The digital transformation epidemic

As the biggest experiment into digital working and learning wages on, there are inevitable pros and cons for the education sector. Taking stock of these, can we even begin to imagine how the system will fare long-term?

The Breakdown

  • UK educators must now have the ability to provide quality remote education in line with government guidance
  • Studies show that first-rate digital lessons are just as effective as in-person teaching
  • Negatives of virtual learning include digital inequality, increased academic dishonesty and a lack of student engagement, but institutional perspectives on how the pandemic has affected these issues tend to differ
  • “The pandemic has helped convince the ‘old school’ establishment that e-learning has arrived and there is less resistance to digital transformation” – Andreas Ohlson, Ouriginal


Whether or not you were a believer pre-pandemic, there’s now simply no denying that we’re in the midst of the next ‘tech boom’. But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen tech dominate the global economy – and it won’t be the last.

The coronavirus sell-off understandably kept investors at bay in this year’s ‘brutal’ first quarter. But, as described by the FT back in May, the stock market experienced one of the biggest rebounds since the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and that was all thanks to Big Tech. Video conferencing software, e-commerce platforms and streaming services became a lifeline for virtually every citizen on all corners of the globe. According to S&P Capital IQ calculations, Nasdaq 100 valuations soared to more than 25 at the start of 2020 – up from a 10-year average of 19.

But the issue with a growing tech bubble is that, eventually, it bursts. And as of right now, the pervasive nature of technology and the break-neck pace of digital transformation is reshaping the constructs of society before our very eyes. So, how will this impact the future of education and the budding generations it serves?

‘Education is not optional’

In the UK, a government U-turn saw education campuses reopen at the start of June. As part of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a Temporary Continuity Direction on the provision of remote education. The DfE stated that the intention was to “provide legal certainty for all involved in the education sector”.

In its initial guidance for institutions opening their doors after six long months of home working, the government emphasised that “education is not optional”, stating that schools must have the ability to continue with online delivery, and that students must have access to “high-quality education that promotes their development” and which “aligns as closely as possible with in-school provision”. The result of these requirements? The biggest experiment into distance learning the world has ever seen.

“We are seeing the results of this now,” said Dr Alex Fenton, lecturer in Digital Business at Salford Business School; and Dr Aleksej Heinze, associate professor in digital marketing at Kedge Business School in France, in a joint interview with ET. “Students are already much more familiar with online conferencing and are getting new skills for virtual collaborations and use of collaborative working tools.”

This makes sense since, according to Promethean’s State of Technology in Education 2020 report, COVID has steered a considerable rise in the prominence of collaborative tech. After gathering insights from 2,000 educators during lockdown, Promethean found that 43% of SLT members feel that tech should be prioritised as a tool to inspire collaboration. But this is not the only benefit of remote lesson delivery.

“One of the biggest immediate benefits of online learning is the ability to reach and impact a wider range of learners with specialist needs across the UK,” explained Liz Rumsey, lead special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) teacher at Tute Education. “As an online teacher, I can help support hundreds of SEND students from any location, who might otherwise not have been able to attend school in person or access full curriculum opportunities.” Rumsey added that, for many of these students, simply being able to attend a full lesson and engage in educational activities is a huge achievement – and often something they wouldn’t have been able to do back in ‘normal’ times.

Wait – there’s more; a study by researchers at Russia’s HSE University found that high-quality digital lessons are no less effective than traditional classes in terms of learning outcomes. And from an institutional perspective, there are myriad reasons to invest in online learning technology, with the same study showing that e-learning courses expand access to a first-rate education without increasing costs, since, at university-level, for example, the number of students who are eligible for enrolment surges by 15–18%.

Studies such as this show that, in this ‘new normal’, experts are starting to measure the impact of the sector’s digital transition. Umesh Sharma, academic head of the educational psychology and inclusive education community at Monash University, says that remote learning will have a differential impact on varying groups of students based on factors such as age and area of study. “But we are still not sure of its long-term impact on students,” he told ET.

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Image source: Freepik

A double-edged sword

It would be wrong to highlight the pros of e-learning and overlook the cons. Its potential to exacerbate the digital divide, for example, is impossible to ignore.

