New year’s solutions

One thing we know for sure is that 2020 brought unprecedented change in how teaching uses technology. Simon Fry surveys this brand-new learning landscape

While 2020’s keyword was ‘pandemic’, 2021’s could be ‘vaccine’. But with educators hoping for a complete return to classrooms and lecture halls for pupils and students alike, the devices and tools facilitating remote learning are still unlikely to return to their boxes. Instead, the ‘new normal’ will see teachers and lecturers adapt their adoption of technology, making for streamlined classroom processes so educators teach smarter and learners learn smarter.

Get your priorities right

“I am convinced the pandemic has pushed the trend for flipped classrooms and hybrid approaches,” said Ellen Van de Woestijne, segment marketing director at Barco.

Ellen believes that, while earlier offerings were often either completely onsite or entirely online, 2020 saw a growing focus on combining the two, opening new horizons for edtech. “When COVID-19 entered our lives at the beginning of 2020, nobody thought it would have the impact it did. Teaching and training institutions turned to emergency solutions which were ‘good enough’ to cover the most pressing issues temporarily.”

This emergency response soon progressed into institutions embracing digital transformations.

Ellen sees the future as requiring fundamental changes in workflows and long-term investments in digital solutions built specifically for teaching and learning (versus the existing video-conferencing tools).

The choice for technology should always take pedagogy as a starting point; technology is the enabler.

Supported streamlining

Streamlining technologies must be closely aligned to curriculum requirements and teachers’ needs if they are to be used effectively, according to Professor Henning Fjørtoft of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Unfortunately, Professor Fjørtoft sees teachers often asked to implement new technologies without the proper support from education professionals or technology experts. “In my own research, I have collaborated with teachers, school leaders and IT experts to support schools in developing practices matching both learning objectives and teachers’ preferences.”

The processes paradox

The professor found that digital technologies such as iPads and video cameras can indeed increase students’ expressive repertoires – especially as students may record, store and upload various kinds of performances without teacher support.

However, his research has identified a paradox: “Getting to the point where students can manage such processes requires massive investment in teacher learning.”

He also feels teachers may need to confront their beliefs about technologies and student literacies, or how such performances can be validly and reliably assessed. Consequently, technology should be seen as a potential resource for unleashing the power of a teacher’s professional development, along with quality leadership and an inquiring mindset.

‘The messy reality of the classroom’

The question should be addressed: are some educators reluctant to invest in streamlining tools for fear of making themselves redundant?

The professor takes a rounded view on why teachers/lecturers may or may not embrace change.

He sees them being “constantly bombarded” with new technologies, many of which they have not chosen to implement themselves. “In my experience, technologies often fail to deliver in the messy reality of the classroom. While the fear of being displaced by technology may be real for some teachers, I think most don’t have the time and resources to experiment with solutions that might not work with diverse student groups.”

If conventional teaching methods work, there may be no obvious need for change. In this sense, not using automation is not reluctance or resistance to technology, but a pragmatic choice to minimise risks of failure and make the best use of existing resources.

New to Zoom

Professor Fjørtoft primarily considers the pandemic as an emergency situation, and has worked with many teachers who have had to confront almost insurmountable difficulties in communicating with their students. For teachers, having had their first encounters with tools like Teams, Zoom and Hangouts, the pandemic may have offered insights into new ways of leading interaction or providing student learning feedback. “In future years, I hope these teachers discover they can integrate digital tools in their teaching repertoire, helping them spend their time in ways serving their students,” said the professor.

Curriculum-adhering content criteria

Schools and higher education (HE) establishments will have different technological needs, according to Sophie McGown, team lead, customer success at D2L; and a former teacher in England, Italy and Hong Kong.

Cohort sizes dictate universities and colleges can’t mark or assess students as frequently as a schoolteacher assigns and marks homework.

Schools are more likely than universities to face scrutiny in terms of how their content adheres to the curriculum, how they are teaching a topic and how pupils are progressing. “HE makes students responsible for their learning and results,” said Sophie, “whereas this responsibility sits with teachers within a school, meaning they ultimately face much more stringent reporting requirements. This reporting comes from the technology.”

Keep up!

Once new technology has been adopted, edtech providers must establish a continuous partnership with teachers to ensure ongoing safeguarding and security functions – even after such checks (along with GDPR compliance) are carried out during the initial sales process.
“If new capabilities or improvements are rolled out for an existing system, getting staff to test and pilot them means they can offer guidance to their colleagues on effective use and implementation,” said Sophie.

Getting early adopters to attend relevant events and webinars helps keep an organisation abreast of new technology and legislation while providing staff with professional development opportunities.

Don’t be afraid

Haylie Taylor, another former teacher, is now an education consultant at EducationCity, which saw a surge in demand throughout 2020. One school partner, North Birmingham’s Pheasey Park Farm Primary, accessed EducationCity between March to October with 10 times the amount of usage compared to the same period in 2019.

She comments on some teachers being reluctant to invest in automated tools, or not looking towards edtech to future-proof their classroom, “For each, the reasons will differ, from not understanding to not wanting change to worrying about added workload; but, from a technophobe, I can reassure you it’s really not that scary.”

Teachers will forever be the foundations of learning, and technology is not here to replace or hinder them, but rather, support them. Haylie believes that if in-depth training can be provided within the onboarding process, school leaders will see greater staff buy-in and the creation of a new cohort of edtech advocates.

Look to the future now…

It’s yet to be seen what shape 2021’s new normal will take, but Haylie thinks the pandemic has given educators an insight into the future.
If teaching can’t take place in classrooms, edtech can support online environments to teach digitally, and, “Those who may have been wary of edtech previously have been thrown in at the ‘edtech deep end’. This is arguably the way forward, and we’re learning how traditional classroom resources may be increasingly a thing of the past.”

The pandemic proved technology can come to the rescue when education in situ is interrupted, so the new year will undoubtedly see a willingness by most educators to increase their use of it.

But they must bear in mind that they are responsible for delivering a curriculum, and implementing new edtech comes with the risk of the unknown.

Moreover, given the UK’s exam results fiasco of summer 2020, there will be great scrutiny over educational methods, with learners and their parents alike desperate for a reliable education and fair assessment as 2021 progresses.

The new year’s keyword may yet prove to be ‘caution’.

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