365 Days Later | Part 1


One year on from COVID, schools are finally beginning to look forward to some normality after periods of remote learning. Of course, the impact on teaching and learning has been well reported but what are the next steps for education?

In this episode, we hear from Texthelpers Martin, Paddy and Greg as they discuss what they think the positive lessons learned from the past year are. Including how we can support students and teachers moving forward.

Ready for part 2? Listen to more from Paddy, Greg and Martin here.

Transcript

Patrick McGrath:
Welcome to today's episode of the Texthelp Talks podcast. As always, we've got a host of experts covering a range of topics from education, right the way through and into the workplace. Do make sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. And, of course, as always we'd really welcome your feedback and chat. So just use the hashtag, #TexthelpTalks on Twitter. We'd love to hear your feedback, we'd love to hear your thoughts and create a stimulating and engaging conversation with you through Twitter.

Patrick:
I am Patrick McGrath. I am head of education strategy here at Texthelp based in our Antrim office, and it's my pleasure today to be bringing on two wonderful speakers, guests, friends and most importantly colleagues on the webinar today. We have a really, really good lineup, and I'm going to let them really introduce themselves.

Martin:
Thanks, Patrick. So my name is Martin McKay. I'm the CEO and founder of Texthelp and I've been doing this for 27 years I think. And looking after technology for a good spell of it, but most recently heading up the organisation. Over to you, Greg.

Greg O’Connor:
Hi everybody. My name's Greg O'Connor and I'm the education technology lead here for the Asia-Pac team at Texthelp. So I'm based in Australia out of the Brisbane office. We're looking after Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. And I've been with Texthelp now for about five years, but I've been a friend of Texthelp for too many years to remember.

Patrick:
And so you can see there for our discussion today, we really went to the top of Texthelp and we also went to the farthest reaches of Texthelp.

Martin:
That's right.

Patrick:
I don't know about you, but I feel I've just joined one of those panels. You know you get on those panels and you go, "And the combined experience on the panels is 70 years or something," and suddenly felt very old there. I don't know about you guys. But so let's move swiftly on beyond that.

Patrick:
We are of course at a point ... And we're recording this in May, 2021. And we're, I suppose, roughly just over one year on from when COVID hit and when our schools started to close and we moved to extended periods of remote learning. And, I guess, I suppose for all of us listeners and colleagues alike, we're all looking forward to what we see for many of us is that light at the end of the tunnel, moving towards normality.

Patrick:
And I suppose, for many of us, the schools have started to go back to face to face learning and face to face teaching and that has been welcomed by many of our educators. And, of course, throughout the last year there has been a huge impact on education. And, of course, for me, I don't know about you guys but, for me, the main takeaway has been just how resilient our educators have been globally. How adaptable they've been and really how they've embraced new approaches to teaching and learning, new technology, which is obviously one of the points we want to talk about today. But really that resilience has been key and that ability to change, and I think they've really proven what they can do going forward. For many it's been a vertical learning curve for sure.

Patrick:
But really together on our podcast today, we want to look ahead. We want to explore what the next steps for education are 365 days later. We've heard about learning loss, we've heard the buzzwords around catch up, we've seen that exams have been stopped, the move to center assessments. So there are many changes that have taken place. There are negatives within COVID, but there are many, many positives.

Patrick:
And I really, Greg, I want to maybe start with you on this and just give us a view now. So let's go far, and let's talk about Australia. How long have your pupils and the schools there in Australia been back in education and what's the mood like in the classroom?

Greg:
Yeah, Paddy. So really for us here, unlike you guys in the UK, this year has been in brackets ... And I'm doing air quotes. People can't see that ... "A normal year". I mean, we had impact last year the different schools, different periods and different states. But nowhere near what you guys experienced. But just the same, it did disrupt us, and some interesting things came out of that. And, I guess, we've had time to reflect. Schools have gone back and we're now thinking, well what happened? And what do we take from that?

