Five ways tech is going to change everything about going to school

Now more than ever, the pressure is on for the education sector to innovate. TechRepublic looks at five key ed-tech trends expected to emerge in the post-pandemic landscape.

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The COVID-19 crisis has forced the education sector to digitise  as much and as quickly as possible to keep contact between students and teachers continuing through lockdown. 

The pandemic has also highlighted long-running issues around traditional teaching models. It's also shown that there is no quick fix, and that the success of digital transformation in education requires a combination of both cultural and technical answers with teachers and the student experience at the forefront.

With industries around the world now starting to consider what the new normal might have in store, TechRepublic spoke to ed-tech sector experts to find out the key trends that will define the future of education.

1. Blended learning

Social distancing is likely to be in place for the foreseeable future, meaning schools and academic institutions will have to reassess face-to-face teaching and look towards learning models that blend both in-person and online learning

Blended learning can range from online tests, discussions, interactive learning materials to video content, with some but not all elements still completed face to face.

A number of UK universities have already moved lectures online in response to COVID-19, with Cambridge University having announced that it will continue doing so for the remainder of 2020.

Imperial College Business School has successfully shifted all learning online, with the university last year proclaiming to have become the first in the world to deliver live lectures using hologram technology.

"We are likely to see an increase in demand for online and blended programmes, particularly at the postgraduate level," says David Lefevre, director of Imperial College Business School's EdTech Lab.

"This increase in demand will be met by an increase in the ability for universities to deliver online learning. The sector is witnessing an unreprecedented volume of innovation with regard to digital learning and many institutions have moved far beyond the initial move to remote teaching via webinars," he says.

However, the shift to this new model will need to be carefully thought-out, and will not be as straightforward as transplanting traditional courses onto a Zoom or Teams call.

"It is crucial remote-learning initiatives are carefully planned and thought-out with students in mind – not only to guarantee their safety and continue with their higher education, but also to ensure the best, most engaging and personal educational experience possible," says Stewart Watts, VP EMEA at education software provider D2L.

2. Chatbots and AI assistance

Chatbots and automation technology have matured quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic, proving crucial in allowing organisations – and even entire industries – to automate back-office processes and interaction with customers while limiting face-to-face contact.  

Some forms of automation have been in use in education for years – using computers to score multiple-choice exam questions, for example. However, COVID-19 has highlighted an emerging trend of using AI-type technologies to assess more qualitative, written and even spoken exams.

Mike Fenna, chief technology officer at Avado teaching academy, says chatbots could eventually be used as "virtual tutors" to monitor students' progress and provide real-time feedback.

"Chatbots have been around for a while, but to provide effective support for learners, they need to move beyond being a way of searching frequently asked questions, and instead integrate with existing learning systems so that they can provide personalised information to the learner, and also to make changes for the learner in those systems."

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Douglas Winneg, executive vice president of education-assessment service PSI Education, says there had been a "surging demand" for secure, remote assessments technology in the wake of COVID-19.

Emerging technologies – such as biometric identity management, data forensics, and AI paired with human proctors – will accelerate the delivery of secure remote assessments, Winneg tells TechRrepublic.

"A variety of different tools already exist to securely administer assessments online, including live remote proctoring, record and review remote proctoring, secure lockdown browsers and rigorous ID checks," he says.

"When so little is certain about the timescale and ongoing impact of the pandemic, organizations urgently need to review their ability to not only teach and assess students remotely, but do it with the right technology, ensuring that security, integrity, and student privacy are at the forefront."

3. Personalised learning

Another potential application of AI in education is using predictive analytics to figure out how each pupil learns best – whether that is through video, interacting with apps or with other students – and then adapting how the course is delivered to suit it.

This sort of personalised learning is considered vital to ensuring teachers can provide education tailored to individual children's needs, while also allowing kids to take greater control of their own education and seek out their own niches in the technology-driven workplace of tomorrow.

Without the format of a physical classroom or direct supervision of a teacher during COVID-19 lockdowns, students have already been taking on more responsibility for their own education, says Simone Martorina, business manager for visual instruments at Epson UK.

