Making digital schooling work for all children

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in education, but how can the public sector ensure everyone benefits?

Digital transformation in education has shifted from important to essential in the past few months. The coronavirus pandemic has brutally exposed the gap between the digital “haves” and the digital “have nots” in the UK education sector and many schools, colleges and universities have been left playing catch-up.

“The Department for Education (DfE) estimated there were 10,000 schools in England that had limited or no remote-teaching and learning capability,” says David Bealing, managing director of AdEPT Education, which is helping schools urgently to rollout digital education platforms. “So, effectively from April onwards, you had millions of students who were potentially receiving no teaching at all.”

In a bid to address the problem and speed up digital transformation in education, the DfE has distributed 200,000 laptops and tablets to schoolchildren from low-income homes, along with 4G wireless routers to help boost internet access. During lockdown, the recently established Oak National Academy, an online classroom and resource hub, has also provided schoolchildren with free video lessons covering a range of subjects.

Additionally, schools have been offered financial support to set up on one of two free-to-use digital education platforms, G Suite for Education and Office 365 Education. Both are browser based and suitable for use on multiple devices. They consist of familiar applications, such as word processors, spreadsheets tools and collaborative elements, as well as education-specific features like virtual whiteboards, quizzes, lesson planning and assignment-setting tools and marking software.

Live-streamed learning experiences

Crucially, digital education platforms also enable schools to broadcast live lessons. But no matter what solution schools, colleges or universities use to stream lessons or lectures, poor network connections can quickly ruin any attempt to teach.

“As soon as you took away the kind of connectivity and resources you find on campus, it became a real challenge to be able to connect and stay connected,” says James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at Jisc, a not-for-profit company which supports higher education and research institutions.

In fact, only 63 per cent of further education students who took part in Jisc’s student Digital Experience Insights Survey 2020 agreed their college enabled them to access online systems and services regardless of location.

Sarah Knight, head of data and digital capability at Jisc, says students also consistently report they are still experiencing technology in a transactional way. “In other words, staff are confident around setting assignments, placing work in a virtual-learning environment and encouraging students to access online resources. But they’re not yet fully utilising and embedding technology in a transformational way that is starting to change practice.”

As many teachers and learners have discovered recently, “Zoom fatigue” is also a very real phenomenon that that needs to be accounted for when designing curriculums. “You need to design an effective online curriculum or blended curriculum that takes advantage of the technology and opportunities it offers, but likewise doesn’t just bombard people with screentime that actually results in a negative impact on their wellbeing,” says Clay.

Learning resources

Upgrading education technology

Once students return to schools and campuses, they may find the physical environment has changed to better accommodate the technologies needed for digital transformation in education post-COVID-19. For instance, Nick Shea, sales director at AdEPT Education, says his company is working with schools and colleges to install cameras that will facilitate lesson-steaming.

“You used to have whiteboards with a data projector in the ceiling,” he explains. “Where that data projector would have gone, we’re instead putting in a camera that can be used to stream lessons to an audience that isn’t actually in the room.” This could help with social distancing on campus. “You might not be able to seat 30 students together in a class,” he adds, “but the teacher might be able to teach the same lesson to 15 students in one room and stream it live to the other 15 in another room.”

Virtual reality may also come into its own in a world of restricted travel, allowing for virtual tours of museums, galleries and historical sites, while also helping to democratise access to them. Along with augmented reality, this kind of technology enables teachers to shift from “what is essentially fairly static teaching and learning – text that is still, images that are still – to more dynamic ways of thinking and learning about things”, says Dr Alison Clark-Wilson, a former secondary school mathematics teacher who now works as a principal research associate at the University College London Institute of Education.

Embracing digital transformation

However, the warp-speed progress of digital transformation in education has also highlighted the need for greater support for educators when it comes to integrating new technologies into their teaching. “It’s challenging to embrace these technologies in a truly transformative way,” says Clark-Wilson. “You have to hold teachers’ hands, provide safe spaces to fail because they never had the experience of learning their subjects in today’s environment.”

Looking further ahead, intelligent tutoring systems, which aim to provide immediate and customised instruction or feedback to learners, usually without requiring intervention from a human teacher, have generated a considerable buzz in recent years.

However, Wayne Holmes, principal researcher for education at Nesta, says the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the education sector has so far been generally disappointing. “The focus has always been on how to build a tool that can teach as well as a teacher,” he says. “But the reality is you can’t, though you can build tools that give the appearance of doing that.”

As such, Holmes is far more interested in AI tools that could help teachers to become “super teachers” rather than tools that attempt to do their job for them. As he points out, any technology is ultimately only as good as the teacher who’s using it.

“Teachers draw upon their pedagogy expertise, their experience in the classroom, their knowledge of their domain and their passion for working with young people,” Holmes concludes. “All these elements have to come together; technology is just a really useful tool.”