Roundtable: Lessons learned? The digital future of education

COVID-19, and its attendant school closures, has prompted the education sector to accelerate the digital transformation process. But what does this mean for the future of education? Steve Wright asks the experts

The panel

Evgeny Shadchnev, CEO, Makers Academy

Chris Rothwell, Director of education, Microsoft UK

Marnix Broer, CEO and co-founder, StuDocu

Patrick McGrath, Edtech strategist, Texthelp


Caroline Kennard, Managing director, the Britannica Group UK

Oleg Figlin,Vice-president, Blackboard Europe

Q. With education establishments closed for an unspecified time, the sector has forcibly accelerated its digital adoption. What does/will this mean for current and future student generations?

Marnix Broer: Personally, I’m glad that these difficult times are driving innovation in education. It’s nice to see something good come from this. Education has changed very little over the last few years, yet students should be prepared for a job market where things change rapidly, so innovation is a must.

Patrick McGrath: The immediate impact, of course, has been the absence of end-of-year exams and testing. This means current students approaching learning from a different position – not with an exam in sight, but with the more immediate needs of the remaining course or curriculum content, and using digital tools and new approaches to understand new concepts.

There’s also been a paradigm shift in how students learn – with a more independent approach, requiring more discipline to focus on learning. On the upside, learning has become more personalised. Students are also grappling with technology across the entire spectrum of learning – not something they have had to do before.

On the downside, those with individual needs may not be receiving the support required to succeed, and some may not even have the devices or access to take part in learning. The crisis and the responses have thus created an inequality – but it’s one that can be addressed as we move forward.

For future generations, many things will change. In the near term, we’ll see a drive for more blended learning – a mix of class and online. In the medium term, a move away from end-of-term exams is inevitable. Students will be assessed differently, perhaps through learning analytics. This will see a shift towards a more personal, bespoke learning experience, where students can work at their pace and around their interests.

The current situation is simply accelerating what we’ve all known for a long time – the need to move towards a learner-centric, not teacher-centric, education model.

Caroline Kennard: Thankfully, technology has become a central aspect of the modern-day education experience, with many teachers and students already experienced in teaching and learning with digital support. While the government’s guidance regarding school closures and social distancing has resulted in a greater digital uptake, this previous experience with edtech will hopefully have aided the transition.
To support students throughout school closures, many schools have made plans to utilise virtual learning environments (VLEs) and resources – however, this varies greatly from school to school.

From an edtech perspective, the sector has undoubtedly experienced an increase in uptake of digital resources, with many (including ourselves) supporting parents and teachers with free activities, resources and access to edtech during this difficult time.

As the sector prepares to go back to school, I predict that we will see a real eagerness to ‘make up for lost time’ and meet curriculum objectives. As well as this, we’re likely to see trust CEOs, headteachers, local authorities and key education figures assessing their current digital infrastructures and the changes that may need to be made, so that digital learning can become a greater pillar of support, and even further integrated into education, as we move forward.

Evgeny Shadchnev: The changes mean several things, including a faster adoption of digital fluency in our working styles; a more collaborative online approach between remote working teams; and an ability to access training and resources that might have been previously inaccessible because of geographical distance.

Technology, compared to other sectors, is well adapted to remote working, and at Makers Academy, we believe that remote-first training sets our developers up for a remote-first world.

Furthermore, digital education opens up many opportunities to introduce more flexible and effective study habits. I would say that this will have a positive effect on future student generations.

Oleg Figlin: As institutions transition to remote instruction, we have seen them initially defaulting to synchronous tools such as virtual classrooms.

Now, institutions are starting to incorporate more asynchronous tools such as VLEs, to deliver content and engage with students. Institutions are turning to holistic learning platforms that can support student expectations by providing a modern, intuitive experience.

Another piece of the puzzle is how universities respond to this forced digital adoption. In this new environment, it’s critical that institutions equip instructors with professional development training for delivering online instruction.

Lastly, moving online means that institutions need different ways to engage with students, especially those lagging behind or struggling to engage online in the same way as they do in the classroom. Hence, the series of measures and insights on product use and adoption, learning outcomes, student success and institutional performance play a vital part in ensuring student success online.

Q. What will prove to be the lasting benefits of the new learning model(s) that the sector has quickly adopted?

ES: There will be an increased self-reliance among students: they will have to set up their own working environments, set boundaries in their working lives, and organise their time in a way that enables them to connect effectively to their learning materials, peers and coaches.

