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The future for education technology in schools: reflections on the Westminster Education Forum policy conference

Ryan Wallace Aza1hlbjbbo Unsplash

Author: Isabel Drury, Partnership Manager

According to UNESCO, more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million primary and secondary teachers have been affected by the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. Meanwhile in the UK, the Office for the Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that the education sector would be the hardest hit sector by the coronavirus crisis, leaving the sector worse off than even transport or hospitality. 

Despite these bleak statistics, I was inspired to hear of the innovation, dedication, and optimism of the speakers at last week’s Westminster Education Forum, which examined ‘The future for education technology in England – EdTech strategy implementation, supporting teachers, and learning from the experience of the COVID-19 crisis.’

During the conference, a range of speakers across school, higher education and EdTech settings shared what they had learned from the rapid pivot to online teaching during lockdown, and their hopes for the future. Across a morning of rich presentations, three key themes emerged:

High-quality online learning can be produced at speed

We heard some excellent examples of how EdTech has been used to support home learning in the midst of school closures in the UK. Ian Bauckham, for example, spoke about the establishment of the Oak National Academy, a collective response from teachers to address the ongoing challenges posed by coronavirus. Oak Academy was launched in April and has already amassed 14 million online lessons, from early years all the way up to Year 10, and will provide ongoing support into the next academic year for teachers and school leaders. 

Another example of innovation came from Helen Foulkes, Head of Education at the BBC, who shared her experiences of setting up Bitesize Daily in only 5 weeks. Bitesize Daily offers a range of content including 30 daily lessons on iPlayer for years 1-10, weekly podcasts and parent toolkits. This Bitesize Daily content was designed for pupils to be able to access easily without their parents or carer, after the BBC found that in 2 in 5 households, children were working in a household where adults continued to work from home.

In both examples, teachers provided feedback that it was necessary to have more advanced notice of the content, so that this could be factored into lesson plans.

Schools need support in deciding which EdTech solutions are right for their setting 

Alongside the recent surge in interest in EdTech, there was much debate across the forum about the need for evidence and evaluation of the growing number of EdTech platforms and providers. 

Professor Cathy Lewin, who co-authored an evidence review of ‘Using Digital Technology to Improve Learning’ at Manchester Metropolitan University, shared some insights from her research into the efficacy of online learning. One interesting finding was the importance of teacher presence in remote learning for effective learning outcomes, which was reinforced with anecdotal evidence from the Oak Academy that this visual presence of the teacher was particularly important for younger learners, even if the pupil had never met the teacher in a classroom setting before.

The forum also heard from Dan Sandhu, Chief Executive at Sparx, about the newly formed EdTech Evidence Group (EEG). The EEG seeks to provide schools with advice about factors to consider when investing in EdTech, as well as to provide an evidence-based approach to EdTech. This was complemented by a presentation by Toby Baker about NESTA’s EdTech Testbed, which offers schools and colleges a toolkit to test and evaluate EdTech resources, developed in partnership with the Department for Education. 

EdTech has a role to play in narrowing the educational attainment gap

Lord David Willetts, chair of the forum, challenged the sector to consider how EdTech could be used to support school or college leavers this summer. In the context of a widening attainment gap, Lord Willetts emphasised the urgent need to provide support to young people on the cusp of leaving education for an uncertain jobs market, for example by providing a few months’ more educational support online. 

Indeed, we heard of the real challenges schools face in supporting pupils to study at home. Emma Darcy, Director of Technology for Learning at Denbigh High School, highlighted that many children did not have access to their own laptop or desktop in order to learn from home.

There was also much discussion about how school settings could change for the better as a result of the recent upheaval. Tony Cann CBE, founder of Learning by Questions, presented a vision of a future where teacher time is not spent marking work, but instead is freed up for quality student interaction and support. 

Overall, while there were significant challenges for schools and parents in adjusting to remote teaching, the forum provided much optimism for the future of EdTech as a force for good. Overwhelmingly, there was a sense of recognition that a national fall-back plan was needed to support long periods of blended learning, and the past three months are a great testament to what can be achieved in a short space of time to support teachers, parents and students alike.

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