Digital inequality is an issue that disproportionately affects the most disadvantaged students. Even before the pandemic, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that around 60,000 UK children aged 11-18 did not have internet access at home, while around 700,000 did not have access to a connected device. And while in April, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a scheme to provide free laptops and tablets to students in need throughout the period of school closures, The Guardian reported that with just one week to go until schools were set to reopen on 15 June, more than half (54%) of secondary school leaders were yet to receive a single device.  

“We do know that marginalised students will be further marginalised due to virtual learning,” said Sharma. “There is a need to look for new ways to support all learners. A personalised approach may be required.”

To top this off, a TeacherTapp survey from March this year found that many educators – especially those from schools in deprived areas – felt ill-prepared to face the demands of distance learning. According to their data, almost half of teachers in the most disadvantaged schools said they didn’t think they could broadcast a lesson, while only 3% of teachers in the poorest schools were delivering digital classes.

“Exactly when we can measure the true impact of remote education delivery will differ greatly,” John Hayes, IT co-ordinator at Stanground Academy – part of Greenwood Academies Trust (GAT) – told ET. “Every school and Trust will have entered the pandemic at different stages. While some, like Stanground and the other academies within GAT, were well equipped and had a robust digital strategy and provision in place, others may not have been so lucky.”

Dwindling engagement?

The move to remote delivery has undoubtedly affected the teachers’ assessment process. With geographical distance deeming face-to-face interaction more or less impossible (and in some cases, illegal), how could instructors monitor student engagement and progression?

According to Ernest Jenavs, CEO of educational survey platform Edurio, the sector has seen mixed responses regarding the teacher’s ability to track student development. “When asked how easy it was to understand and track their pupils’ progress with learning, 32% said it was very or quite difficult, whereas 43% of teachers felt it was very or quite easy.”

However, said Jenavs, there were clearly pupils who fell out of the learning process. “Nearly all teachers said that some pupils had not engaged with learning at all and over 70% said that it was difficult to support pupils who already had low attainment.”

“Being at school provides pupils with so much more than academic attainment; it’s important for their social and emotional development, learning key skills such as confidence, resilience, communication and face-to-face interaction – including assemblies and PSHE activities – are key to developing this” – John Hayes, Stanground Academy

But again, it isn’t all bad. One thing COVID-19 has confirmed is that the sector is in dire need of increased digital provision. The importance of digital is so great that it has accelerated edtech adoption, and as Hayes alluded to earlier on, education institutes with robust infrastructure and strategy in place allow their entire community to thrive – even when crisis strikes. But, he says, while a fully digital offering may suit university settings, it’s much less appropriate for schools.

“Being at school provides pupils with so much more than academic attainment; it’s important for their social and emotional development, learning key skills such as confidence, resilience, communication and face-to-face interaction – including assemblies and PSHE activities – are key to developing this.”

That’s why Hayes strongly believes blended learning “provides the best of both worlds”, allowing schools to enhance student engagement, while simultaneously supporting teachers and ensuring learners develop into well-rounded, digitally-savvy and responsible citizens.

Issues with integrity

Speaking of assessment; academic dishonesty was a challenge long before the pandemic came into play – especially for universities. Essay mills – businesses that permit customers to commission an original piece of writing they can then pass off as their own – support a form of contract cheating that can be hard to spot. While essay mills are banned in the U.S. and New Zealand, with many other countries investing in legislation to take them down, in the UK, they are still legal.

From March this year, when teaching, learning and assessment was forced to transition to a digital environment, many feared for the impact this might have on academic integrity. How would students’ constant and necessary access to the vast chasms of the internet impact cases of academic dishonesty?

“In Spring 2020, as the extent of the pandemic became obvious, we realised that remote learning would become the ‘new normal’,” Andreas Ohlson, CEO of text-matching software company Ouriginal, told ET. “We anticipated an increase in student submissions from institutions as a consequence. We reasoned that, as distance learning spread, teachers would understandably see the distance as a threat to academic integrity and plagiarism could be a problem. Students would consequently be asked to submit their papers more regularly.”

