Where next? Taking edtech into 2022

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

After almost two years of edtech development in response to the pandemic, Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith looks at what 2022 has in store for us, touching upon the changing nature of the digital divide, assessment, parental engagement and personalised learning


For technology in education, 2021 was a year of experimentation and reflection. Educators worldwide have seen widespread use of mobile devices and digital platforms as part of an attempt to bridge the divide created by lockdown measures. Measures have affected more than 1.6 billion students spread across 150 countries (World Bank, 2021).

However, as well as providing continuity for millions, these solutions have also exposed new forms of digital divide. A global survey of teachers across 92 countries found that 56 per cent of teachers felt that they did not have the skills needed to make digital learning a success (Oxford University Press, 2021).


A changing digital divide

The digital divide is no longer just about access to devices and connectivity. As increasingly argued by many worldwide, the digital divide is increasingly about the choices made in the classroom. If these new forms of digital divide are left unaddressed, the gap between the under-connected and the hyper-digitalised will widen, aggravating existing inequalities (Oxford University Press, 2021).

If we are not able to provide meaningful digital engagement within teaching and learning then are we – perhaps inadvertently – perpetuating or even amplifying the digital divide?

The availability of technology is a necessary part of removing the inequalities of living in a digital world. But access alone will not make a sufficient difference to the lives of those using it. For learning to be successful there needs to be meaningful two-way interactions between students and teachers.


How do we assess?

Part of this is about improving how we listen to students. Listening to what they want to tell us and using that information to identify not just what they know, but why and how they know it.

As TED prize winner Professor Sugata Mitra has said: “In a world where a child can learn anything using the smartphone in their pocket, we should not be testing them on their ability to recall information but their ability to find something out, comprehend, and communicate their findings.”

Prof Mitra champions the case for PhD viva-style approaches to assessment for children and young people – asking probing questions and listening not just to what students tell us but how they tell us. He is not alone in championing this cause.

One of the many consequences of pandemic lockdowns has been to accelerate the existing debate about the nature of assessment for children and young people. Much has been made about the widespread implications of cancelling national assessments and exams. These decisions have forced debates about the purpose of such assessments, the format they take, the relevance in today’s world, and the ripples that summative assessment processes create for wider issues such as mental health, workload, consistency and workplace relevance.

In a world where recommendations, ratings and peer review inform our decision-making as much as any quality-assurance process, Professor Peter Twining has been leading the way in thinking about how such metrics could enable us to assess the things that matter.

As Prof Twining says: “We’re now at a stage where it’s far easier to evidence and thus value what young people can do, not just what they ‘know’. This means that we are closer than ever to being able to use digital technology to enable non-standardised assessment, within a standardised system, in ways that are robust, practical, and credible enough to become accepted in everyday practice.”

In a world where online portfolios, peer recommendations and consolidated ratings are commonplace, questions inevitably arise around what we are looking for, what we are looking at, and where we find that information from.


Parental engagement

One relationship that has changed significantly during the pandemic has been the one between parents and teachers.

Where once parents were provided with updates and information, now a seemingly growing number expect insightful and real-time data about their child’s progress, curriculum, attainment and interactions so that they are able to have more meaningful conversations with their child.

The pandemic created a window into the realities of classroom life which no other generation of parents has been privy to. This has been a catalyst for all kinds of conversations about the many and varied needs of students across the world and the relevance of classroom activities to the “real world” outside of school – for example, raising discussions about what equality looks like when considering technology in teaching and learning.

As Ken Shelton, who often uses the term “techquity”, passionately champions: “This is about creating an inclusive culture within your learning environment; recognising that different students need different tools, different experiences and different forms of support. Intelligently used technology can open up opportunities or break down barriers that have previously defined the parameters of learning.”


Personalised pathways

Personalised pathways through learning and tailored programmes of support are no longer aspirations or “nice to haves” but have become an expectation now that AI and analytics are part of everyday life.

Furthermore, with voice activation, eye-tracking, touch-screen, portable and affordable technologies, access to learning opportunities need no longer be the preserve of the high-attaining, able-bodied student.

Increasingly forward-thinking schools are using a fusion of school-provided technology with “bring your own device” (BYOD) such that technology can become a ubiquitous tool in classroom life. The shift in mindset which comes with BYOD means that different people are able to use different technology in different ways, when, where and how they need to – moving the focus from tools to learning.


A surprising finding

Achieving effective digital engagement may have very little to do with the technology itself. As research by OECD and others has consistently shown, once a minimal level of technology infrastructure is in place, the presence of the technology itself makes insignificant difference to frequency and nature of use within teaching (Twining et al, 2017).

That minimal standard of infrastructure is below what the majority of UK schools have (BESA, 2018), and international TALIS data shows us that even in schools with a comprehensive IT infrastructure, there can often be very low levels of meaningful digital engagement.

Digital learning pioneer Dr Sonny Magana addresses this issue by challenging schools to think about moving from consumption to social entrepreneurship: “Technology itself can be disruptive, forcing us to move from automated processes and consumption of content, through production of new knowledge and ideas towards meaningful inquiry-centred learning design and social entrepreneurship.”

According to education entrepreneur Raya Bidshahri, the difference in how we use technology to do this is about “focusing on the competencies, mindsets and behaviours needed to flourish in, and contribute to the world”.

She continued: “It’s about enabling people to make human progress. Far too much investment in edtech has gone into the technology rather than the education. We don’t just need new digital platforms, we also need to innovate on curriculum and pedagogy for the 21st century world.”


Conclusion

Each of these experts I have quoted are united in the message at the heart of their challenge to us all. We need to think more precisely, more forensically, about what it is that we are trying to do – whether that be teaching or learning. This is why we need to change the narrative around technology.

When we talk about edtech we create a false impression that we are focusing on teaching and learning. Yet edtech remains stubbornly focused on technology – the systems, the processes, the data – rather than the individual human beings using it.

We need to shift that narrative in order to shift our thinking. Going into 2022 we should start talking instead about “PedTech” – focusing on human purposes and behaviours, the role of language, the nature of relationships, the enacted curricula and pedagogies. That’s where we will see meaningful and lasting change.

With the weight of responsibility still on the shoulders of our teaching profession to address the lessons of the pandemic, positive and negative, we are also under huge pressure to respond to new kinds of expectations – from leaders, parents, society, employers and from students themselves.

The experts above are telling us to ask probing questions and listen carefully to what students and societal trends tell us before responding diligently. Creating a personally meaningful learning experience for every individual learner should not mean an exponential workload increase. It just means utilising what technology offers.

Going into 2022, the role of technology is fundamentally about social justice and our responsibility to facilitate meaningful equality for all children.

  • Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith supports schools and trusts with professional learning, education research and strategic planning. She is the founder of One Life Learning, an associate lecturer at the Open University, a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, and sits on the board of a number of multi-academy and charitable trusts. Read her previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/seced-aubrey-smith and follow her @FionaAS


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