Greg:
There was a really interesting study from Monash University and they looked at what the impact on COVID was on the perceptions of Australian schooling, and a couple of really interesting things came out. One of them was the perception by parents around schooling and the work of teachers. What seems to have happened is we had ... They're saying over 41% of the people who responded to this study said that their perceptions of teachers' work had improved because they went, "Wow, I didn't realize all this stuff happened in school."

Greg:
The other thing which was really interesting from teachers and from an ed tech point of view is, there was quite a dramatic increase in teachers realizing the importance of students access to technology. Both in a remote learning, but also back in the classroom. So that's two of the big takeaways for us is, is the community's perception of what we do in schools really changed for the better. And going forward that's actually ... We're going to be able to build on those relationships and the importance of educational technology as one of the tools in your toolkit.

Patrick:
And is there Greg, in Australia, is there much talk in and around ... We've heard it a lot in the UK, around catch up and learning loss. Has there been much talk about that or is it very forward looking?

Greg:
Not really because we haven't experienced the amount of remote and of learning that's had to take... I mean, at the most, a term happened here, so not really. For us, it's been more around, "Oh, that happened." There was a disruption and I had to adjust, and all of a sudden coming out of that, there were some ... These things didn't work, but these things didn't. So people... one of the things, not so much learning loss, is actually, it was really around engagement with your students, particularly with struggling students. That was one of the issues. How do those kids get access to the support they need when they're not actually physically in the classroom with me? And so that's been an interesting process too.

Patrick:
And maybe just for anybody listening then, I'd say in Australia, what we've had in the UK, is we've had remote learning interactively from roughly March of last year, last academic year, that was through into the summer. We had a return to school for a number of months up until roughly Christmas. Obviously, lots of disruption in that. And then school closures up until just last month again. So we're talking about months and months there really of remote learning.

Patrick:
One of the things actually, Martin, I know from our perspective we've seen a huge rise in things like our maths tool EquatIO. I noticed just in a report just out last week that whilst we've been talking heavily around literacy in that, in that lost piece there's a ... We've noticed a big usage increase in our maths tool, but maths in particular seems to be the unforgotten cousin in some of the learning loss here and I'm hoping that digital tools can help with that. You've seen evidence of that, I'm sure.

Martin:
Well, yeah last April time, whenever our schools closed. In fact, across the across North America schools closed as well as in the UK. And we made our maths tool available for schools for the remainder of the year. And we saw the usage, depending on how you measure, it as like a 400% growth in sessions and a 10x growth in terms of the number of pieces of maths that kids insert. And I was thinking when it came around to this April we wouldn't see that same year on year growth, but it's still continued to grow, which tells us that, I think much like in the workplace where we just instantly had to adapt and start using Zoom and start collaborating digitally and so on. Teachers and kids have been forced to do the same thing. I also think, that kids are much better at adopting new tech.

Martin:
They're less new experience averse, and technology averse than some of the older generation. And they've just jumped into and taken to it like a duck to water. I do completely... I think one of the most important things that we've seen is, and it reflects what Greg said is... for this to work, kids need to have technology. And, it really uncovered a lot of inequality in access to technology. There's lots of homes where there's maybe only one phone in the house and three or four kids, or maybe one laptop between three or four kids. It's not like every kid has got a device. So it kind of exacerbated the income inequality issue, where kids who are fortunate enough to live in a home where they can go and get peace and quiet in their room with good connectivity on a device of their own are at a huge advantage to kids who maybe are living in a smaller home with a large family and having to share technology, or maybe kids in a rural environment who don't have access to technology.

Martin:
I knew there are some really inspiring stories in the US of school districts who kitted out school buses as mobile wifi centers and they drove them into the neighborhood and created hotspots for kids to join. And there's a huge distribution of Chromebooks and laptops to kids right around the world actually. In the US and in Europe, it's great to see those things happen.

Patrick:
Yeah and I think that the the word there I would pick up on there is the resourcefulness of our educators in our districts and our systems around the globe. Certainly to identify the areas of need that had to be plugged, those gaps that had to be plugged in terms of devices, in terms of technology, of upskilling parents of helping really fill the need. So I think looking forward for me, I see our educators as having saw the opportunities that COVID effectively has created in terms of that identifying areas of need, identifying key uses for technology. And almost having a look at how we might be able to restructure teaching and learning going forward to incorporate those things and make them more inclusive.

