‘Schools need to think carefully before rolling out complex online environments’

As England sets digital and tech standards for schools, Stewart Watts from D2L says teachers need to consider carefully how best to upgrade

In March, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, promised high-speed internet for all schools across the country by 2025.

Speaking at the Bett Show in London, Zahawi said the UK needs to use its experience from the pandemic as a springboard to embed new and better ways of using technology across education.

To support this new digital strategy, the Department for Education (DfE) published its first set of technology standards to be used as a guide “by everyone involved in the planning and use of technology within schools and colleges”, from senior leadership teams and suppliers, to teachers and IT staff, to ensure staff are better equipped to deliver modern teaching.

It also includes minimum levels of internet speed in different settings. From a “minimum 100Mbps download speed and a minimum of 30Mbps upload speed” for primary schools, while secondary schools should have the “capacity to deliver 1Gbps download and upload speed”, as well as full fibre connection for all schools to ensure that they can make effective use of all online learning tools. Zahawi also said he would consider the future role of technology in assessments.

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced earlier this year a series of technology and digital standards for schools and colleges, with guidance for edtech suppliers, teachers and senior leaders on how to implement them

This is a bold policy statement, as the government publicly acknowledges the vital role that technology and data has played within education throughout the pandemic and lays the foundations for the future deployment of edtech across our schools and colleges.

However, it will not be an easy feat.

The DfE has said it will not interfere or dictate what technology schools opt for but wants to see “a new culture of evidence-based use of technology across every school”.

As the past two years have demonstrated, schools need to think carefully before rolling out complex online environments so quickly. Schools will be feeling the pressure from government policy to deliver new digitally enhanced learning pathways for students, so leaders need to establish clear edtech strategies that prioritise students’ needs and tailor solutions according to their own schools’ ongoing challenges.

As the past two years have demonstrated, schools need to think carefully before rolling out complex online environments so quickly

Most importantly, they will need to consider where technology might be better placed to improve teaching standards and ease teacher workloads, especially given the proportion of teachers reportedly planning to quit due to workload and stress.

Establishing a digital infrastructure

Establishing a strong digital infrastructure across the education sector has been a major focus for the UK government. The pandemic has proven that the education system needs to be more resilient but must also be able to provide far more flexibility for modern learners, as staff look to recover the time spent away from the classroom.

The DfE’s latest update on its ‘Get Help With Technology’ programme confirms that an additional 600,000 devices have been delivered to schools, colleges, academy trusts (trusts) and local authorities (LAs) across the country in AY2021/22. This follows the successful delivery of 1.3 million laptops and tablets in AY19/20 and AY20/21 and shows significant improvement in addressing the digital divide witnessed at the start of the pandemic.

This is of course a step in the right direction, equipping staff and pupils with ‘school essentials’ are the foundations for this new digital strategy, but delivering an effective online learning environment within our schools – that caters for blended or remote learning should circumstances change – is another thing entirely.

Teachers require continuous insight into an individual student’s learning pathway, not only to connect those online and offline experiences and the disruptions experienced over the last two years, but ultimately, to ensure every student’s education is accounted for.

As per the government’s guidelines, schools will begin to roll out several edtech solutions in great haste as part of their new learning strategies, and data analysis will undoubtedly play a significant role, but a more holistic approach is required.

Schools and colleges will need to establish clear learning goals and ensure that all staff are both equipped and thoroughly trained to deliver effective online or blended learning. Only then will educators be able to deliver more personalised learning pathways and identify students in need of assistance far more proactively.

Teacher training is paramount to edtech’s success

Some teachers have not been officially trained in using edtech tools or designing online learning experiences, as it’s not usually part of the teacher training curriculum.

This lack of instructional design knowledge means that beginning to create a structured online space can be challenging. Teachers need a greater understanding of digital tools and workflows. Ensuring staff can use and apply these technologies effectively throughout their classes will ensure they deliver the best learning experience possible. Most importantly, staff must be reminded that edtech is there to make their lives easier, not replace them – it should complement all current learning goals.

Some teachers have not been officially trained in using edtech tools or designing online learning experiences, as it’s not usually part of the teacher training curriculum.

Without knowing what tools teachers have available and how they can be incorporated within the current curriculum, teachers will find it extremely difficult to deliver effective learning pathways and track each individual student’s progress.

Moving forward, ensuring edtech and online learning are included in teachers’ continuous professional development (CPD) will be key. Only then will staff be able to create an engaging and varied learning experience. In fact, they will be able to identify new forms of teaching and make better use of the tools available to them – from identifying trends or individuals’ weaknesses through data analytics, to allowing group feedback on students’ work via online forums, or an opportunity for role play so students put the knowledge that they have gained from their revision to the test in the classroom.

The government’s digital legacy depends on partnerships

We cannot foresee exactly how the school year will develop but establishing a well-balanced technology enhanced learning (TEL) strategy will prove vital and this can only be achieved with a sufficient digital infrastructure in place.

Schools and colleges must work closely with their chosen technology partners, who can share their deep-sector expertise, and together they can identify the appropriate tools and design a tailored solution that works for students, teachers and parents alike. This will offer schools a chance to explore new ways of learning and offer new experiences for pupils.

Stewart Watts is vice-president for EMEA at edtech firm, D2L

Read more: All schools to enjoy high-speed internet access by 2025 – Zahawi

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