Roundtable: Things to come in ‘21

It’s been a transformative year for the world at large – nowhere more so than for the education sector. How will COVID, distance learning, emerging technologies and the pressing need for digital upskilling continue to define the sector in 2021? Steve Wright asks the experts


Rachid Hourizi, Director, The Institute of Coding

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast

Mark McNasby, CEO, (self-service chatbot for colleges and universities)

Christina Perdikoulias, President, DigitalEd online learning

Q. Two factors loom large and uncertain over next year’s education landscape: COVID and Brexit. How can educators try to safeguard themselves against (more) disruptions from these ongoing situations?

Mark McNasby: COVID-19 and Brexit, while distinctly unique from one another, share a common denominator for educators: sudden and unanticipated change. History has taught us to embrace change (not that we could prevent it in the first place), and routinely we emerge better than we started.

However, we can still take measures to mitigate disruptions. Educators would benefit now from evaluating those process improvements and technologies that facilitate scale and remote access, both of which would provide critical advantages in the event of another disruptive change.

“Any technology that supports scalability will give education institutions an advantage. The ability to achieve more with the same human capital is paramount” – Mark McNasby

Q. How should edtech companies strive to maximise their potential and serve the sector’s changing needs over the next 12 months?

Rachid Hourizi: In order for educators to maximise their potential and meet changing needs over the next 12 months, it’s important that they support the large number of people who are experiencing disruption in their careers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These people need support to ensure they can access, or retain, high-quality employment.

This means continuing to foster collaboration with industry experts and employers to ensure that learners gain relevant skills, as well as transforming our educational delivery to better fit people’s lives and needs.

Flexible, modular delivery of digital skills education will help fuel the UK’s economic recovery post-COVID-19. If done right, these courses will help a more diverse mix of people discover and develop skills that will enhance their employability – both within the tech sector and in the various industries and sectors that now require some level of digital competency.

The Institute of Coding (IoC) has worked with partners to develop a series of short courses, many of which are free and online, so that more people can find an education pathway to fit their interests and needs. This forms an important part of our commitment to creating opportunities for lifelong learning and lasting diversity in the digital sector.

For example, since we launched our series of online courses with FutureLearn and the University of Leeds, Digital Skills for the Workplace, in December 2019, we have registered over 500,000 learners and reached near gender balance (47% of surveyed learners are women). This speaks to the broad appetite for modular, online learning and the need to transform the education system and to move away from fixed degrees, which may be inaccessible to some people.

MMN: If edtech companies have any desire to make a difference for educators, they’ll need to commit themselves to two priorities: listening and adapting.

Edtech companies exist to support the needs of educators and, as those needs evolve, so should we. We need to have conversations with our customers to understand how their needs are changing and to uncover ways of enhancing our services to accommodate those changing needs.

One thing that edtech leaders should remember is that, without the education sector, our value dissipates. Everyone’s interests will be served by efforts to support educators in the coming months.

Christina Perdikoulias: This is an opportunity to partner closely with our educators and to listen carefully to the challenges they encounter. While all of us in the edtech space are confident in our solutions and eager to offer our services, the swift transition from face-to-face instruction to online education has exposed an array of gaps and limitations when delivered at scale.

Edtech companies should demonstrate flexibility and be prepared to refine their roles within the technology ecosystem – because the landscape will continue to change over the next 12 months.

“The UK’s economy is turning to the tech sector for recovery, so diversification of the tech workforce is crucial” – Rachid Hourizi

Q. When it comes to digital technology, what should education institutions prioritise to ensure they remain ‘ahead of the curve’?

RH: In an age in which technology is at the heart of most businesses and is fundamental to the UK’s economic growth, digital skills have become more important than ever. Demand for talent within the digital technology sector has already grown by 150% over the past four years.

This number will continue to increase as we move into a ‘new normal’, where the tech sector is expected to power our economic recovery.
With 82% of all new online job advertisements requiring digital skills, edtech institutions need to deliver flexible and modular education in order to respond to the new national demand to upskill and reskill from home in an accessible way.

