Lessons learned: the digital future of education

Our resident EdTech Strategist, Patrick McGrath, recently took part in a roundtable discussion with a panel of education experts, sharing their thoughts on the lessons learned from COVID-19 and its impact on the digital future of education. 

Originally appearing in Education Technology in May 2020, read Patrick’s insights into the key challenges currently facing education, the impact on policy & budget and the EdTech tools that are likely here to stay. 

With education establishments closed for an unspecified time, the sector has forcibly accelerated its digital adoption. What does/will this mean for current and future student generations? 

​The immediate impact has of course been the absence this year of end of year exams and testing. This means current students approaching learning from a different position - not with an exam in sight, but the more immediate needs of the remaining course or curriculum content, and using digital tools and new approaches to understand new concepts. 
There's also been a paradigm shift in how they learn - with a more independent approach, requiring more discipline to focus on learning but on the upside learning has become more personalized. Students are also grappling with technology across the entire spectrum of learning - not something they have had to do before. In truth, it's been a vertical learning experience for them just as much as it has for educators. 
They are also experiencing an overnight shift from paper based work to electronic work - handwritten pieces suddenly move to digital, worksheets now move to require completion online, and formative/summative assessment occurs with online quizzing and forms.  
On the downside, those with individual needs may not be receiving the support they need to succeed, and for some may not even have the devices or access to effectively take part in learning. It’s created an inequity, but one that can be addressed moving forward to facilitate our new normal.
For future generations, many things will change. In the near term, we’ll see a drive for more blended learning - a mix/balance of class and online learning and we’ll see the growth of digital platforms as the conduit for learning. In the medium term, it’s inevitable that we move away from end of term exams - students will be assessed differently, perhaps through learning analytics. This will see a shift towards a more personal, bespoke learning experience where students can work at pace and to interests. It’s accelerating what we’ve all known for a long time - the need to move to being learner centric, not teacher centric.  

What will prove to be the lasting benefits of the new learning model(s) that we have all quickly adopted?

It’s fair to say that when the school closures happened, there was a scramble for technology to enable ‘remote or distance learning’. It was almost a shotgun approach. This did though have the benefit that teachers went on a literally overnight learning journey - experimenting with new tools, considering approaches they never would have previously and finding solutions to the challenges of learning remotely. 
We’ll see this approach settle and teachers select the right tools to succeed in this new way of working - based on evidence of impact and of effectiveness. In just a few weeks teachers have done an incredible job. It’s clear that the technology approach will not disappear. It’s here to stay, because we see improved confidence, and improved outcomes, and a realization that technology can genuinely have a huge impact on learning. 
The technology is here to stay, but the lasting impact is in the pedagogy - the different, new approach to motivating learners, to being flexible, to how we engage and then how we assess. These are the fundamentals of education, and they are changing, fast.

And what are the challenges that they present?

In technology terms, we have to ensure that solutions are robust and genuinely fit the criteria for this new way of learning. We have to carefully select the right tools from our current experiences and ensure they form a clear strategic plan to integrate into the learning cycle. 
From a people perspective we have to ensure that we are supporting teachers in their professional development, that we upskill students so they understand how to use technology for learning, and we have to be involving parents at every step of the way. Gone are the days of teacher only CPD - everyone needs the skills to make this last.
That said, all of these changes can only be supported by wider change - exams, curriculum, equity of access, how we inspect schools and of course funding. Educators, students, parents, EdTech companies - we’ve all shown the will, and the ability to change things for this new way of learning. To sustain it requires policy change. 

Which particular tools and resources have best enabled learning to continue in the current climate?

Google tools, and in particular Google Classroom, have seen massive traction over the recent period. Classroom has been used as the almost de facto tool for educators to store and send out work, assignments and materials - creating a structured digital workflow. Educators have built an ecosystem around this core platform - ways to complete worksheets, to have work assessed, to quiz and provide feedback and enable discussion. Our own Texthelp tools have really engaged educators in how to extend this platform and address the core needs of learning. 
Beyond that, there’s been a huge rise in video use. Not just the usual ‘YouTube’ clips - but teachers embracing tech creatively to create explanation videos for new concepts, walk through assessment pieces, and in many cases teaching synchronously.
The tools that are now seeing a huge rise in use are those that provide motivation.

How has the coronavirus outbreak impacted edtech policy development? Has it shifted the focus away from one area to another (e.g. safeguarding staff and students while working from home, alternative methods for assessment, etc.)?

We’re still very early into this situation, but one of the immediate concerns was of course safeguarding. In the UK, we’re not using video conferencing and tools to a great degree - mainly due to safeguarding issues and legacy policy that never considered this way of working. The lack of movement on this and the old ways of thinking need to move at a rapid pace so students are still protected and not disadvantaged. We haven’t seen specific policy changes or decisions on this yet, but we need to.
The more immediate impact on policy is around equity of access - in two ways. First, for students that don’t have internet or device access. They are clearly, massively disadvantaged in this new way of working. The gap will widen at a considerable pace if policy isn’t put in place to address this. We’ve been here before (see FELTAG) - with a proposal to create infrastructure and provide devices and access for all students. Now is the time to make this happen, and we’re seeing welcome initiatives to provide laptops/chromebooks and broadband connectivity to certain groups of students.. 
Second, around those students with individual needs. In the clamor to move to digital learning, little consideration has been placed on the specific needs of many students. It’s clear this is now being recognized and there are policies and processes being discussed to address it. 
It’s an ever changing picture and stream of advice and guidance. It’s been great to see the DfE provide some clear advice over the last few weeks based on observed good practice. Areas like accessibility, assessment, motivation and the importance of parental engagement are being highlighted together with some clear recommendations to schools. At Texthelp we’re putting programs in place to ensure schools have access to this advice and understand how to translate it into effective use with our tools.  
Looking ahead, there will be policy changes around assessment and exams, because as the new ‘blended’ approach takes its ship over the coming academic year, DfE will have to have in place the systems to either support public examinations. Or look at digital, or continuous assessment based alternatives.

How has the outbreak impacted already tight school budgets?

Schools have only managed to keep to budgets because tech tools have by and large been free during this time, and they’ve been able to lean on parents for access and devices. Government has put in place some additional funding for exceptional budget needs outside of technology for the current situation, which has helped. 
It’s not this academic year that we see being impacted heavily however - it's over the course of the next two, where schools will be expected to sustain this level of online learning and fund tools and devices in an ongoing way. We can’t let core education costs be impacted by this or stretched in any way. If we are to do it, schools need new funding beyond the current allocation to make things work.   

With the easing of lockdown and the move to the ‘new normal’, how much of this remote learning structure is likely to continue?

There are a lot of variables on this. Funding and policy are core to this structure staying at an effective scale. As we look ahead, lock down will ease but the focus now is on blended learning - with a reduction in pupil numbers in school and therefore by default, many more pupils studying and learning at home. It’s therefore crucial that we build on everything we learnt during lock down.  
Teachers have upskilled fast, students have received a more personal experience and technology is here to stay. We’ve proved we can do it as educators. We know the solutions exist and are effective. If we are strategic and ensure that learning is the center point of our motivation for change and our new way of teaching and learning, we’ll never go back. 
It’s been ‘sink or swim’, and our educators have learnt to be olympic class swimmers in this new world. The tide of remote learning that’s carrying us is not going to stop. It’s here to stay. As long as we ensure equity of access, we leave lock down with improved ways of learning - digitally. 
We would love to hear your thoughts from the frontline of education, join in the roundtable discussion by leaving us a comment below.