The pace of change in education is accelerating; will we be ready?

When leaders in education first began to get excited about edtech, many saw the potential changes as being mainly cosmetic; a fashion trend for tech to make learning more appealing and relevant to students’ modern lives. And in some ways they were right. The transition from chalk and board, to projectors, to slides, to smartboards certainly opened up new possibilities in the classroom, but it did little to change the fundamentals of education. However, the shift we are currently seeing is so much deeper than that – powerful new technology is changing the core relationships between teacher, student, parent and classroom. Our experiences in lockdown have shown how rapidly this change is happening, and also how much we still need to do to prepare our students and schools for the future.

Since Victorian times we have been locked in to a model of national education dictated by practicalities; from the size of our schools and classrooms to the structure of the working day, we have focused on a batch production, teacher-led form of education. We have already transitioned from the teacher as the source of learning, lecturing at the front of the classroom, to the teacher as a director of learning – motivating students and leading them in the classroom. Now innovations in technology will bring about truly student-led learning that goes beyond the classroom, with teachers as coaches, mentors and facilitators. The last few months in education have proven how powerful these tools can be, and how effortlessly our students are adopting new technology.

Digital learning isn’t exactly new. Growing up, instead of a recipe book, I learned to cook using YouTube. I owe my survival at university partly (mainly) to podcasts. However, recent developments in education technology go far beyond merely changing the way we experience learning, to changing the way we learn itself. Take adaptive learning – powerful algorithms can adapt content for individual students, personalising their own optimal learning path. Students in the same class can progress at different rates, ensuring that their learning is always challenging and engaging and that the content, as well as format, is perfectly suited to their individual needs.

Back when I was teaching in the classroom the concept of flipped learning was still relatively new but already had passionate advocates in the community. The idea, very simply, is that students access the basic knowledge and learning outside of the classroom, and then in the lesson they can participate in more complex activities to develop their understanding while being mentored by the teacher. This helps to equip them with lifelong learning skills and improve resilience, among other benefits. However, in a traditional school set up there are some limitations – as a teacher you can’t easily assess the student’s work outside the classroom, and so it isn’t always possible to check that students have been able to access the work and plan appropriate classroom activities.

Adaptive education platforms are making the flipped classroom much more practical. Students can engage with the subject material outside the classroom, supported by an adaptive algorithm that personalises the questions and content to their needs. Their work is automatically marked, so teachers can check that they have been able to access the work, and plan their classroom activities to best suit their student’s needs.

Gamification is another way that new technology is changing how we learn. In a traditional homework, a student will complete the work and return it to the teacher for marking and feedback. There might be a gap of more than a week between doing the work and getting the results – the longer the gap is, the less effective the homework will be for learning. Contrast this with an adaptive online platform: the student can instantly see the results of their work, so they can make changes and improvements while the learning is still fresh in their minds. Gamified rewards and praise help to release dopamine in response to their work, proven to improve memory, motivation, and learning outcomes.

As exciting as the potential of this technology is, we can’t afford to overlook the potholes in the path. 1.9 million homes in the UK do not have access to the internet. Over the months of lockdown, digital disadvantage has widened the gap in UK schools and we won’t know the full extent of that damage until schools can reopen. It is more important than ever to ensure that all students are able to access internet-connected devices at home – and we need to achieve this quickly to prevent vulnerable students from being left behind.

In recent months we have seen telecom giants make access to educational sites free from data charges, which has allowed pupils to access these sites on their mobile devices without facing additional charges. We have also seen limited government schemes provide free laptops and internet access to disadvantaged secondary school pupils. If we are serious about transforming education, we must do much more. A mobile device is limited by its size as a learning tool, and a shared laptop or tablet limits a student’s access to learning. Our goal should be providing personal devices for all students who need them. As a child I benefited from unlimited access to information in the form of books from my public library. The same should be true of the internet – the greatest public information resource in history. Schools should be provided with 4G routers so that they can offer home internet access for all their students.

Access to technology is going to be essential to the future of education, and we need to do more to support schools in making this available. Since March, we have seen teachers adapt at an incredible rate; learning new skills and becoming fluent with new platforms. The result of this rapid change is that the role of a school IT lead is now more complex and essential than ever. Gone are the days when the main role of the IT team was to fix staff laptops and printers. The modern IT lead needs to develop expertise in GDPR, defend the school community from digital security threats, and support teachers in experimenting with new technologies and developing their teaching practice. This is no easy task, and the job will only get more challenging as the technology develops. The government needs to provide specialised training and support to schools to make sure they are equipped with the skills they need to implement these new technologies effectively.

There is a paradigmatic shift in education happening now, and the exciting news is that our young people are more than capable of getting the most from it. The government needs to recognise how quickly the future of education is now evolving, and ensure that every student has what they need to access the best education technology.

Chris Perry