Lockdown has signalled a real appetite for online learning – the IoC has seen a 2,000% increase in enrolments on our Digital Skills for the Workplace courses since February – and educators need to prioritise this type of learning to meet this demand. More importantly, making learning more accessible (through modular courses) will inevitably help unblock the tech industry’s diversity issue as well. Women make up 33–47% of the learners on our online digital skills courses, which is a stark difference when compared to the proportion of female computer science graduates last year (16%).

Sophie Bailey: Two sector reports this year point out that higher education technology implementation has improved – but that it is still, for the most part, at a basic level. This basic implementation is in stark contrast with student expectation, and with the perceived value of more advanced technology.

For example, the joint Advance HE and HEPI Student Experience Survey of 2020 states that “where advanced technology is used, students are significantly more likely to feel they have received good value and, perhaps more significantly, to feel they have learnt a lot and that their skills gained will play a key role in their future.”

As such, universities should embrace those digital tools which help to connect students and alumni, as well as students and industry, in a way that’s more personalised and which supports not only academic attainment, but also wellbeing and career readiness. This is truly active blended learning – not merely adding content online.

Digital technology should be more collaborative. While it’s great that universities can offer online learning, let’s not kid ourselves: students crave the human element. In my interviews with students, they’ve told me how they sorely miss the in-person experience of being welcomed to campus, of social clubs, and of learning together. So, anything that can remove the arbitrary nature of hybrid on-campus/off-campus cohorts (typically along surname splits of A–I/I–Z) and, instead, meaningfully connect students to develop the skills they will need in the workplace, to support online friendships and to stop people feeling isolated, will do well.

In the same survey I cited above, the “right kind of work experience is seen as most critical, slightly ahead of the more academically focused goal of getting the best degree possible”. In other words, focusing on digital technologies that support career readiness will be a good move.

For example, in the Jisc student digital experience insights survey of 2020, only 55% of surveyed students had created a digital record or portfolio of their learning. I expect we will see more of this kind of activity, and possibly more simulation technology to help with the more hands-on learning, which is harder to conduct remotely.

MMN: Any technology that supports scalability will give education institutions an advantage. The ability to achieve more with the same human capital is paramount. Artificial intelligence, for example, provides institutions with a resource that never sleeps, and continuously provides a two-way data flow to end users and back to institutions. For example, understanding what your users want, how they search for it, and when, provides a competitive advantage over anyone without that insight. AI is a highly effective vehicle for gathering such data.

CP: Nurturing an environment that embraces data governance is paramount to remaining ‘ahead of the curve’ from a digital technology perspective.

Students are increasingly empowered to retain the educational services that best support their goals, and employers are now competing for that privilege with their own credentialling programmes.

The ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of the education that an institution provides is a differentiator that offers real value – but it requires robust capturing, processing, analysis and presentation of an incredible amount of data. Leveraging AI, for example, enables individualised learning paths and adaptive curricula, but can only be realised through data – lots of it.

This isn’t unlike other technologies that have made their way into educational applications such as machine learning, augmented reality and 3D printing.

Q. In what way(s) has the pandemic changed the education sector for good?

RH: Our mission has always been to encourage a larger, more diverse group of people into digital and tech careers through higher education, and we are seeing this materialise in 2020.

As the pandemic continues to alter both work and education for many, we’ve seen an increase in the number of individuals looking to upskill, to add digital skills to their existing expertise and to enhance their employability. This could be because they are wanting to change career direction, or because digital skills are increasingly becoming an important part of most jobs.

Since the start of lockdown, we’ve seen a drastic rise in enrolments to our online courses, jumping to half a million learners as of September.

We are also really pleased to see a much more diverse group of people taking these courses. For example, our Digital Skills for the Workplace collection draws heavily on input from industry experts to ensure that learners gain the skills employers need and offers a flexible method of upskilling. This has proven attractive to a wide variety of participants, including women (47% of surveyed learners), people outside of the traditional university age cohort (more than half of surveyed learners are over the age of 25), and people who are looking for work or are at different points in their career (19% of surveyed learners are unemployed or looking for work and 48% are working full-time, part-time or are self-employed).