But just as the internet has the potential to exacerbate the issue, edtech could have the power to solve it.

“To ensure academic integrity, we are seeing tools that address the problems created by essay mills and ‘ghost writers’,” added Ohlson. “These include author metric tools and cross-language translation solutions.”

Fenton and Heinze agree. “Whilst there have been reports of plagiarism and cheating for online exams in recent years, the digital tools and systems [used to combat these issues] should continue to improve. So, for example, the Turnitin system should get better at matching plagiarised work. There are new and innovative systems [constantly] being developed to prevent online cheating.”

Both Fenton and Heinze have first-hand experience of teaching amid the pandemic; Fenton, who is responsible for the assessment of written work and recorded presentations, said he hasn’t observed any noticeable rise in matters of academic dishonesty. Heinze leads an online course in business research skills and methods, taken by students participating in a work placement or study abroad. “This course teaches students to guard against plagiarism and we actively encourage students to check their work for potential malpractice of referencing before submission. The ability to use this method for self-assessment before their work is submitted for summative assessment actually improved the quality of student submissions, so an inverse trend in this case,” he explained.

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And on this note, Ohlson concurs. “Our usage statistics even surprised us,” he said. “When looking into the usage data of our solutions, we saw evidence of increased awareness for plagiarism and academic dishonesty,” he said.

According to Ouriginal’s usage statistics, lockdown triggered a 74% rise in the number of checked documents this year when compared to the same time period in 2019 – a staggering 122% increase on figures from 2018. “But this is only half the story,” added Ohlson. “When you compare the number of checked documents on a weekly basis throughout 2020, and contrast that to the weeks of complete or partial lockdowns of schools and educational organisations, you’ll get an even more interesting picture of educators’ awareness for safeguarding academic integrity.”

During the weeks of lockdown, Ouriginal found that the number of documents assessed for plagiarism increased significantly above the average (already high) usage, confirming that educators were well prepared and understood the dangers of plagiarism with the shift to an online-only model.

“Another interesting discovery is that during the times of lockdown,” said Ohlson, “the average number of words submitted in ‘checked’ decreased substantially. This tells us that students wrote shorter assignments when away from the teachers’ presence and coaching. We can only speculate about the reason, but it could very possibly point to the ‘human’ factor in teaching. Could it be the case that the teacher contributes far greater to the creative writing process than we give them credit for? Are they the real champions of academic integrity?”

This could well be the case

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‘From scepticism to acceptance’

There’s no denying that the future of the sector is fuzzy, and there’s simply no way to know what’s in store until it begins to unravel. And while e-learning comes with inevitable bumps – such as internet drop-outs and the challenge of student engagement – this is always carefully balanced against the perks.

“Edtech became an essential emergency tool during lockdown,” Rumsey explained, “enabling teachers to continue providing remote learning support while schools were shut. And with the majority of schools now open amid the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, edtech is proving to be an invaluable long-term resource, helping us navigate the ever-changing situation and provide blended learning support.

“There’s no doubt that remote learning has been hard for many young people, however, for some children with SEND, learning online with edtech tools has been a positive experience and provided them with a greater level of flexibility and personalised assistance.” Therefore, said Rumsey, online learning could well be a lasting solution, promoting inclusivity for students who might otherwise have been excluded from the traditional classroom environment.

“The pandemic has certainly accelerated the digital transformation in education, but the transformation has been steadily growing over the last two decades” – Andreas Ohlson, Ouriginal

And when it’s so easy for edtech tools to quickly become a gimmick, many will be pleased to know that the sector’s ongoing COVID response is far from a passing fad. As Ohlson of Ouriginal concludes: “The pandemic has certainly accelerated the digital transformation in education, but the transformation has been steadily growing over the last two decades.

“The pandemic has helped convince the ‘old school’ establishment that e-learning has arrived and there is less resistance to digital transformation. For many, digital solutions in the classroom were considered ‘nice-to-have’ tools but not essential. We have gone from “technology might displace us, so let’s proceed with caution” to “thank goodness for these digital tools – I can continue doing the job I love effectively, regardless of lockdown”. What we have seen this year is a mindset shift in the industry from scepticism to acceptance.”

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