Our family had a good transition to online learning when schools closed in March. My 15-year-old moved seamlessly to online learning via Microsoft Teams with a school-issued iPad and a full timetable. My 11-year-old, having dodged the SATs, moved to Google Classroom and spent an hour a day on schoolwork with his Dad’s old work laptop and several hours honing his Fortnite computer game skills. None of it was ideal, but it was straightforward and manageable.
However, our experience was far from commonplace. Inequality of access to online learning provision is widespread. The Department for Education estimates that 25 per cent of children have not engaged in any learning during the lockdown and the National Union of Students say one in five students do not have access to online learning.
I have been told of teachers spending their own money to buy dongles for students to enable connectivity, schools pleading for donations of old computers from the local community, families sharing access to one device and heads delivering paper study packs and food parcels by bicycle.
How did we get caught short? It’s 2020. We’ve had leading digital and tech experts at the centre of government for years. But the first edtech strategy was only announced in April 2019 and the £10-million fund is a drop in the ocean if we are to build a future-fit education system. Why has it taken so long to realise what an amazing opportunity technology offers for students and teachers?
We must close the digital access gap
When the Bett Show started in 1985, it was an event for pioneers stocking the computer room. Some 36 years later, Bett is the global meeting place for the education ecosystem from minister to teacher to hardware company and app innovator. And yet, it has taken a pandemic and school closures for Bett to mobilise their community digitally, creating an online hub of best practice and resources as edtech becomes an absolute necessity.
Bett’s Global Education Council has set out a manifesto for the future of education. They believe universal internet connectivity and access to technology are the backbone to ensuring every child’s right to education.
I agree with them. The UK needs world-class digital infrastructure and basic access to the internet should be free for everyone. We will never close the gap or breach the digital divide until we have a level playing field.
Why schools need a long-term digital plan
We must also revisit how we are teaching and what knowledge and skills we want learners to acquire.
One of the great promises of edtech, and indeed all tech, has been that it would make life easier. That may well be true for the school office where management information systems and parent communication apps have positively shifted the dynamic, but it is a much more complex challenge for teaching and learning.
Rare is the school with a well-thought-through digital strategy where tech, infrastructure and teachers work in perfect symbiosis and students have a personalised learning journey. Through heeding the lessons of lockdown, the time is now for all schools to implement a long-term, strategic digital plan to provide the education our young people need and deserve.
As for knowledge and skills, it’s time to rethink what we teach in school. When we all have Google in our pockets, rote learning becomes obsolete. We must teach critical thinking, analytical skills and creativity so children can thrive in this complex, evolving world. We owe this not just to our students, but to the estimated 7 per cent unemployed who want to reskill and contribute as we build our post-COVID and post-Brexit economy. Let’s teach back better.