New technologies that are here to stay post-COVID

According to Tes’s research, the two most appreciated COVID-driven changes when it comes to tech in schools are the provision of online homework and virtual parents’ evenings

It’s fair to say that one of the few positives of the global pandemic is the accelerated adoption of technologies in schools and learning institutions worldwide.

It has been estimated that the pace of adoption during the pandemic in just one academic year is equal to about 3-5 ‘normal’ years of technological change, as is the case in other settings.

Firstly, let us remind ourselves of the purpose of technology in schools. The Department for Education’s (DfE) report, Realising the potential of tech in education, was published way before the idea of a global pandemic was even conceivable, in April 2019. It sets out the purpose fairly objectively: “to embed technology in a way that cuts workload, fosters efficiencies, supports inclusion and ultimately drives improvements in educational outcomes”. The desire to improve school processes and systems to improve pupil outcomes was already apparent – then along came the global pandemic, creating the necessity to deliver nearly all school learning and activities online overnight.

We know that this has proved an enormous challenge for senior leaders and teachers. Both their ingenuity and determination has been widely applauded, as many had to switch whole school systems overnight with little or no tech expertise or support. There have been many accounts of how schools survived this fraught period valiantly, achieving amazing results despite the various challenges.

How did behaviours change?

But when we look forward, which behaviour changes due to the enforced adoption of in-school technology stay in place long-term?

One of the six trends highlighted in FutureLearn’s report published in February is that “COVID-19 accelerated online learning but it is here to stay”. The report also highlighted interesting findings on how online learning has supported more “flexible and collaborative learning” that both teachers and learners have appreciated.

Another February report from the Chartered College of Teaching called, Education in times of crisis: effective approaches to distance learning, also cites more collaborative learning as one of the advantages, along with the ability for teachers to provide more personalised and timely feedback to students, which has resulted in quicker interventions and increased motivation.

“It’s estimated that around half of UK secondary schools have moved to inbuilt video solutions during the pandemic”

Another important area of advance has been around parent and teacher communication. With the possibility of a quick catch-up at the school gate, or a visit to the school office gone, there was a sudden need to find technology that allowed this communication in a remote-first, digital way. Much of this isn’t new, and schools have been using both their lesson delivery systems (GoogleClassroom, Microsoft teams etc.) and point solutions like Parent Mail, School Comms or Class Charts, to manage this – but the focus on getting this digital channel ‘right’ has never been stronger.

Behaviours that are here to stay

Of the many changes adopted in the last year, we know from our own recent research that there are two stand-out areas that have been most positively impacted in school settings: parents’ evenings and online homework.

The reason these two stand out as a permanent shift in behaviour is because they create a ‘win-win-win’ situation for all three parties involved: parents, teachers, and school leaders – not forgetting pupils, too. Improving the experience for all these parties at once can only be a huge success for the school all round.

Schools were forced into a situation of trying to find a solution to what was previously a purely physical, face-to-face event: parents’ evenings. Many schools used a combination of the tech that they had invested in for lesson delivery with a video conferencing solution such as Zoom or Microsoft teams. The challenge with these sorts of systems is the administrative burden of both creating bespoke links for either individual parents or teachers (particularly for secondary schools, where a typical pupil would have between 5–10 teachers to see), and then managing the meetings themselves with issues around over-running, teachers managing waiting rooms etc.  Using a system that has little or no scheduling function has been overwhelming, with many schools turning to a bespoke solution that supports both scheduling and video.

It’s estimated that around half of UK secondary schools have moved to inbuilt video solutions during the pandemic. Not only has this helped them keep running their parents’ evenings during the pandemic, but with an algorithm that automatically chooses the most efficient schedule and ‘time out’ functions that close the meetings down to keep things running to time, the evenings have run much more efficiently without the stress of managing a long list of issues, which range from car parking, to childcare to having to shout to be heard in a noisy sports hall.

In our research, only 3% of schools said they would return to solely face-to-face parents’ evening events post-COVID, with 36% saying they would continue with virtual parents’ evenings and 61% saying they would offer a hybrid of in-person and virtual. Schools – and school leaders in particular – want to meet parents, but there is overwhelming recognition that moving online needs to remain an option – whether that’s by running one event per year in-person (at school) and then a second or third as virtual events, or by running the events from school but giving parents the option of face-to-face or virtual meetings, to allow more participation and flexibility for working, travelling or separated parents.

“In our research, only 3% of schools said they would return to solely face-to-face parents’ evening events post-COVID, with 36% saying they would continue with virtual parents’ evenings and 61% saying they would offer a hybrid of in-person and virtual”

Another benefit of delivering these events online lies in the software’s reporting function. When a parents’ evening has taken place, a report of all the appointments that took place – and more importantly, those that didn’t – is available at a touch of a button, helping school leaders and governing bodies identify where there might be need to follow-up.

Many of these online systems also have other functions that have helped schools during this time; for example, SchoolCloud by Tes offers neat scheduling and tracking solutions for the recently introduced COVID testing requirements for schools in the UK. As schools adopt more online solutions for what were previously administration-heavy tasks, all-important time and resource can be freed up.

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Another change that looks here to stay is the setting, submitting and marking of homework online. Though this is not a new area for technology, schools who were previously ‘late adopters’ have now caught up. Many schools have been able to use their whole school systems to administer this where others have chosen to take up a more bespoke solution. The benefits of this more efficient approach have been appreciated by pupils, parents and teachers alike. While there has been much debate about ‘online learning’: how it should be delivered, what are the best techniques to use etc., it’s uniformly agreed that the change to online homework delivery and monitoring has been a success.

Lasting legacy

It’s no surprise that research from BESA (the British Educational Suppliers Association) showed that there was an increase in spend on ICT software and hardware in 2020/21, by 7.9% in secondary schools and 6.4% in primary schools across the UK due to the upgrading of systems or purchasing of new solutions for the online delivery required by the pandemic. What’s interesting to see however, is which of those solutions will continue to be used post-pandemic. It’s without doubt that where students, teachers, school leaders and parents all benefit, the legacy of these behaviour changes will be here to stay.

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