After Covid, will digital learning be the new normal? | Schools

History is likely to record that Britain’s teachers were better prepared for Covid-19 than government ministers. With cases rising in Europe, 14 schools in England had already closed their gates by the end of February 2020. When senior staff at Barham primary school began drawing up contingency plans on 26 February, they realised they needed to up their use of digital technology.

They decided to upload work daily to ClassDojo, a popular app they were already using to communicate with parents. The problem was some parents, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, didn’t have the app. When, three weeks later, it was announced that UK schools would close to most pupils with just two days’ notice, Barham’s staff, especially the Gujarati, Tamil and Hindi speakers, took to the playground, digital devices in hand, to help parents get connected.

“We decided ClassDojo was a non-negotiable,” says Laura Alexander, a senior leader at the school and nursery attended by 930 children aged three to 11 in Wembley, London. “Every single parent had to be on there so we could communicate with them and get work to the children.”

Ensuring they could distribute work remotely was just the first of many challenges staff at Barham faced as they turned towards greater reliance on education technology, or edtech, in response to Covid-19. They were, of course, far from alone. By April, the pandemic had forced almost 1.6 billion children and students out of their schools and universities worldwide, putting many of their teachers on a steep edtech learning curve. And now, with UK schools having closed to the majority of pupils again on 5 January, teachers are back to providing mostly remote lessons.

For some, the resulting global edtech boom is long overdue. Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has described the pandemic as creating “a great moment” for learning. In May, New York governor Andrew Cuomo publicly questioned why physical classrooms still exist at all, as he announced that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates would help rethink education in the state.

A screenshot from a ClassDojo mindfulness module. The app was founded by a game developer and a teacher and is used in 95% of elementary and middle schools in the United States and in another 180 countries. Photograph: classdojo.com

Sceptics, however, warn that a “digital divide” further widens existing attainment gaps and inequalities faced by disadvantaged children. Others say schools are ill-equipped to protect their pupils’ data, and that the growing role of commercial interests both within state education and through a booming direct-to-consumer edtech market amounts to privatisation by stealth.

At the end of March, with such short notice of the shutdown, most UK schools turned to their existing digital tools to help their pupils continue learning. For some this meant simply uploading links to worksheets to school websites, while others gave live lessons via video conferencing. It didn’t take long for problems to emerge.

“We were putting work on ClassDojo but the children couldn’t send me back the work, so they weren’t getting the feedback they need,” says Alexander, who was teaching year four pupils at Barham last spring. In the summer the school began transitioning to Google Classroom, as a more interactive remote learning tool, and set up face-to-face lessons via Google Meet for those unable to return or self-isolating. Pre-Covid, Google had already gained a dominant position in many schools by providing its edtech tools free or at low cost. In the first month of the pandemic, the number of active users of Google Classroom doubled to 100 million.

The government has helped facilitate Big Tech’s expansion in education. In late April, it announced a scheme to provide free technical support and training in Google and Microsoft education digital tools. More than 6,500 primary and secondary schools in England – over a quarter of the total – signed up. Since then, some 2.4 million new user accounts have been created for the two platforms. In April Google donated 4,000 free Chromebooks and 100,000 wifi hotspots for students in rural areas of California for home learning.

Critics like the writer Naomi Klein say the tech giants were quick to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to accelerate their ambitions in education. In June, for example, Microsoft published a position paper called Education Reimagined. It starts: “The fallout from Covid-19, continuing advances in digital technology, and intensifying pent-up demand for student-centred learning have combined to present an unprecedented opportunity to transform education across whole systems.”

But will schools continue their digitally enhanced approach, post-pandemic? Investors certainly think so. Global investment of venture capital in edtech more than doubled from $7bn in 2019 to a record $16.1bn in 2020, according to market intelligence consultancy HolonIQ.

Remote lessons in the Netherlands.
A primary school teacher in Rotterdam gives a lesson via Zoom. The surge of schools and pupils using tech platforms for teaching has raised concerns about privacy and data sharing. Photograph: Robin Utrecht/REX/Shutterstock

Others too believe the shift will be permanent. “Covid has given an impetus to schools to adopt, roll out and use more of the functionality of edtech tools,” says Hannah Owen, of the Nesta innovation foundation. “It’s likely, and optimal, that we’ll move to blended models, where remote and digital platforms support in-person classroom teaching, and contribute to minimising teacher workload.”

Many school leaders are concerned that more tech-based teaching may add to the relative advantages already enjoyed by wealthier pupils. Research by the Sutton Trust found, for example, that 30% of middle-class pupils were doing live or recorded online lessons at least once per school day, compared to 16% of working-class pupils. Those at private schools were more than twice as likely to do so than those at state schools.

Teachers at Barham provide paper-based home learning packs for the average of three or four pupils per class that don’t have digital access. “Most of the children have the tech in some form, but it might be using Dad’s mobile phone before he goes to work, or on a flatscreen TV in the living room,” says Karen Giles, headteacher at Barham, where many pupils live in multiple occupancy homes. “The lack of equity in this situation means that those children who are without are more disadvantaged, and children with advantages are more advantaged. I’m determined to close that gap.”

