Digital learning must become more inclusive

As schools attempted to provide lessons during lockdown, little thought was given to how many still lack access to online schooling

As the education sector scrambled to deliver an online curriculum in the face of the first lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore both the benefits of digital learning and shortcomings of the UK schooling system.

As COVID-related restrictions look likely to continue into the new year, and students need to move beyond catch-up mode, what steps are being taken to realise the potential of digital learning?

In its EdTech Vision 2025 report, released in November, the EdTech Advisory Forum not only reviewed how COVID-19 has “magnified the uneven and patchy approach to digital learning in England”, but released seven recommendations to address issues such as accessibility, inclusivity and quality. The recommendations all converge on targeted, blended learning as the way forward, rather than digital being an outright classroom substitute.

Recommendations included a national edtech strategy, driven forward by a new Office for EdTech and Digital Skills, with a central digital learning platform. They also call for increasing support for digital infrastructure and devices, as well as a boost for those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) via digital assistive technology.

“The global pandemic has highlighted the urgent need to ensure equitable digital provision,” the report argues. Ultimately, it says, new ways of organising delivery are essential to ensure lessons learnt during the pandemic are embedded.

The many facets of inclusivity

One of these lessons has been around inclusivity, which has been a two-sided coin: enforced online learning has increased accessibility for some, but widened the disadvantage gap for those on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Digital innovations in learning have, in a number of ways, been proven to improve inclusivity, as Cat Scutt, director of education and research at the Chartered College of Teaching, points out. For example, assistive technology built in to digital devices and platforms, with text to speech, speech to text, and translation tools has helped learners with a variety of different needs, including students with SEND and those for whom English is an additional language.

“Too often there has been overly simplistic debate about whether face-to-face or remote learning is ‘better’, but this misses a key point,” Scutt argues.

“Of course we need to consider these outcomes, but we also need to look at whether an online version of a course leads to some people being able to access it who might not have been able to do so if it were not available online. But we need to be careful that increased technology use does not exacerbate existing inequalities in access to learning.”

We need to be careful that increased technology use does not exacerbate existing inequalities in access to learning

Such inequalities are of particular concern to Professor Cathy Lewin of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Education and Social Research Institute, who says remote learning is, in fact, likely to be impacting negatively on inclusivity in school contexts.

She lists a number of issues identified by research conducted during the first lockdown: less exposure to live lessons, fewer opportunities for teacher interaction, difficulties accessing technology and connectivity, more reliance on paper-based resources, being less engaged, spending less time learning at home while not necessarily having a quiet space to work.

“Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be exposed to the rich range of pedagogical practices that digital technology can support. There is a lot of evidence of various uses of digital technologies in school contexts, but often the results of studies are contradictory,” Lewin notes.

But echoing one of the EdTech Vision 2025 report recommendations, she believes gaps will only close if sufficient funds are available to ensure all students have access to technology and connectivity, with new digital teaching approaches requiring investment in resources and training.

The role of innovation in education

Yet equally important is a mindset for innovation, says Olivier Wolff, chief executive of SimpleCloud, a cloud-based content platform that enables students with even basic devices to access the sophisticated programmes of an institution via a virtual workstation.

Wolff believes the long-term vision of the education sector should be “to solve the access problem to education,” enabling more people to join courses regardless of where they live or the tools they have. Yet he acknowledges that infrastructure needs to be updated to make this shift more seamless.

“The tools to make education more accessible and inclusive exist, it’s just about changing the mindset,” he adds. “There is an appetite for evolution, but a bit of resistance to change.”

Once this can be overcome, Wolff envisions a new “à la carte” higher education model, where learners could cherry pick individual credits within a framework, as opposed to being confined to long and expensive diplomas and degrees.

“The value of education is to give students the practicality to make them valuable assets for companies that will employ them in the future. A more personalised education model offers more value to students, and institutions can generate new sources of income,” he says.

Reinvention through collaboration

A similarly flexible model as part of a secondary system shake-up could also bridge inclusivity barriers, according to edtech platform Gluu founder Sean Gardner, who is about to take the online portal from successful lockdown trial to national rollout.

“Now we have a cohort of children who are very disconnected from what should be available to them. Those gaps need to be closed in a way that reflects not only their ability to access learning online, but the way in which you need to engage with them. Traditional schooling perhaps isn’t the right way. So it’s about a kind of reinvention,” he explains.

“The ‘Open School’ piece is about trying to get industry and educators to collaborate and to come up with something that reflects the Open University structure that can bring less advantaged children into something to support them in a sustainable way. That’s still the gap and something we’d love to help accelerate.”

Using the power of a digital platform to “give students agency” is critical, says Gluu chief executive Christine Major. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we have now to reshape the way we educate through the way we engage with technology,” she concludes.