Building trust in digital learning

Provision of digital tools by schools has mushroomed during the past year, raising questions over what works in education and where to source content

A year of coronavirus lockdowns has fuelled the use of digital learning around the world. School closures forced pupils, parents and teachers to adopt edtech en masse; a mad scramble for resources ensued. In the UK alone, BBC Bitesize has experienced an average of five million unique visitors a week, while on the Edtech Impact website, which aims to help teachers find edtech resources, almost 1,500 solutions are available. 

“It’s the biggest use cycle of edtech we’ve seen in history,” says Ty Goddard, chairman of strategic body Edtech UK. “There has been an explosion of goodwill and free resources. But to be honest teachers have felt bombarded. It’s been a bit of a minefield to make sense of what to use.” 

The last 12 months has been a period of mass experimentation, with many educators, both at school and at home having to evaluate an overwhelming choice of digital tools at short notice. “I worry that some widely adopted approaches to learning during the last year have not been as good for children as they might have been,” says Jon Smith, chief executive of education platform Pobble.

In an age when anyone can post teaching material online and make claims about student results, it’s raised questions about quality and standards. Not all digital offerings are created equally. 

“The universal issue has also been a lack of consistency. It was an impossible task for educators and families to adapt to the challenges of home schooling in a unified way; it’s created enormous variability. Some schools had structures and set-ups that allowed them to be clear about which tools and products to use, while others were more reactive,” says Murray Morrison, chief executive of online learning platform Tassomai. 

“Many products schools look to buy make compelling claims and look flashy and impressive. Everyone is busy and it’s all too easy to take something on without digging deeper.”

On the plus side, the sheer length of the remote learning lockdown periods have allowed many educators to test drive a variety of digital solutions and work out what works for them and what doesn’t. Teachers are now a lot more confident using technology, they’re more discerning and have been able to collect more evidence and feedback on the tools they’re deploying. 

“It’s very likely that many will want to continue with the tech tools that worked out well, especially those that are designed both for classroom and remote learning,” says Pete Read, chief executive of Persona Education. “Schools will only invest in tools that help them to meet their objectives, whether set by Ofsted, the Independent School Inspectorate or their own school improvement plan.”

New era of edtech evidence

While word of mouth and adopting best practice from other schools has helped educators navigate the past year, there are now calls for more evidence on what really works when it comes to digital learning, especially with the proliferation of content, tools and claims, with a low bar to entry into this market. 

“I want schools to demand more rigorous proof from edtech companies; there is the will. Our own research has found more than three quarters of teachers and school leaders want to see clear proof edtech works,” says Dan Sandhu, chief executive of Sparx. 

“The most commonly cited benchmark of evidence offered by edtech companies is customer quotes and school case studies. These provide helpful insight, but they’re not enough to help a school to make an informed decision about whether an edtech solution will help their learners to make more progress.” 

This is why the Edtech Evidence Group was founded a year ago by a small group of leading edtech companies, which believed there needed to be a step-change in the level of proof around digital solutions. The aim is to encourage the industry to provide clearer and better evidence about products. In the process this will help schools evaluate providers and enable them to ask the right questions. 

“As a co-founder of the group, we want to demonstrate to other companies the importance of transparently sharing impact evidence and to help push each other for increased transparency and evidence collection,” explains Michael Forshaw, chief executive of Edtech Impact. 

Need for contextual learning

Certainly, every vendor in the market is looking to build their evidence base. It’s the secret sauce in the digital trade. “Schools are using the evidence that‘s available. But the challenge is how thin some of that evidence is,” says Matt Hood, principal at Oak National Academy, set up last year to support remote learning.

But compiling huge datasets is an issue in an industry where it’s difficult for companies to scale up and many are startups. Evidence has played second fiddle, when many promising providers are just trying to innovate, sell and market products. 

“Evidence is also a thorny concept in education, compared to fields like medicine. It means different things to different people. I believe schools must be granted autonomy to define their own educational objectives and to then demand of edtech providers that they demonstrate how their offering supports their goals,” says Junaid Mubeen, director of education at Whizz Education.

“We do need standards to filter the deluge of content out there, but they must not be monolithic. ‘What works’ must be coupled with ‘in what context?’ to ensure it’s meaningful.”

Everyone agrees edtech in the UK should be celebrated. There’s a great deal of innovation in the market, with many solutions created by teachers and parents turned entrepreneurs looking to improve children’s education. 

Now schools are returning to the classroom, these tools aren’t disappearing and are complementing teaching. Hopefully, edtech will supercharge catch-up for pupils who have struggled over the past year. 

“Something has definitely changed. It’s clear more people see education as less bricks and mortar and now more anywhere, anytime,” Sharon Hague, senior vice president of schools at Pearson, concludes.