Patrick:
Although I did see one thing, Martin, I'm not sure whether you saw this one, Greg, you saw it, but during the week there, the New York district has canceled snow days in New York. So there are no longer snow days in New York state at this point. Very obvious reason for that is, that there used to be a... there used to be a thought, of course, if you can't come in the school, you can't learn. But I think that's a massive shift there of opportunity. Saying well no, now you can, you've got the devices and you've got the technology. We proved that it works.

Greg:
We've never had snow days, but that's another issue, for us like Read&Write as an example. We saw with say, for instance, the ACT where we've rolled out Read&Write across every school. During our period of COVID. When schools were locked down, there was a dramatic increase in the use of Read&Write. We could actually see this huge spike. And one thing that's come out of that was that, teachers now went from, just using a couple of features maybe on the toolbar, what they thought the students would need to use, to realizing, hang on... There's a whole bunch of stuff here that I need to investigate further. And the other thing that came out of that was, that all of a sudden kids had more agency. They, got on and just did the things they needed to do.

Greg:
So it's been a really interesting shift. We know there's some data here in Oz that generally teachers see a more flexible, what we would call, a hybrid model of schooling into the future. That there will be a place for this, and it's important. Cause the other thing Paddy, just to finish on that, is one of the things that came out of it was, all of a sudden these kids who weren't succeeding in a traditional school environment were now succeeding in this new environment. And so all of a sudden it brought home that one size fits all doesn't work. UDL is required, all that kind of stuff.

Patrick:
Yeah I have a good friend. Her son is about 16, autistic, goes to an individual school to support his needs. And he's never excelled more academically and socially than he has through lockdown because he had the ability to use the technology and the tools. And the interaction, or perhaps, the lack of interaction that suited him and the way he approached learning. So I think certainly from an inclusion and accessibility perspective its really taught us a lot about the necessary need for individual students.

Patrick:
I noticed, maybe a bit different in the UK. I noticed that when we went into remote learning in and around the March, April time of last year. That there was a, I suppose a slow down of interest if I were to call it that, in accessibility and inclusion. Where we're Read&Write. Suddenly became, on things like webinars and chats to teachers, of less interest for that short period of time where everybody suddenly thought, no we must embrace new forms of assessment. We must embrace Google classroom and new workflows.

Patrick:
And there was a sudden, I think, an epiphany moment, literally a couple of months in where people realized that it was never more important to build in inclusion and accessibility for all. And certainly from then on, I found, and certainly my role here in Texthelp, a great interest and a much keener interest and inclusion and accessibility and the wider body of educators wanting to know about that. Because they realized that that 10% of students that were traditionally, they viewed as those are students that we need to focus on for accessibility and inclusion. Suddenly there was this 90%, this iceberg effect underneath the water and that actually technology could enable us to adapt learning in a very straightforward way to support every one of those students. And for me, that was a big takeaway this year.

Patrick:
It was that... I used to work very closely with a teacher, and he always said, every teacher should be an SEN teacher. And that's certainly what I find on the accessibility and inclusion side. That more and more teachers went, "I recognize that I need to approach my teaching differently and be more flexible, and technology gives me the ability to do that." And of course, Martin, you have long been an advocate of things that data driven instruction. And where do you think that fits going forward as a positive of COVID?

Martin:
Well, before I get onto my data driven instruction, I think it's really important to realize that whenever kids are in a classroom physically face to face with the teacher and the teacher knows the kids who typically struggle a little bit. The teacher can glance around the room and see the eyebrows and see who's confused. And when kids are remote, they don't have that connection. And, kids need a little bit more help when they're on their own. But also from an accessibility perspective, if a teacher takes a photograph of a maths worksheet and shares it using one of the platforms for kids to respond to, that's not accessible for kids who can't read, that's that is not accessible and we really need to have a change.