Chris Rothwell: Schools across the UK are facing unprecedented challenges, and their staff are showing incredible resilience, imagination and passion to ensure that they can help keep children learning while at home.

Institutions are now harnessing technology to ensure that both teachers and students have the right tools to continue their studies – meaning that, when schools, colleges and universities re-open, the technology will still be in place to provide benefits to learning.

Whilst the pace of change has understandably been a challenge, it has really helped to accelerate and build up digital skills across the education sector. Alongside students, staff have now experienced first-hand how technology can be used to facilitate learning and boost communication amongst colleagues.

What’s more, as schools have started experimenting with new tools and platforms, we’ve seen incredibly creative forms of teaching come out of remote learning. From virtual cooking challenges to staff workouts and group music lessons, this situation has tasked us to think outside the box, leading to exciting new content and uses of technology which will only inspire us more in the future.

MB: It’s a bit too soon to say what the lasting benefits will have been. Of course, it is possible to ask students what they think of the new learning models: however, the real benefits can only be measured over a longer period of time. Does remote learning free up time for educators? Will it result in a better education? Will education become cheaper and, therefore, more accessible to a broader audience?

PM: It’s fair to say that, when the school closures occurred, there was a scramble for technology to enable ‘remote or distance learning’. It was almost a shotgun approach.

Teachers went on an overnight learning journey – experimenting with new tools, considering approaches they never would have previously, and finding solutions to the challenges of learning remotely. We’ll now see this approach settling down, with teachers selecting the right tools to succeed in this new way of working – based on evidence of impact and effectiveness.

In just a few weeks, teachers have done an incredible job. It’s clear that the technology approach will not disappear. We are seeing improved confidence, improved outcomes, and a realisation that technology can genuinely have a huge impact on learning.

The technology is here to stay, but the lasting impact will come from the pedagogy – the different, new approach to motivating learners, to being flexible, to how we engage and how we assess. These are the fundamentals of education – and they are changing fast.

CK: More people than ever before are witnessing, and experiencing, the benefits of edtech. When schools re-open, it’s only natural to expect a return of traditional lesson planning – but I believe that this will now be more regularly supported by online and digital resources to further learning, both in and outside the classroom.

Teachers, students and parents are experiencing the full potential of edtech – from lesson planning support and curriculum content, to assessment and revision functions. I think the benefits to teacher workload and mental wellbeing, as well as to student engagement and outcomes, will demonstrate first-hand the value of digitally integrated learning models.

OF: The hope is that institutions will see the true value of VLEs, both for face-to-face and remote learning.

Usability will likely become more important than features, and I think we will see an increased focus on analytics as institutions will need to understand how their VLEs are being used, and will require the insights to respond rapidly to changes, challenges and feedback from students.

Institutions that deliver online learning efficiently will also realise very quickly that it allows them to scale up much faster and attract students from around the world, offer a greater variety of courses and adapt them much faster than face-to-face equivalents.

Q. And what challenges do these new learning models present?

CR: Although teachers and students have shown extraordinary resilience during this difficult time, institutions have had to adopt new technology, and migrate their entire curriculum online, at a much faster pace than usual. Those that were not that far along on their digital journey have had to learn extremely quickly in order to deliver the best learning outcomes for their students.

Because of this, it’s only natural for challenges to arise, and it will take time to ensure that new tools and technology are being used in the best possible ways.

MB: At the moment the biggest challenge will be flexibility, for both educators and students. It will definitely mean a higher workload at the beginning. Hopefully, all this is for the greater good!

PM: We have to ensure that the digital learning solutions are robust and genuinely fit the criteria for this new way of learning.

From a people perspective, we have to ensure that we are supporting teachers in their professional development; that we upskill students so that they understand how to use technology for learning, and that we involve parents at every step of the way. Gone are the days of teacher-only CPD – everyone needs the skills to make this last.

That said, all of these changes can only be supported by wider change – to exams, curriculum, equity of access, school inspections and, of course, funding.

Educators, students, parents, edtech companies – we’ve all shown the will and ability to change things for this new way of learning. Sustaining this, though, requires policy change.

CK: One of the biggest concerns we’ve heard from teachers and parents has been around student progress. However, thanks to data-driven insights, edtech can provide teachers and parents with updates on how students are progressing with key learning areas, so that support and lesson plans can be tailored to individual strengths and weaknesses.

