Edtech creates a global community

How is edtech bringing together cultures from across the world? Hazel Davis reports

We live in an era of unlimited communication and the possibilities of education technology are boundless. According to Global education market intelligence firm  HolonIQ, total global education expenditure is $8trn for 2025 and edtech expenditure fuelled by AI is expected to double, reaching $341bn. In 2016, global investments in Chinese education technology companies rose to $1.2bn. 

More and more education providers are actively looking for ways to adapt with tech transformations, while remaining conscious of their budget restrictions. 

The British Council offers a range of digital products, services and programmes deployed on a global scale. From its range of self-access learning (SAL) materials on the British Council’s Learn English/Kids/Teach English websites to its portfolio of language learning apps the organisation invests in open access resources for teachers and learners globally. 

The Plan Ceibal project in Uruguay, for example, uses video-conferencing technology to provide remote teaching into classrooms to more than 80,000 school children in the country. In conflict-afflicted states such as Libya, Syria and Iraq, the British Council uses its SAL platform for adult learners – Learn English Select – as a base for trainer-led sessions delivered via Zoom. The Tahdir project, which is working towards a democratic transition in Syria inclusive of gender equality, is one good example of this. 

Digital literacy is one of the biggest barriers to access, and a lack of experience with online learning contributes to the affective filter. In short, tech is the first step on a long road to a truly learn-anywhere culture  Claire Duly

Teaching for Success – the British Council’s global approach to teacher development – runs regular free MOOCs (massive open online courses) for teachers as well as moderated online training modules from its pool of teacher trainers. Claire Duly, head of English partnerships, British Council Jordan, says: “Global education initiatives delivered through digital platforms provide equity of access to the very best in teaching and learning to some of the hardest to reach individuals and communities in the world, and serve as a bridge to the quality gap so pervasive in traditional classrooms.” She adds, “From a cultural relations perspective, global education initiatives strive to build networks and connections between people across the world. This underpins our equality, diversity and inclusion agenda.” 

High-quality education programmes that connect people from very different cultures and backgrounds are essential for “developing the intercultural fluency skills so fundamental for succeeding in a more diverse and connected world,” says Duly.  

Building bridges

“Politically, all around us are examples of how isolationism is rising,” says Nigel Smith, FutureLearn’s MD of courses and learning. He adds: “Education has an important role to play in transcending imagined – and real – boundaries. Education can unlock doors. Online learning, in particular, can reach learners who might otherwise be barred from access to education for a variety of reasons: geographical, financial and time constraints being just three examples.”

The Open University-owned FutureLearn has seen nine million learners use its platform since its launch in 2012, with learners from every country in the world. “Tertiary education enrolment rates globally are expected to rise rapidly by 14 million new students every year from now until 2030,” says Smith. “This would require 13 new universities to be built every week, 700 each year, each serving 20,000 students if they are all going to be educated face-to-face. That’s not going to happen. The education sector needs to think, ‘are we going to deny these learners, or are we going to offer them the education they deserve via an online platform?’”

The digital divide

Education technology has certainly contributed to a learn-anywhere culture, Duly agrees, “but there needs to be more investment in developing digital literacy skills and digital citizenship capabilities of learners of all ages in order for this to have the truly transformative change we have seen in other sectors where tech has been introduced.” 

In a lot of countries and contexts where the British Council works, says Duly, “digital literacy is one of the biggest barriers to access, and a lack of experience with online learning contributes to the affective filter. In short, tech is the first step on a long road to a truly learn-anywhere culture.”

The British Council offers a range of digital products, services and programmes deployed on a global scale

One of the factors contributing to a lag in the update of tech education, says Duly, is that “great teachers are not necessarily great UX designers and great UX designers aren’t necessarily great teachers, so what you end up with is digital products that learners ‘like’ but that don’t have the academic rigour they should, or very sound academic products that no-one uses because the experience is either dull, distracting or dissatisfying.” 

Video-first communications platform Zoom works with thousands of educational institutions, providing a platform for virtual and hybrid classrooms, office hours and administrative meetings and working with universities such as California State University System, Indiana University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. At the University of San Francisco, for example, Zoom was deployed to support initiatives such the university’s work with sharing healthcare knowledge to remote hospitals in Vietnam. 