Martin:
So that... It's great that people are using digital tools for homework and teachers aren't carrying around sheets and sheets of paper. And that unlocks a lot of possibilities, but it's so easy to go that extra step to make the materials accessible, so that they can the kids who need the extra help can get support with the learning materials with the tools they have.

Patrick:
I think Martin, on that, certainly I fielded a lot of questions that I never had before, which are questions from, your standard educator saying "Patrick help me make these things more accessible. How do I make this more accessible?" Very straightforward questions to us that work in Texthelp, but that question level is really apparent now.

Martin:
Yeah, and that's been... That thinking, that mindset has been alive and well in North America in higher education for a long time. Mainly because of some litigation that occurred, quite a while ago. But there's certainly a mindset that says, we need to make all of our instructional materials accessible. It doesn't matter if it's maths or chemistry or physics or whatever, we've got to make it accessible. I think that's going to probably make its way down to K-12 the good thing is 10 years ago, it was incredibly hard to make maths accessible. And now using some of the tools that were around. Like some of the tools that we have, really just your mobile phone, take a photograph, and we'll do the hard work and convert to something accessible that Read&Write or EquatIO can read out loud.

Patrick:
Martin on that actually, I remember there was the very first speaking event I had at a maths conference for Texthelp, nearly four years ago now. And I did a poll at the outset and I said, well... I was obviously there to talk about EquatIO, you know what technology are you using in your maths classroom? And there were only two answers. And the first answer was an interactive whiteboard. And the second answer was my scientific calculator. And that took me back quite a bit at that stage. And if you look at now where maths teachers and science teachers are in terms of technology and accessibility and how they can integrate new ways of working, I think that's quite an incredible legacy from COVID.

Greg:
Sorry Martin, I think it's about disruption. Like you can't have change without a disruption and what COVID has done. It's disrupted us and it's made us realise... It's pushed us where we perhaps, without a disruption, we would have comfortably gone "oh it doesn't matter. You know, it's not a problem" but I mean, we in Oz, last year we had a 190% increase in teachers downloading ed tech tools off of the web basically. So people were madly trying to find what they needed to use and Paddy back to your point, I guess, is that they... I think you were mentioning it's about getting the right tool for the job. And so that disruption has caused them to do that. And yeah, I think I'm positive that there will... that things will happen, but there's always a lag time, right? There's always, this takes time.

Martin:
I agree. I think that you're spot on Greg, with the disruption comment, that disruption drives change. And I think the winners in the disruption and the change are people who get the user experience right and solve an actual problem, rather than just having a piece of technology fluff. Cause there's lots of technology that's fun. But very often it doesn't solve an actual problem, it doesn't make the boat go faster or it doesn't take the friction away. And I think, lots of problems emerged around COVID and the technology that really solved the problems raced to the front of the pack. And like you can see in workplace Zoom and the kind of video meeting technologies that were around, just the ones that have the easiest, on-ramp the easiest kind of onboarding experience. Absolutely got market share.

Martin:
And yeah, much like a typewriter is designed... like the layout, the QWERTY layout of a typewriter is actually designed to slow people down, because in the old days the metal keys used to stick together. So it's an example of a really cumbersome user experience that is driven by a constraint from the past. And, similarly scientific calculators are just horrible things. The user experience in the scientific calculators is horrible, but people for people who have grown up using them, it seems like a normal thing. I think that, new kind of user experiences around maths and scientific notation are much easier now than they were three years ago.

Greg:
Yeah. And then do you think Martin, that, that disruption has also had an impact upon ed tech developers? Like us at Texthelp, it's kind of made us rethink where we were going. We had to change tack a little bit about what we were.

Martin:
Certainly. Yeah. I think probably a little bit more of a focus on some key integrations, making sure that our stuff... I mean you could see platforms that were really grand gaining market share. And so it was important for us to, very very quickly, make sure that our tools were optimized to work in those platforms. But you know, also even the disruption of having... We had, at the time, in April last year, we had about 150 people and we... we have really close working culture in the company and we just have to close our doors and send everyone home.