There have also been some concerns around teachers’ confidence in delivering remote lessons, and ensuring that students continue to engage with their learning. For these reasons, it’s important that edtech is intuitive, user-friendly, curriculum-aligned, and presented in a way that’s suitable to both age and ability.

Outside of this, I think the real challenge is face-to-face instruction which, despite digital communication methods, is hard to replicate and is highly valued in education settings.

“Personally, I’m glad that these difficult times are driving innovation in education. It’s nice to see something good come from this”- Marnix Broer

Q. Which particular tools and resources have best enabled learning to continue in the current climate?

CR: It’s important for both teachers and students to have an easily accessible place to work, learn, connect and communicate, just as (in normal times) a school usually acts as their central hub of community. A lot of our customers are using the free Office 365 for Education platform so they can access tools like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote in one place.

We’re also seeing many institutions using Microsoft Teams for Education as their central hub for remote learning. Whether it’s teachers assessing assignments, staff and students coming together securely to share their work, or virtual assemblies, these schools and colleges are using the collaboration platform to keep their learning communities engaged and connected. It’s essential, during this time, to ensure that staff and pupils have access to helpful resources to drive learning outcomes.

At Microsoft, whether it’s through offering all UK schools free help through our FastTrack initiative or pointing educators to our Remote Learning Community, where they can come together and share advice around remote learning, we’re committed to supporting and helping the education sector on this journey.

MB: Video calling and recording tools like Zoom and Google Meet, have become more important than ever. The first issue for the education system was the continuation of lectures: the next challenge will come at exam time.

Knowledge-sharing platforms like ours, or YouTube and Wikipedia, are also of great help for students needing to study from home.

PM: Google tools, in particular Google Classroom, have seen massive traction over the recent period. Classroom has become the tool for educators to store and send out work, assignments and materials, creating a structured digital workflow.

Educators have built an ecosystem around this core platform – ways to complete worksheets, to assess work, to quiz, provide feedback and enable discussion.

Our own Texthelp tools have really engaged educators in how to extend this platform and address core learning needs.

Beyond that, there’s been a huge rise in video use, with teachers embracing tech creatively to create explanation videos for new concepts, or walk through assessment pieces.

The tools that are now seeing a huge rise in use are those that provide motivation. As an example, our Fluency Tutor tool encourages students to read aloud. It’s a simple concept – students select a reading piece, record themselves reading it, and send it back in one click to a teacher to get feedback or have it assessed.

When you’re remote learning, motivation is key, and teachers are actively seeking out and using these types of tools.

CK: There has been a positive shift across the edtech sector during this crisis, with many companies offering their resources for free. This has resulted in a wide range of tools and platforms being readily available to schools whilst this period of remote learning continues.

While the current climate removes students from the physical classroom, it’s important to continue their educational experience with minimal disruption.

With this in mind, edtech tools and resources that best enable learning will also maintain core subject knowledge, use reliable content, differentiate learning, deepen subject mastery, encourage student engagement and monitor student progress. It may sound like a big ask, but each of these functions should be integrated into any effective edtech development – such as Encyclopaedia Britannica’s LaunchPacks, which is currently being offered to UK schools for free during school closures.

OF: Synchronous tools such as virtual classrooms have allowed educators to continue teaching as they have always taught, with minimal changes. There’s also increased use of assignment and test tools. The main gap area in my view is the lack of effective, remote proctoring solutions that help to eliminate cheating when students sit high-stakes exams from home.

Usability is important. In many cases, a collection of multiple tools which are not tightly integrated will make a learning experience much more difficult: hence the need for a simple, connected, integrated and seamless workflow that prevents students shifting from tool to tool.

Q. How has COVID-19 impacted edtech policy development? Has it shifted focus towards, say, safeguarding staff and students while working from home?

MB: I’m not sure whether many edtech companies have suddenly shifted their focus to another (core) product. There are, and were already, quite a few edtech companies with innovative ideas, for example around remote assessment. Those companies are finally seeing some big demand.

PMG: We’re still very early into this situation, but one of the immediate concerns was, of course, safeguarding. In the UK, we’re not using video conferencing tools to a great degree – mainly due to safeguarding issues and legacy policy that never considered this way of working. These old ways of thinking need to adapt at rapid pace so that students are still protected and not disadvantaged. We haven’t seen policy changes or decisions on this yet, but we need to.

The more immediate impact on policy is around equality of access – in two ways.

