EdTech is incredibly promising - but how accessible is it?
If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it's that fair and equal access to technology needs to be at the heart of building a fair education for all.
- Russell Hobby - CEO at Teach First
- Lisa Barrett - Vice President of Learning, Innovation and Operations at Multiverse
- Dawn Ferdinand - Headteacher at The Willow Primary School
- Sir Mark Grundy - CEO of Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust
- Rt Hon Damian Hinds MP - Member of Parliament for East Hampshire and former Secretary of State for Education
Is technology boosting social mobility?
When thinking of educational technology (EdTech), most people conjure up images of snazzy apps, trolleys full of tablets and the much-coveted visualiser. However, I think as a sector we need to think bigger than this.
It only takes a glance into the worlds of medicine, law or policing to see how technology is changing things; particularly in the areas of training and development for those entering the profession.
It should go without saying that professionals working in any of these fields, including teachers, are essential and expert. But we also know that their chosen areas are complex and high-stakes, which is where technology can play a role in supporting their continued development.
However, as promising as this sounds for the future of education, one key issue pressingly affects our sector: access. School budgets, already under massive strain, are in no position to afford the costs to implement, maintain and deliver the latest technology. So while the opportunity may be there, we must ask ourselves: How realistic is the role of shiny new EdTech in education, if it cannot be taken down from the shelf in the first place?
I approach this question around the three key uses of EdTech in the sector:
- Professional Development and Engagement
Without technology, it is impossible to practice (with any real proximity to reality), a volatile or complex situation.
We know that police forces across the world are using technology to simulate life-threatening contexts. We have also seen for decades how medics use simulation to replicate highly complex surgeries, allowing surgeons to practice before ‘going-live’ on an open heart.
Similarly (in principle, not deadliness), teaching is a complex practice: a classroom interaction could go any of a hundred different ways, depending on the teacher and/or pupils’ reactions. How we use technology could better enable teachers to practice techniques before the high-stakes situation. This is especially prevalent in many schools, where there is no time to lose.
Furthermore, where novices are learning new skills, how can we ensure schools can all access this technology? Particularly those working in challenging circumstances?
EdTech: Professional Development and Engagement
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that over the last year external Continuous Professional Development (CPD) available to teachers and leaders has almost exclusively been delivered digitally.
Online learning has been around for decades - we have all experienced the ‘read this slide deck and answers these questions’ approach to digital learning. What is widely considered the ‘best’ content is often saved for face-to-face experiences, when an expert can talk to (and easily monitor the engagement and performance of) the participants. Digital is what comes after: a way to go back, recollect or perhaps engage in a somewhat less than riveting forum.
I believe that our recent experiences in the pandemic have taught us online learning is ‘just’ learning; everything we know about what makes learning good, should apply.
As we increasingly incorporate the science of learning into our design (including interleaving, cognitive overload, and how we know memory works) we know that taking the time to digest, apply and discuss what you’ve learned will be invaluable when it comes to putting into practice.
This is about more than using a great Learner Management System (although this is critical). This is about engagement: badging, nudging, tracking and incentivising. This all requires understanding and work, akin to that invested in traditional CPD.
As a sector, we should be pushing the envelope on this front, to both make gains in teacher learning, but also savings (in workload, time spent out of school, travelling etc). We should also be ensuring that teachers and leaders all have ready access to this level of learning.
The third area which I feel has huge potential to be supported by technology is the underlying infrastructure so important to schools. At best, this can reduce administrative tasks taken on by teachers and leaders, streamlining processes and lightening workload. At worst. this is yet another layer of complexity added onto the shoulders of those leading schools.
There is much to learn from the corporate sector on this one, and once again the pandemic has forced the hand of many. But if we were really to dive into this, we could see enhanced parental engagement, greater opportunities for flexible working, less manual input of data and better access to data analysis and it’s use in teaching and learning.
The potential for this work to relieve those schools with the tightest budgets is large but, as ever, it comes with a sizeable upfront cost. How can we support this?
Making EdTech accessible
The thing that concerns me about all of this, is how those schools that really need this support access it. Perhaps the primary reason this level of technology is yet to take off in our sector is lack of money. This sort of tech; AI, VR, corporate style operations and data processing all costs big money. I believe that we will see an increasing number of schools dabble in it, but will it be those that are struggling to make ends meet? Or those with surplus budgets?
This digital divide is more meta than that felt on the ground due to a lack of devices but will be felt acutely in years to come. Identifying the most innovative technology that can support schools in each of these three areas, whilst ensuring this is not limited to only a lucky few is going to be a great challenge in the coming years - but it's one our sector is prepared to overcome.
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