How innovation is smashing digital learning barriers

All learners can benefit from technology but we need a pervasive shift in thinking and practices

A year ago, Unicef announced that more than one billion children were at risk of falling behind academically due to school closures in response to Covid-19.

Education institutions have since adapted, deploying technology that enables teachers and pupils to continue to connect outside of the classroom, further accelerating the positive impact technology has played in education over the last few decades. With the reopening of schools, educational establishments are building on the digital foundations they have laid, helping to address the concerns raised in the Unicef report, such as lack of access to personal computers and technology that facilitates home-based learning. 

Whilst this work is underway, we must ensure that the focus remains on students. Technological innovation must not come at their expense. We cannot allow the digital divide to expand as technology advances – innovation will mean little if this divide continues to exist. That said, there are many areas where technology is allowing students to access educational tools where they previously would not have been able to do so. 

Digital innovation must not come at children’s expense

Connectivity and engagement 

Educators, students and families across the globe demonstrated incredible energy and flexibility as they quickly moved to remote learning. During this shift, technology enabled students and educators to stay connected, engaged, and motivated. Game-based learning, video and powerful collaboration tools have now been integrated as new engagement tools that extend the classroom beyond a physical location. Virtual lessons can be provided and technology like Microsoft Teams can be used en masse for parent-teacher communication.  

As learning continues to evolve and move online, it is important to ensure that the feeling of connectedness and belonging – prevalent in physical interaction – continues to be supported through emotional check-ins that are built into digital learning environment

Devices now provide pupils with a broad range of information sources and applications, all of which support improved learning outcomes. Equal access to these devices has meant group-work is now possible in an online environment through the integration of software such as Whiteboard on the Surface Pro, allowing children to sketch ideas and share them in real-time with other members of their virtual group. While this kind of collaboration is not alien within the classroom, it makes it significantly easier for students to work together offline or asynchronously. 

Tools such as these build on a vitally important part of the educational experience: peer interaction. As learning continues to evolve and move online, it is important to ensure that the feeling of connectedness and belonging – prevalent in physical interaction – continues to be supported through emotional check-ins that are built into digital learning environments. Engagement can also be built into virtual experiences; the advantages of a museum trip can be replicated through simulations and sandbox environments. Accessible technologies as a whole are also helping students with disabilities to unlock their full potential by addressing diverse needs. Learning can be limitless when a creative twist is applied to a remote learning environment.  

With the best edtech, teaching can be fitted to the needs of the individual learner

Learner-centred education 

By re-envisioning spaces in which learning takes place – not only by moving chairs and tables, but by using multiple physical and virtual spaces in and outside of schools – educators are wrapping learning environments around the interests of the student. The learning experience can be mapped to the needs of a particular child, creating material for the individual rather than the class, with the option to adapt future lessons based on how they interact with it. For some students, building the curriculum into game-based environments is proving key to sparking their curiosity in the classroom. 

Technology can act as a force multiplier for teachers, in a world where they are increasingly stretched thin

With classroom data already being collected to analyse a student’s work and performance, this next step in data-driven learning is a natural progression. When teachers are using data to drive their decisions and plans, they can respond to problems more effectively, construct new teaching methods, and advance skillsets faster.  

It’s not just students who benefit in this data-driven classroom. Technology can act as a force multiplier for teachers, in a world where they are increasingly stretched thinNew technology is now allowing teachers to reach out to students more efficiently and effectively through group chats, video meetings, voting and document sharing. Learning can be accelerated through real-time data insights for educators, such as Reading Progress, which works in multiple languages and helps teachers assess recordings of student readings to offer improvements for improved reading fluencyAnd by deploying devices like Microsoft Surface, organisations like the Department for Education have been able to drive substantial efficiencies and boost employee productivity.  

Looking to technology to drive innovation 

As students move forward with their education, system leaders, educators, faculty, families, and students themselves must build on recent technological and pedagogical advance and work together to plan and shape the future of education. 

Many schools, in recent years, could point with pride to classrooms where innovative practices engaged students in interactive learning experiences that solved real-life problems. However, the bigger challenge remains in moving from a few bright spots of innovation to a pervasive shift in thinking and practices that can impact all learners. Changing practices does not simply mean changing structures and processes, but fostering a whole new culture for students, teachers, families and the wider education community. 

Chris Rothwell is director of education at Microsoft UK

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