Firstly, students without internet or device access are clearly massively disadvantaged in this new way of working. The gap will widen considerably if policy isn’t put in place to address this. We’ve been here before (see the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group, set up in 2013), with a proposal to create infrastructure and provide devices and access for all students. Now is the time to make this happen, and we’re seeing and hearing the right noises from the current government to make this a reality.

Secondly, in the clamour to move to digital learning, little consideration has been placed on the specific needs of many students. It’s clear this is now being recognised and there are policies and processes being discussed to address it.

Beyond that, there will be policy changes around assessment and exams. That will take time, and at the minute it’s not apparent that it’s an immediate policy priority.

CK: It’s too early to assess the full impact of the outbreak on edtech policy, as we’re likely to see more shifts as the crisis continues. However, we have seen that assessment has been a key area that will require development. With thousands of students due to sit exams over the next few months, and many unsure about how this is going to work under the current circumstances, we are likely to see a focus on developing remote assessment.

OF: As institutions had to scramble to get courses online immediately, many policy discussions took a back seat. If the first phase was simply getting online quickly, the second phase will focus on policy, with discussions on equality and access taking the fore.

Q. How has the outbreak impacted already tight school budgets?

PM: Schools have only managed to keep to budgets because tech tools have, by and large, been free during this time, and they’ve been able to lean on parents for access and devices. Government has put in place some additional funding for exceptional budget needs outside of technology for the current situation, which has helped.

It won’t be this academic year that is impacted heavily – it’ll be the next two years, when schools will be expected to sustain this level of online learning and fund tools and devices in an ongoing fashion.

We can’t let core education costs be impacted by this or stretched in any way. If we are to do it, schools need new funding beyond the current allocation.

OF: The impact of the scramble to ensure continuity of education for all will be extremely significant when it comes to budgets. This will be further exacerbated with some students now demanding refunds for lost course time or room and board.

Many universities will also need to brace for significant losses as foreign students start to drop out.

Forward-looking institutions have realised that a VLE is not only a platform to provide an online experience to their existing students – it can also help them scale and attract students from other countries. Also, institutions start seeing additional opportunities to provide short courses (micro-credentials) and extend their target market. Access to education will change rapidly, with new online courses attracting learners who are working, between jobs, or raising a family.

“These old ways of thinking need to adapt at rapid pace so that students are still protected and not disadvantaged” – Patrick McGrath

Q. When the lockdown eventually ends, how much of this remote learning structure is likely to continue?

ES: Given that world events are still unfolding, we don’t have a fixed timeframe for how long this remote learning structure is likely to continue. As it currently stands, all cohorts are currently running remotely, and our April and May cohorts will be run completely remotely throughout their 12 weeks of full-time learning.

MB: That is very tricky to know for sure. Personally, I worry that, when the lockdown ends, everything will go back to the ‘old-fashioned’ way of educating. Hopefully, though, both educators and students will see the great benefits of these new ways of educating and studying. If this happens, they will adopt some of the newly explored ways of remote learning, creating a new normal in education.

PMG: There are a lot of variables here. Funding and policy are both key to this digital learning structure being able to maintain itself at an effective scale.

That said, teachers have upskilled fast, students are receiving a more personal experience, and there will be a focus towards more blended approaches to learning.

Technology is here to stay. We’ve proved that we can do it as educators. We know that solutions exist and are effective. If we are strategic and ensure that learning is the centre point of our motivation for change, we’ll never go back.

It’s been ‘sink or swim’, and our educators have learnt to be Olympic swimmers in this new world. The tide of remote learning that’s carrying us is not going to stop. It’s here to stay.

CK: While remote learning is unlikely to replace traditional classrooms, the Department for Education had already started recognising the role of effective edtech. The current crisis has only reinforced the positive impact that edtech can have on teaching and learning, and I believe we will see a greater and more consistent uptake in digital learning resources moving forward. We may also see remote learning, or an alternative hybrid model, adopted more frequently for short-term student absences.

OF: This is the big question that none of us can answer with confidence. I think we can all agree that the outcome will depend on how long this crisis persists. Will institutions return to face-to-face courses in the next academic year, or will remote learning continue for longer?

The impact of COVID-19 will have a long-lasting impact on the way students are taught. The use of online learning tools will have demonstrated that institutions are able to offer both a fully synchronous and asynchronous model of learning across many subjects and courses. This will better serve students, who have long wanted to utilise technology more, and enjoy more accessible methods of learning.

Useful links

Microsoft FastTrack:
Microsoft Remote Learning:
Encyclopaedia Britannica LaunchPacks:

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