Martin:
And actually, I'm so pleased with the way that we were able to adapt and continue to work together. In fact, I think maybe our productivity actually improved. It was probably less distractions and so on, but certainly for 90% of the developers, they've been able to really focus on their craft and continue to improve and work together even remotely. For a small number of people they don't have a home situation that allows them to get peace and quiet, quite a few people have kids and dogs running around no private place, but yeah.

Patrick:
You were mentioning there Martin about integrations, and I think that's one thing that's been very important going forward. We've looked at having to provide many devices to as many students as possible. And the teachers we've looked at, we've seen an uptake, globally in things like Google workplace for education and adoption of that as a platform. One of the consequences, I guess, for both educators looking at tools, us as a software ed tech company is, making sure that those tools work everywhere. So the conversation, I suppose for me, has shifted from a device conversation that it used to be a number of years ago to, we have to have the faith in the technology that we're deploying out of skill level to ensure that it works wherever learning actually happens and whatever that platform looks like.

Martin:
I think that's our job... all three of us on the call here have our glasses on because we've all reached age where we have to wear them the good thing about glasses is, whatever book you look at, they work. And they're universally integrated with the world. Ed tech, that's there to help him with English and math has to be as good. It has to be as simple as putting on a pair of glasses and it just works everywhere. So it shouldn't matter whether the kids are in Moodle or Canvas or wherever they are... Office 365 or docs or wherever. Our job is to be as transparent to the user as a pair of glasses. And it is my hope that in the future, employers regard, employees showing up using a technology to help them with their dyslexia in the same way that they regard people with glasses as like "oh, you got new ones, they're blue. I like those" rather than employees feeling like they're different or weird because they use AT.

Patrick:
Totally and no stigma behind it. Totally agree. And then Martin, if you take that sort of logically in terms of more integration, more platforms, surely there are opportunities for new ways to assess and to drive the teaching and learning with the technology platforms, do you think teachers are embracing that as well?

Martin:
Yeah. I think there are opportunities Paddy, for almost assessment without assessment. So when kids are remote, it's kind of, like I say, if there's a physical classroom, a teacher can be standing at the front of the room and with a quick glance can see who's engaged, who's not, who's working, who isn't. And when kids are remote, that's not as easy. And I think there's a real opportunity here for learning analytics. And if learning analytics are appropriately implemented, it can actually reduce the need for formal assessment I think. So something that is tracking and learning behaviors, and tracking if someone's on a Chromebook or a laptop or whatever. Tracking how much they read, what the reading age of the content is, what subject areas there are when they're writing. How much they write, how quickly they write, the maturity of their writing, their spelling error rate, their punctuation error rate, all that sort of stuff.

Martin:
All of those metrics can be captured without teachers having to do any assessment. They can really see, really rich insights into what kids are doing. What they'd like to do, where their vocabulary is, what words they struggle with. All that sort of stuff can be captured with a formal assessment. And then that's a much less stressful environment for kids. People don't like being assessed. Most people don't like being assessed. And also find a bit of a hassle, marking all the papers. I think over time, in the same way that we all... Lots of us have Apple watches and we know what our resting heart rate is, and how many steps we made and so on. And we don't have to count, it's just passively collected analytics. I think we can do the same thing for learning, and passively track kids' learning behaviors and present it as actionable information for teachers and administrators. So that's something we actually believe in as a... It's a strand of development for us that's important to Texthelp and you're probably going to see a wee bit more of that from us in the future.

Patrick:
Yeah and that's exciting times. I think that's a good place to put a pin in the discussion for now. But don't worry, Martin, Greg and myself will be back for part two later this week. So make sure you're subscribed to Texthelp Talks on your preferred podcast player or streaming service, so you don't miss out. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed this episode. Let us know using #TexthelpTalks on Twitter what you thought about part one. Engage in conversation, provide us with your feedback, ask us questions, and we'll be pleased to help. Twitter is also the best place to catch all the latest from us and all things Texthelp. So be sure to give us a follow @Texthelp. Thanks again. And we'll see you next time for 365 days later, part 2