Giles tried to do that partly by taking up the government’s offer of help. The Department for Education says that it has provided more than 800,000 laptops and tablets for disadvantaged pupils in response to Covid-19. Barham’s allocation of 20 was cut to just six when the department changed its provision criteria in October. The Sutton Trust reported earlier this month that just 10% of teachers in England said all their pupils had adequate access to devices and the internet.

The digital divide isn’t, however, just about whether pupils have devices. Children whose parents don’t have the skills or time to help them use online platforms, and troubleshoot when needed, are also at risk of falling behind. One study found that schools with more disadvantaged pupils narrowed the gap in usage of online maths platforms with those in affluent areas during lockdown, but achieved lower levels of student engagement.

“Teachers are quite adept at looking out at the classroom and quickly assessing who has got it and who has questions,” says Audrey Watters, a US journalist who has been covering edtech since 2010. “That’s a lot harder to do with video conferencing software or digital worksheets.”

Others, however, believe teachers could use digital tools to better identify who most needs their help. “Used well, learning analytics and big data can help teachers see in a new way how those different students learn differently, and to engage with them differently,” says Schleicher.

Privacy campaigners are concerned that teachers, never mind parents and children, are unable to keep track of what edtech companies are doing with pupil data. When schools sign the G Suite for Education Agreement, for example, they agree Google makes “commercially reasonable changes” to their terms “from time to time”.

“The terms and conditions for many of these products are pages long, hard to follow, change frequently, and schools don’t send them to parents anyway,” says Jen Persson, of the campaign group Defend Digital Me. “So it’s very hard to understand how Google or anyone else processes a child’s data.”

In September, the Washington-based International Digital Accountability Council reported that 79 of 123 edtech apps it examined shared user data with third parties. This could include names, email addresses, location data and device IDs. It found, for example, that the popular language learning app Duolingo was sharing user IDs with outside parties including Facebook.

Schleicher dismisses such fears. “When you watch Netflix you contribute to the data systems and that will help with customisation. That’s how big data works. I don’t think we should put education in a different box.”

Edtech companies, both large and small, have seen major user number growth thanks to Covid-19. Critics fear this could lead to the erosion of some core principles of state provision. “If we understand privatisation as the provision by the private sector of services traditionally provided by the state, then during the pandemic, a vast part of schooling in the UK has been privatised,” says Ben Williamson, an education researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “Getting into schools, at very large scale, positions Google, Microsoft and others to keep rolling out their new model of ever-more digital schooling, based on data analytics, artificial intelligence and automated, adaptive functions.”

Williamson is not alone in warning that the pandemic is driving a form of stealth privatisation. “Once schools become dependent on the tech giants’ systems for teaching in class, homework, management and communications, and once a certain threshold is reached in the number of schools they operate in, then the state delivery of education becomes entirely dependent on private companies,” says Persson.

A queue of vehicles lining up to receive iPads and Chromebook laptops for students to use in remote learning at Indian Hills Elementary School in Round Lake Heights, Illinois, in April last year.
A queue of vehicles lining up to receive iPads and Chromebook laptops for students to use in remote learning at Indian Hills Elementary School in Round Lake Heights, Illinois, in April last year. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

Meanwhile, there has been a huge growth in the direct-to-consumer digital education market during the pandemic, highlighted in “Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19”, a report co-authored by Williamson and published by the international teaching union umbrella organisation Education International in July.

While edtech has many critics, there are also plenty who highlight potential benefits. Bukky Yusuf is a senior leader and science lead at the Edith Kay school, an independent secondary in Brent, north London, which specialises in special educational needs provision. She was concerned about switching to greater edtech use because many of her pupils thrive through active, hands-on engagement.

Yusuf was, however, pleasantly surprised, saying it helped students engage better, gain more control over their learning and work in ways that suited their needs. “A virtual learning set-up also helped minimise anxieties for some, as they had options about when and how they could engage, through video, audio or a chat feature.”

Having organised their own digital training sessions, staff at Barham say they now feel better prepared to teach remotely. Teachers there have found that combining traditional classroom and online teaching has increased parental engagement, enhanced pupils’ computer skills and improved monitoring of teaching standards. “We’re for ever changed,” says Alexander. “Blended learning works for both staff and children. Sometimes on Google Classroom, you see a child saying ‘I’m not sure how to do that’, and then you see a trail of children saying ‘Try this, try that, I did this’. Five minutes later, you go on as class teacher and they’ve sorted it out themselves.”

Those voicing concerns stress they are not against digital tools per se. Rather they question the growing role of those with financial interests in edtech in determining how they are used and in shaping the way schools are run. “Big-tech billionaires have an oversized influence in shaping education policy,” says Watters. “Some of these companies pay very, very low taxes, and their responsibilities are to start contributing properly in taxes, not to provide free Chromebooks. We need schools to be more about what the public wants and not what edtech companies want them to look like.”


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