The VAR lessons for Ed Tech

I’ll apologise up front that this subject probably warrants a deep dive into VAR (video assisted referee) history and the role of technology in sports, rather than some quick thoughts. But watching the roll-out of the technology at the Men and Women’s World Cup tournaments, and now in the Premier League, it strikes me there are some general lessons to be learnt. Both ed tech and VAR involve the application of technology to fundamentally human enterprises, with the intention of improving them for those involved. There are of course, many differences too, education is not the same as a ninety minute game of football, but at this very generic level there are sufficient similiarities to bear consideration (and apologies if football/soccer is not your thing).

Firstly, on a positive note, there are aspects where it does help. Goal line technology for instance has removed the infuriating disallowed goals when a ball has clearly crossed the line. These very practical applications of technology in education, such as being able to submit assignments online, or conduct tutorials at a distance are benefits that are tangible for students.

However, it also provides a false confidence around aspects that are not reducible to minute measurements. VAR decisions where a ball has brushed a hair on someone’s hand, or a player is offside by a fingertip may technically be correct, but really the game and the rules were not developed to be so finely measured. Analytics in education can similarly give us so much data about student performance that it provides us with a belief that we can pinpoint exactly how the student is learning, whereas the process is much more inexact.

It makes us consider the role of humans in the system. Arguably, the application of technology in cricket has been more advantageous, with Hawkeye and a developed video review system to support increasingly complex decisions for umpires. In this it is similar to education, if the technology is used to support the humans in the system, it can be beneficial. There is a danger though that VAR makes the data the most important aspect, the decision could go to an AI system, just as tuition could be deemed a task for AI.

Much like a lot of ed tech, VAR didn’t solve the problem in the manner people envisaged. There had been an increasing desire for video technology to be applied to football, to solve bad offside decisions, missed penalty calls, goals that should have been disallowed. “If only we had video technology, this wouldn’t happen!” everyone declared. And that is sort of true, but instead we have arguments about whether decisions should or shouldn’t have gone to VAR, and then whether the fine calls I’ve mentioned above really should have been given. The controversy has just moved location it seems. Like the original injustices, one suspects that roughly these things will even out. But it’s difficult to say that in the end it’s really been worth it.

VAR relocates the areas of concern – for VAR it becomes not so much was that movement legal, but what about that incident in the build up? It goes back up the sequence in the search for justice. In education, technology can make us focus on doing things that are measured by technology, say activity in online forums, but ignore things like mental health issues.

As a Spurs fan, I think the use of VAR to rule out any Man City late winner is to be applauded and should be made compulsory in all their matches, but overall there is a danger that VAR dehumanises aspects of football. The point of our enjoyment in sport is that it is not an exact science, it is undpredictable and conducted by humans. Technology can certainly improve it, but its application needs to be cautious and our expectations for its results need to be measured. It will not lead to a sporting nirvana devoid of errors. Enjoying and accepting the messiness of it is part of its inherent appeal, and so it is with education.


  • Clint Lalonde

    I wholeheartedly endorse any post that makes analogies between football and edtech.

    An analogy I see is that the use of technology can undermine the confidence of the human who’s judgement is being questioned. This could work in both edtech and VAR. In VAR, a call made by a referee is overturned by VAR which could both shake the confidence of the referee and reduce the players confidence that this referee will make the right call. I wonder if that could happen with edtech as well, where technology, if pitted against the judgement of an instructor, could undermine the confidence of the instructor, and the confidence of their students in the judgment of their instructor?

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