As the government moves to scale back A-levels due to COVID-19, for some of the nation’s more disadvantaged students, access to universities will become even harder. There are many reasons for this: one, the National Education Union has found that people from working-class backgrounds and ethnic minorities do better in exams than in assessments – unintentional bias being a factor in estimated grades; two, the appeals process favours the sharp-elbowed and well-heeled; and three, cancelling important end-of-term tests carries with it the risk that students without a strong support system will become disengaged from the education process earlier on.
Add these obstacles to the ones that already exist and it looks as though we’re moving further away from fairness and inclusivity, not closer to it. It’s still the case, for example, that Oxbridge colleges are more likely to recruit students from private and public schools than they are from state schools – at the UK’s top 22 universities, private and public schools take up 25% of places.
So what role can edtech play in bridging the gap and making sure that young people from as broad a demographic as possible enjoy the same privileges?
Outreach needs to change
First, it’s important to embrace its true potential. It’s not just about reformatting books and manuals or teaching remotely – it’s also about using tech to deliver brand-new learning architecture, opening up the world of higher education to new audiences, boosting student engagement, cutting costs to improve access for all, and improving digital literacy.
There are a few examples of edtech platforms that are making inroads here. And many universities run outreach programmes, some of which have been very successful. Mansfield College, Oxford, for example, proved to be an exception to the 25% rule when it admitted 96% of its students from state schools in 2019.
But these initiatives are always limited by how many schools these university colleges can physically visit, and by the fact that all too often, the schools most in need of support fail to engage with the programmes. This is where technology can have a transformative effect.
“It’s not just about reformatting books and manuals or teaching remotely – it’s also about using tech to deliver brand-new learning architecture, opening up the world of higher education to new audiences…”
One such tool, Zero Gravity, is making real inroads here. As a mentoring system, its goal is to connect the UK’s brightest state-school students with undergraduates at leading universities. Those attending the universities are then able to share first-hand experiences with aspiring students, offering help with the application process, and assurance that they can succeed. At the moment, around 1,000 Year 13 students are being mentored, and the platform has become so popular with the undergraduate community that 10% of Oxbridge students have signed up to act as mentors.
What forums like this can do is sidestep schools and go straight to the heart of social media, where the Gen Z target audience spends a lot of time. And what that does is reach across social divides and get people talking, encouraging each other and providing support. It breaks down barriers.
Making the right connection
We all know that the pre-university generation are digital natives; they favour individual expression and personalisation. They also expect to be able to resolve all of life’s problems with the device in the palm of their hands. All day every day, they are bombarded with information via social channels. For edtech platfoms in this space, finding a way to cut through the white noise is essential.
Here, design shouldn’t rely on rigid language, but instead encourage users to speak authentically – in fragments as opposed to curated testimonials, which appeals to a social-media-savvy mindset. Logos and imagery should celebrate bold diversity and the energy at the heart of the brand. The result is worlds apart from the expected look of the education and charity sectors. And, more importantly for a digital brand, it delivers maximum impact on-screen.
What about life after COVID-19?
The events of 2020 have compounded the need for edtech to play a role in opening up access to universities for everyone, including Oxbridge and Russell Group institutions.
With an increasing need for access to online platforms, these kinds of edtech systems are well placed to have an even greater impact on the lives of the young people they aim to help. And because COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the young and the disadvantaged, there has never been a more urgent need to connect the brightest, most ambitious young minds in our society with the top universities.
What a strong brand and communication strategy has the power to do is create edtech platforms with cut-through, as well as establish strong links between the technology and the people who need it. These are difficult times, but if we really want to shake up the status quo, we need to maximise the power of edtech in this space, and make sure it reaches the people that matter.
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