in schools. However, either schools already feel that they are able to use research and demonstrate robust decision making, or they do not think that it is important to inform decisions with such evidence.

While education technology is often discussed as providing opportunities for new types of teaching and learning, and ‘ground up’ development of practice, our nationally representative sample of teachers do not seem to show these as high priorities in most schools. It seems the ed tech industry would do well from focusing on specific learning outcomes and appealing to school senior leaders to achieve their whole school development plans.

There is a strong community of education technology innovators in the UK. They experiment with new uses of technologies, document what they find on blogs, and discuss the potential of digital learning on twitter.  How many teachers indicated the power of discussions on social media was the main influence guiding how digital technology was used in their schools? Just 1%.

From our perspective this highlights two big challenges for the area of education technology. We need to meet the desire for schools to choose technology to impact learning with more evidence of how it can do this, increasing the confidence in the usefulness of research as we do so. We also need to grow the sharing of good practice and examples of impact beyond the echo chamber of social media, and make sure that more than the 1% are tapping into the power of sharing.

Survey data quoted is from the nationally representative ‘Teacher Voice’ omnibus, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research in November 2014. All percentages quoted are rounded to the nearest 1%. The results are provided in raw form for you to download on the right. Whether you are a teacher, a policymaker or a startup, if they influence something you decide to do, then let us know.


Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Head of Impact and Research, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Oliver was a programme manager for Nesta’s digital education projects. He is now Head of Impact and Research at the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

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