“If the purpose of education is to prepare students for the world, then teaching them the importance of sharing knowledge globally is vital,” says Zoom’s head of public sector UK & I, Jane Ross. “It ensures students understand the impact of their ability to outreach on a global scale and can prepare them for this world in both their work and personal lives,” she adds. 

Come together

Education tech is also addressing cultural boundaries in learning. Ross says: “Technology is a shared experience. It promotes connectivity from the very root of its invention. In a learning environment, it is vital that this community support is implemented and explored throughout a person’s time in education. 

“There are so many positive ways that technology allows for the broadening of minds and breaking boundaries between us all, and this is especially important to pursue in an individual’s educational years.”

The Stevens Initiative is a public private partnership based at the Aspen Institute and supported by the US Department of State, the Bezos Family Foundation, and the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Morocco. Executive director Mohamed Abdel-Kader says: “We are seeing promising data indicating that virtual exchange participants are more culturally and globally competent after interacting with peers from another part of the world.” 

As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, it can allow for more dialogue and collaboration – especially for those students who may never have the opportunity to go abroad and experience another culture – Mohamed Abdel-Kader

He adds: “Technology, and specifically our virtual exchange, allows students who may never have interacted with an American, to understand what’s happening on Main Street and perhaps disprove previously-held stereotypes. This also holds for American students learning from peers abroad. As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, it can now allow for more dialogue and collaboration – especially for those students who may never have the opportunity to go abroad and experience another culture. Real barriers exist that prevent young people from travelling abroad – financial, political, familial, professional, curricular – technology can get around those barriers. We hope this cultivates an open-minded and inquiry-based disposition and growth mindset.” 

Getting personal

But what does a global education look like? A truly global education, says Ross, “is connected, seamless and integrated. It is not fussy or complicated, it is where students and teachers can connect with one another with no boundaries and no glitches. 

And it is most likely the backbone to a future where video will become an increasingly ubiquitous way of communicating.”

A truly global technologically enabled education is not without its problems, says Aldo de Pape, CEO and founder of cloud-based learning platform TeachPitch: “The problem has shifted from access to relevance,” he says. “Finding content for free is not a problem anymore, but finding the most relevant content at the right moment in time is.” He adds: “We see a similar problem coming up with the rapidly growing variety in new software and hardware that can be used by learners and teachers in school. 

As the overall edtech offering is growing very quickly, it is increasingly becoming more difficult to identify which technology is right for you.” To address this, TeachPitch has built a Digital Skills Programme in which a teacher shows a community of other teachers how they have applied edtech and highlights its specific strengths and weaknesses.

There is more to global education than just making resources and technology available, says de Pape, “National curriculum policies, the national language, a country’s economy and other socio-cultural circumstances can weigh heavily on the way in which people teach and learn. Even though technology has the ability to bring lots of teachers and learners closer together, lots of local and national circumstances will always play a role.”

Teaching first, technology second

By Dr John Collick, head of international education strategy, Promethean

I think there is an assumption that 21st century education is somehow a radical and revolutionary departure from earlier systems because of the rise of ICT and the movement towards globalisation. In my experience, working with Ministries of Education worldwide, the key goals of any government in educating its citizens haven’t drastically changed. In essence, we want to teach young people to be positive contributors to society and the economy, and to be empathetic, responsible and happy citizens. 

To achieve this, you need education that is of a high quality with teachers who have the necessary tools and support in order to be effective. 

Assessment is one of the most important components of the education system and we are seeing a movement away from knowledge-based summative testing towards formative assessment in the classroom. We are also seeing an increase in the idea of blended learning whereby teachers will use different methods to teach different things. This means that ICT becomes part of a toolkit that educators dip into to use when appropriate, which is a much more flexible approach.

Promethean is first and foremost an education company. Although we specialise in classroom technology, we are very much focussed on working with our clients, from governments to school principals, to understand what they want to achieve from an education point of view. Once we have a clear picture then we will put together a solution that combines hardware, software, support and training. This last part is extremely important to us. Above all, teachers need effective tools and support to enable them to use them.

This article was updated on 15/04/19 for an amendment to Claire Duly’s title.

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