Establishing a digital infrastructure: the education sector’s recovery plan for 2021

There is a pressing need for investment in digital infrastructure across the education sector

This year highlighted a number of issues throughout the education sector; not least, the need to reconsider current means of learning. Though there have been great strides towards digital transformation, where the pandemic accelerated the adoption of edtech across our schools and universities, there’s still plenty more work to be done and sadly, investment is not keeping pace with need.

Despite the Department of Education’s (DfE) support package earlier this year, which promised tools and resources to enable disadvantaged students across the UK to continue with their studies remotely, many are still yet to receive laptops, tablets and 4G wireless routers that enable them to do so, and their education has suffered as a consequence. The same can be said for higher education. While some universities may have invested in online learning over the past few years and already established some form of online cloud environment to back up their courses, the majority simply would not have been prepared for the suddenness of lockdown or to deliver distanced learning. In fact, it’s likely that these institutions may have rushed their remote learning initiatives, leaving gaps or inconsistencies in online course content.

With the challenges the education sector looks set to face next year, establishing a solid digital infrastructure will be of the upmost importance. Our valued schools and universities must have fail-safes in place and sufficient online learning capabilities for when circumstances change. Given the disruption and uncertainty surrounding localised lockdowns, the learning journey for many students will be affected, leaving gaps in their education. In fact, the government has highlighted the gravity of the situation with its ‘Catchup Premium’ plan set to be launched next year, ensuring students’ learning can get back on track.

Plugging the gaps with data and technology

Teachers and lecturers will no doubt need continuous insight into an individual student’s learning pathway, not only to connect those online and offline experiences throughout lockdown and the breaks expected next year, but ultimately, to ensure every student’s education is accounted for. Reports have indicated that younger disadvantaged students have been left behind, with 10% of students aged 3–19 living in households with no access to a laptop or desktop computer, or having to share devices with other siblings. In the UK alone, the figures are even more stark; as the gap between rich and poor students’ quality of education has grown as much as 46%. More needs to be done, and access to a minimum standard of education is a basic right for every young and developing student.

Technology and data analysis will play a key role in the education sector’s recovery plans, but there needs to be a more holistic approach. All teachers and educators need to be equipped with the right tools to deliver effective online or blended learning. Establishing clear objectives, staff will need to be able identify students in need of assistance far more proactively, so as to cover the gaps in students’ knowledge over the coming months. However, the government needs to be on board and leading the way, supporting institutions and public schools providing the investment the sector needs and deserves.

“Technology and data analysis will play a key role in the education sector’s recovery plans, but there needs to be a more holistic approach. All teachers and educators need to be equipped with the right tools to deliver effective online or blended learning”

As mentioned, with social distancing in place and likely to continue for the foreseeable, the way we measure learning will need to be far more granular. With this mix of online and offline experiences, and many students in higher education completing their work and studying remotely, teachers and lecturers will need far more visibility into their performance – from the stage they are currently at, to specific areas for development. Moving beyond simply counting how many students have completed their assignments, online learning will need to become far more data driven. Teachers will need continuous insight into an individual’s learning pathway to connect those online and offline experiences.

Technology has been relied upon heavily in 2020, and as institutions and schools navigate the challenges we will likely face throughout 2021, preparation that combines the latest technology and teaching programmes will be vital. Even now, schools and universities have encouraged students to learn from home where possible and rely on online learning for the final days of term to minimise transmission and of course, allow students to travel home safely for Christmas. Though vaccines are now being rolled out, social distancing measures will likely be in place well into next year. Schools and universities can expect changes and will need to adapt and tailor their courses accordingly, and online learning will be the key enabler.

Future partnerships – the triad of government, schools and edtech providers

All parties – institutions, schools, faculty, and even government – will need to build on their initial investment in digital transformation this year. Many institutions and schools may have learnt from their shortcomings and identified specific areas for improvement and will need to continue to build online environments as a means of future-proofing their students’ education. Perhaps, as online and blended learning continues into next year, it will offer the educational sector a chance to explore new opportunities and create new learning experiences through these recently forged online communities.

While we can’t foresee exactly how the coming school year will develop, a careful and well-balanced online learning strategy is vital, and can only be achieved with a sufficient digital infrastructure in place. Further investment from UK government is key, with technology providers acting as partners with schools as they deliver their learning programmes and structured courses, so as minimise unnecessary disruption as much as possible.

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