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The EdTech Learning Revolution

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Technology is impacting society and everyday life in all sectors, yet education and training lag conspicuously behind. Should the education and training sector be more technologically engaged, and what are the implications for pedagogy?

The statistics for technology intrusion are revealing. There are now 2.7 billion smartphone users around the world (out of a total global population of 7.7 billion) and 10 billion smartphones in use. 77% of Americans and 78% of UK citizens have smartphones. In 2018, over half of all global website traffic was conducted through mobile phones.

A study by the Pew Research Center of smartphone use among US citizens in 2019 found that 93% of Millennials own smartphones. There is a generational divide, of course. However, the majority of those either going through, or re-engaging with, education and training are likely to be adept at using smartphones. 

But is all that meaningful when it comes to EdTech?

EdTech reach

Research by Fujitsu of 600 IT leaders across the education sector in seven countries showed that EdTech uptake was not extensive. While using educational technology was an aspiration shared by all, those aspirations were constrained by insufficient budgets, low investment in IT, the absence of advanced IT skills and poor digital infrastructure.

And there is specifically an issue in UK colleges. The Education and Training Foundation undertook a training needs analysis in 2017 and found that 26% of individuals and 59% of organisations in the UK college sector said they would value digital training.

Vikki Liogier, National Head of EdTech and Digital Skills at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), said in an interview with The Pulse that:

“The further education sector has been under pressure for some time, and in some areas that has been a barrier to embedding EdTech. Often there is a lack of confidence either in staff skills, or that the technology will work adequately. There can be barriers to sharing digital resources between teams in an FE college or across the sector. These barriers include capital investment in EdTech.”

In the HE sector, things look slightly better, with institutions like the Open University speculating and planning for an EdTech future. In their report, Future of Learning 2070, they predict the use of AI as coaches, sensory virtual learning, virtual reality with kinaesthetic learning, and brain to brain learning.

Heady stuff, but on the ground universities like Leeds Beckett are already using AI chatbots to help students with applications. Georgia State University employed big data analysis to improve retention and accelerated the time taken to graduate, saving students money. The University of Tasmania has launched a big data PhD project aiming to evolve personalised learning and to increase student satisfaction. Elsewhere, Unicef Innovation teamed up with Red Hat to produce the School Mapping Project to improve digital connectivity.

UK policy on EdTech – behind the curve?

In April 2019, in what was a wholly different political landscape, the Department for Education (DfE) published an EdTech strategy document. It aimed to:

“…support and enable the education sector in England to help develop and embed technology in a way that cuts workload, fosters efficiencies, removes barriers to education and ultimately drives improvements in educational outcomes.”

And there was good news for the EdTech business sector too:

“In parallel, we will support the development of a vibrant EdTech business sector in the UK to provide proven, high-quality products that meet the needs of educators and foster a pipeline of fresh ideas.”

The government then set up the EdTech Leadership Group, chaired by Lord Holmes, with members from the education and corporate EdTech business sector. The Group was given a £4.6 million budget to help businesses do EdTech innovation.

The DfE insisted, just before the election, that the Group was still functioning, but with the announcement of a post-election and seemingly informal spending review of all government projects, it is unclear at the time of writing whether this will continue. And critics have suggested the government is more interested in EdTech which lower teacher workloads rather than a broader rethinking of education itself. “The government needs to get ahead of the developments,” say Education Technology Magazine, “or we may find that our schools will be less well-equipped than our living rooms.”

So much for reach. But what about impact? Will EdTech change the nature of pedagogy?

EdTech and Pedagogy

Setting aside the more futuristic ideas in the OU report, how does EdTech alter the nature of learning and teaching?

As already described, EdTech can help training organisations with administration. Data analytics help identify institutional patterns around, for example, efficiency, retention and completion rates. AI and machine learning can target students with courses and career options.

Educational institutions can use AI and smart machines to automate administrative, procurement, planning, and some teaching tasks. Through the potential of AI, managing the complexity of portfolio career staff, another trend on the horizon, might become more manageable.

But it also transforms the nature of educational delivery. EdTech makes personalised learning possible, because rather than imparting knowledge, the learner becomes self-directed, using a range of tools and mediums to explore ideas. The role of face-to-face teaching becomes about communication, contact, facilitation and mentoring, not the imparting of facts. The Fourth Industrial Revolution needs a different set of skills, which Liogier concisely summed up as:

“…independent thinkers who can be adaptable because they are all going to have multiple careers. They will need digital skills, creativity and problem-solving, good communication and critical analysis as well as the capacity to collaborate and work well in teams.”

What EdTech offers, says Liogier, is the capacity to communicate differently: “We want people to work collaboratively, synchronously and asynchronously, giving us opportunities for peer support.”

That means being digital nomads, able to access learning anywhere. It involves using devices such as smartphones in the classroom, so long as it is used for learning. Says Liogier:

“It’s rethinking the way we work and approach learning and teaching. Instead of saying to learners, put your mobile phone in your bag because they are going to disrupt classes, or forbid the use of Facebook or YouTube in the college because it’s distracting, we need to exploit technology as part of learning.”

Reform from both ends

We always focus heavily on government policy when thinking about social change. And yes, policy and state investment in EdTech does matter. But innovation happens from the bottom up too – from SMEs like MWS Technology innovating a new way of doing learning and intelligently using data to improve delivery.

Despite institutional resistance, the transformation of learning through technology will happen because it has to happen.

Because as David Warlock, EdTech educator and public speaker said: “We need technology in every classroom and in every student and teacher’s hand, because it is the pen and paper of our time, and it is the lens through which we experience much of our world.”

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash.

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