Education gap? It’s tech’s time to shine

The education sector must build tech-first strategies

Schools reopening; exam results being botched; universities scrambling to adopt a new ‘hybrid’ delivery model. The fragility of our education infrastructure – and the role of education technology – has never been so clear.

Two new major studies recently highlighted the education attainment gap, echoing broader global commentary on education which impacts both developed and developing regions in different ways. It has certainly amped up national conversation on our approaches to education, and has already led to political debate over how to close the gap. But in the end, it’s the practitioners and students who lose out.

Above all, this isn’t a time for us to take political sides. Labour’s recent demand for government to give a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ that no child will be left behind as a result of COVID-19 may sound hard to argue with on an emotional level, but I believe it’s a misreading of the situation on two levels.

Learning across generations

Firstly, we need to be clear that learning is not just about early education. As on/off lockdown periods and a stuttering high street bring economic uncertainty, and some populations around the world continue periods of isolation, education providers have been in a unique position to turn ‘wasted time’ into ‘productive time’ and help us build back better.

During lockdown so far, we’ve seen almost 10 million new students sign up to Shaw Academy courses – but a huge proportion of those were over-50s and young, working professionals. Some of them saw learning as a positive distraction, or a safety net for boosting their job security in a competitive labour market. We’ve seen waves of students studying topics like leadership, design and digital marketing, all seeing a threefold increase in sign-ups.

But there are other critical roles for edtech; among the millions of new students we saw sign up for online learning, more than 1 in 10 were making plans to start a business – bringing new ideas and job-creating ventures into the economy. With unemployment rising and many more thousands likely to consider a similar path, we should be making sure no learning generations are left behind. For those who need to re-skill or upskill to get back into work or become a business owner, equal access to education is just as important.

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“It’s time to clarify the challenge: we face an education chasm, not just a gap”

Maturing education planning, with tech foundations

It’s also time to clarify the challenge: we face an education chasm, not just a ‘gap’. It’s growing, and it existed long before the current pandemic. For decades, education has been inaccessible and unaffordable to swathes of the global population.

It’s telling that, as IPPR research has shown, teachers don’t feel confident about the role of stop-gap policies and funds to help us close the attainment gap in the longer-term. I couldn’t agree more with recent comments from Whizz Education’s Richard Marrett, suggesting that online learning must form a core part of the government’s new National Tutoring Programme – but, in line with the IPPR’s findings, I think we can go further.

What would that look like? It would mean a fundamental shift in our approach to national education strategy, which puts technology-first foundations at the heart of short- and long-term planning.

It would mean deploying new edtech infrastructure, with speed and at scale, to deliver education at lower cost to more of the population. It would mean ‘hybrid’ online/offline learning transitioning from novelty to normal, and embedding technology understanding within institutions, public bodies and teaching diploma curriculums. It would also mean real, meaningful investment from government to help all levels of education accelerate the transition to a new education technology stack. The tools are there, if we’re willing to invest and embrace what could be an ‘edtech boom’ that benefits students, teachers, the industry and the economy.


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