Return to the new normal?

This is a guest blog post written by Ben Whitaker, Dan Fitzpatrick and Steven Hope, hosts of the Edufuturists podcast. Together they deliver training across the world on education, technology and leadership, as well as continuing to serve in various education settings.

In our most recent podcast episode with Martin McKay, CEO of Texthelp, we discussed the issues surrounding the edtech sector and the state of play as we handle a global pandemic. Much has been written about the move towards teacher judgements over formal examinations, as we have discussed many times on the podcast, notably with Lord Jim Knight, Bob Harrison and more recently with Dr Debra Kidd. It is into this debate that we begin to look at the impact that the COVID-19 school closures have had on the UK education system. 

Forget about the political polemics and the ideological inconsistencies for a moment and allow us to consider the crux of the matter: can (and therefore, should) we return to how education was before COVID-19? To both, we suggest a resounding no! Not least because Coronavirus has had a more significant impact on schooling than anything since the war but probably because it has simply exacerbated what we already knew: we need an educational revolution in the UK. 

Learning in a changing landscape 

There were many brilliant elements to the discussion with Martin during our recent podcast episode, that evidence the changes that have been afoot since way before March 2020 when the world changed forever. One story was about a school district in Minneapolis in the US who had distributed Chromebooks to their students. This was an amazing step forward in helping students to continue learning, even through lockdown. However, what they soon found out was that the students didn’t just need a device, but also access to internet connectivity, which many people take for granted. Presenting yet another barrier to engagement. 

This school district came up with an ingenious solution: they got their school busses, turned them into mobile WiFi hotspots and drove them into the neighborhoods where students could socially distance around the bus and participate in the class. We love this! It is yet another example of our wonderful teaching profession finding solutions and smashing down barriers to learning, just like teachers all around the world continue to do each day. 

This raises the question then about access to high quality learning and the technology to do this in the modern world. In order for us to embrace a new normal or whatever we want to call it, we definitely need to address what has been dubbed ‘techquity’. Ken Shelton defines techquity as the “dynamic combination of access to technology and then the rich information that brings greater equity to all students irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.” We have to address this as a matter of urgency if we are to ensure that all students make progress post-COVID or AC (After Corona, as David Price OBE reminds us). 

Lockdown and beyond

One of the concerns we have raised several times on our shows is that schools, colleges and universities will return to a low-tech solution to teaching and learning once the worst of COVID is over. We see this as a concern, not because we advocate for edtech as an end in itself, but because of the transformative changes edtech can bring to learning. For many educational institutions ‘lockdown edtech’ simply substitutes a classroom experience for one online. In many cases it’s not even a good substitution! 

For example, video calls allow limited communication and demonstration. Online worksheets - well, they’re just worksheets; a task normally given to a cover teacher that fills time not inquisitive minds. Any NQT will tell you that this isn’t effective teaching and learning. For these reasons, why wouldn’t a school return to a low-tech solution once the worst of COVID is over? It would probably be the most responsible thing to do in this case. 

If we look at the SAMR model of edtech integration, this way of teaching and learning online doesn’t even achieve the ‘substitution’ level, at least not in any meaningful way. Nonetheless, schools doing these things are among the leading demonstrators for online learning. To be fair, it is better than putting a PDF in a shared folder, but it’s still not a viable online learning solution. If online learning is going to be meaningful, if it’s going to be a long term solution for learning off campus, then it needs to transcend mere substitution. The SAMR model suggests that edtech integration can offer us more: it can not only enhance a low-tech system but it can transform it.

Enhancing learning experiences 

This brings us onto the second element of our discussion with Martin, where he explained to us his vision of an edtech tool that can do so much more for our learners than move them online; it can transform their experience. Martin blew our minds when he delved into his vision for the Texthelp tool WriQ as a ‘Fitbit for learning’. Now this would truly transform learning! The thing is, this isn’t a tool of the future, it’s available now. 

In the show, Martin explored the reality that learners need to write every day in order to improve their literacy. I think we can all agree that writing on screen is just a substitution for writing on paper (and not a substitution to be scoffed at). For most learners it will be their primary tool for writing from the time they go to university and into the workplace. However, with WriQ, the simple substitution of switching from pen and paper to writing on screen can become a transformational learning experience. Analytical data of learners’ reading and writing, presented to them in the right way, can act as a motivator for learning. 

Martin suggested that the idea of a ‘Fitbit for learning’ would be one that drives him going forward in his role as CEO at Texthelp. Does this mean WriQ will continue to get better at transforming reading and writing on screen? We can only hope and wait with anticipation. A tool that nudges students to do better with their literacy and motivates them to take small amounts of discretionary efforts. Much the same way a Fitbit reminds you of your current steps, your goal and then rewards you when you reach it, could have the power to revolutionize learning. 

Return to the new normal

“The genie cannot be put back into the bottle”, as the aforementioned Bob Harrison continues to remind us. Whatever the state of education in the coming months and years, we have a duty to our children not to mindlessly return to what has been done. Never before in our lifetimes have we had an opportunity to reset, recalibrate and restart. As the brave pioneers over Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland have done, perhaps the first step is to postpone terminal exams for 16 year olds. 

This BBC article reports that, “National 5 exams are to be canceled in Scotland in 2021 and replaced with teacher assessments and coursework. Education Secretary John Swinney said going ahead with all exams during the continuing Covid pandemic was "too big a risk.” This is a question not just of techquity but of fairness and justice - our children deserve nothing less. 


If you would like to hear more from the Edufuturists, why not explore all of the resources we have collaborated on this year. Including how education fits in today’s digital era and the opportunities that EdTech presents to make remote learning accessible to all. >>Check it out<<