SB: I see three major ways in which the pandemic has changed the education sector for good: the mass upskilling of educators in digital skills (though more needs to be done in order to retain those who feel overwhelmed by this); the demonstration of the art of the possible; and the breaking down of systems and bureaucracy that don’t work for us at this time.

There has also been some encouraging collaboration between educators and the wider education community. For example, parents have a greater appreciation of the art of teaching. Now is the time to look at the past six months, to interrogate data about assessment gaps and where technology made a difference, and to refine our approach. The pandemic has opened up new ways of doing things and allowed us to ask questions of the existing system; questions such as, how should we run exams? How did my child learn differently when they were at home?
Space has been created to put things back together differently, and we should seek to make the most of this opportunity and challenge the rigid pathways we all too often follow. Change is afoot.

Mark Steed, the principal and CEO at Kellett School in Hong Kong, talks about all educationalists being in the future business, because we are developing the next generation. I love that sentiment. We should be looking forward – and with optimism. We can always do better.

MMN: The pandemic has made the education sector more competitive than ever before, and that’s not likely to change. Collectively, people were given pause for thought to examine what matters most, and we’ve already seen significant changes to something as simple as how we work, with an immense number of businesses transitioning to remote environments indefinitely.

Similarly, we should anticipate that prospective students will change the way they think about learning and become more open to less traditional pathways to advancement. As education institutions scramble to keep up, we can expect to see more flexible alternatives, aimed at attracting learners from around the world.

Q. What are the biggest lessons educators have learned in the last 12 months?

RH: There are many lessons to be learned from the past year, such as the need for innovative delivery, flexibility and the importance of accessibility. But, when looking to the future, embracing change is key. The UK’s economy is turning to the tech sector for recovery, so diversification of the tech workforce is crucial.

However, the national digital skills gap still requires a fundamental structural change that aligns employers and educators more closely together, while helping individuals navigate the landscape of digital education. The IoC is leading the charge when it comes to encouraging this change, through campaigns such as CTRL Your Future and its collaboration with leading employer bodies such as techUK.

MMN: Educators are receiving a crash course in the value and process of adapting. Institutions that would not (or could not) adjust their operational models have been disadvantaged, while others are leading the way as trailblazers. Through this journey, I believe they’re also learning that adaptation isn’t accomplished all at once, but is, rather, an ongoing series of adjustments.

CP: Resilience is only truly achieved when it encompasses the entire ecosystem. Educators have long adapted their teaching styles to their particular audience, lesson material and educational environment. It’s a skill that they refine over years of experience – but now, for the first time in recent memory, they have to rely on the entire infrastructure and supporting systems to adapt and tune their processes along with them, within an ever-changing environment.

Previously, a strong educator could, to some extent, shield their students and find paths to compensate for issues with access to technology, materials and time. That’s no longer the case. The education experience is more connected than ever, both literally and figuratively, and as a result, terms such as ‘academic continuity’ and ‘educational service architecture’ have become key elements of an institution’s success.

Q. Which emerging technologies are most likely to disrupt the sector next year?

RH: For many years, AI has been establishing itself as one of the biggest contenders in emerging technology. As well as impacting how we live and work, its ability to mimic human intelligence will continue to make it a leading force in our industry. As the UK economy turns to the tech sector for recovery, we also know that AI can transform our productivity and GDP potential.

SB: The go-to technologies of 2020 have largely been remote-conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams. I expect to see more of these AI-enabled tools that provoke learning collaborations more proactively.

I had a great chat with Eglė Vinauskaitė, a human-development specialist working on learning and development technology. She talked about dropping the content focus, and starting the user focus, and I think learners will demand this from technology providers more and more.

Will we see more assessment technologies, or formative assessment platforms plugging the gap from our standardised tests as they move and shift? I think so. I believe we will also see more use of digital portfolios; as examinations are disrupted, the ability to prove your skill development, at all stages of learning and in the workplace, will become ever-more important.

I’m also sure that we will see more wellbeing and counselling edtech pop-up, as the mental health ramifications of this year are enormous and also deeply connected with learning, teaching and working. Finally, private tuition and edtech which offers tuition and mentoring services will explode as parents and educators try to ‘catch up’ on lost time or seek a competitive edge for their students. A new vaccine and/or a fast-testing system will also be an emerging technology that will potentially impact the sector next year, allowing for more confidence in hybrid learning without disruption.

MMN: AI and VR are poised to propel the education sector forward into completely new territories. AI will enable educators to understand and inform their prospective learners in ways that weren’t possible in years past, while simultaneously creating efficiencies and service standards that will raise the bar for the entire sector.

VR, meanwhile, has the potential to completely upend traditional bricks-and-mortar learning institutions – not only given the uncertainty around (and continued emphasis on) social distancing, but also as students begin to examine and interrogate how they choose to invest their time.

CP: What will rise to the surface as early as next year will be technologies that employ blockchain for identity management. Until we were all forced online for the sake of academic continuity, assessing a student’s academic achievement meant exam and study halls, with visual confirmation of student IDs to assure continuity.

Now that we’ve been thrust into an exclusively remote environment, solutions that depend on webcams and biometrics have been used to serve that same identity verification purpose. Many of these tools include additional AI elements to detect ‘suspicious’ activity on the part of the student being tested, and have been met with considerable resistance due to privacy, equity and accessibility concerns.

While educators and solution providers are working closely to address these concerns, the ability to truly disrupt the market with alternative means to establish an unbreakable chain of trust between the learner and educator, while unequivocally respecting and securing their privacy, will be a sea change in testing.

Q. And how will these innovations be applied within an education context – especially when remote learning is likely to continue?

RH: Whilst we have seen a rapid expansion of AI, the technology still displays racial, gender and accessibility biases. This tends to be a reflection of the lack of diversity within the workforce.

So, in an educational context, our goal is to help eliminate these inequalities through campaigns like CTRL Your Future. It’s more important than ever for educators to do more to welcome a fresh, more diverse cross-section of talent so these changes can start to happen from the ground up.

MMN: It’s not unfathomable that, in the future, education institutions will eventually shift to 100% remote learning models supported by virtual interactivity and technology that helps understand and drive student behaviour and engagement.

For now, we should expect to see new applications of these technologies in what amounts to a trial run – we’ll see plenty of discourse around what’s working well and what isn’t – and the most successful implementations will ultimately shape the future of the sector. In the short-term, we’ll see more and more automation intended to untether human capital and provide 24/7, real-time access to content, along with technology intended to simulate those experiences that we valued most within in-person learning.

“How can we use edtech to better support learning in the job areas that people occupy currently, not where we want them to get to?” – Sophie Bailey

Q. What new initiatives would you hope to see from the government during 2021 to boost the role of edtech in supporting UK education?

SB: It’s great to see the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on edtech assembling.

I’d like to see more support for our educators and educationalists in terms of testing capabilities.

When it comes to edtech specifically, I would probably mirror Lord Baker’s request for more devices for those who need them most – plus the requisite training, data, connectivity and learning spaces needed. I would like to see support for digital retraining and vocational technology usage as part of the National Skills Fund, and to get apprenticeships and internships which have been ‘parked’ back up and running.

But there also needs to be a better understanding of the cultural values assigned to our learning.

The infamous ‘Fatima’ advertisement campaign is a good example of how shifting from a much-loved vocation to a new high-growth sector – in this case, cyber – isn’t always desirable. How can we use edtech to better support learning in the job areas that people occupy currently, not where we want them to get to? I’d like to see government funding to help vulnerable learners’ use of edtech to become more targeted, and for continual training and support (read: time) for educators to feel comfortable using edtech, as well as specific support for safeguarding of children.

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