As a result, this new generation of 'meta learners' will be more empowered to explore topics that interest them and approach tasks independently "in unique and creative ways," Martorina tells TechRepublic.

This is likely to encourage students to self-educate more confidently, while also shaping the way schools operate moving forward, she says. "Once it's safe to do so, future learning in the classroom will become increasingly tailored and personalised to the individual, with teachers acting increasingly as guides.

"This shift will be supported by the integration of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, 3D printers and robots into future schools."

Andy Moss, managing director of corporate learning at City & Guilds Group, points out that moving learning and development fully online is more than simply adopting digital technologies – something that academic institutions will want to consider in their wider strategies around how learning is managed, organised, structured, designed and delivered to suit pupils' learning.

"That means an even greater focus on the learner experience we deliver – creating engaging, effective and impactful programmes," Moss adds. 

"Programmes that allow learners to take much greater control of their learning journey – to self-pace, and to self-direct – which actively foster the desire to learn and encourage experimentation, both individually and through peer-learning."

4. Confidence in cloud (and beyond)

Amanda Jackson and Dave Smith, senior inspectors at the UK's HES School Improvement Services, say there has been "a shift in mindset" of teachers and parents who may have been more resistant towards the use of technology before COVID-19, particularly around the benefits of the cloud.

"In particular, we have seen increased engagement with cloud services including Google Classroom and Microsoft 365 and cross-curricular online platforms such as GCSEPod and Purple Mash," they tell TechRepublic. "All of this will help improve access to technology."

Teachers and pupils have also become familiar with cloud-based tools over the past few months, particularly video-conferencing services. While it's unlikely that lessons held over Zoom or Microsoft Teams will become the norm, we will see an increase in the use of this sort of technology in classrooms going forward, says Chris Ashworth, head of public benefit at Nominet.

"Teachers will have learnt and improved technical capabilities and will be more confident in incorporating tech into their lesson plans and activities, finding new ways of teaching subjects online which can be both fun and interactive," Ashworth tells TechRepublic.

"This will be supported by the many resources that are now available to them online, allowing their students to do everything from explore the inside of a cell to re-live the battle of Hastings via their devices."

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However, Jackson and Smith also point out that schools will need to invest in the necessary infrastructure to enable these new ways of working – including the basics of strong Wi-Fi and broadband connectivity.

"While we are likely to see a continued rise in cloud services, an important priority for schools to consider and invest in, is whether they have sufficient broadband and infrastructure measures to cater for a more digitised way of teaching and learning," they say.  

"Having this as a key part of their strategy moving forward will help to ensure the experiences in the classroom – and the content they're delivering to those in multiple locations – is more joined-up."

Ashworth shares similar views: "Nearly two million households across the UK still don't have access to the internet, with recent figures claiming that one million children are struggling to access educational support during the lockdown due to poor internet connections," he says.

"Digital exclusion and the inequality of access have never been so obvious as they are during this pandemic."

5. Tech literacy and digital skills training

Of course, everything that's been outlined above can be disregarded if teachers don't have the necessary skills for – or in – the technologies they use to help educate the class of tomorrow. While hybrid models of video and online learning have mostly worked during the pandemic, more investment in digital skills training is needed if remote learning is going to become anywhere close to the norm.

Rachel Gowers, director at Staffordshire University London, tells TechRepublic she anticipates an increased uptake in both practical and technical courses focused on teaching digital skills following the pandemic.

"You can't teach coding from a textbook – it needs to be done online, and companies that provide new and engaging ways to do this will become popular and sought after," Gowers says.

"One of the largest trends we are expecting to see over the coming months is a surge of people who want to come back and retrain or upskill after being made redundant, or those recognising that their current jobs aren't very future-proof."

Atif Mahmood, CEO and founder of remote-teaching platform Teacherly, says there will be more pressure on schools to innovate now that staff and pupils have seen the value of ed-tech, as well as having the opportunity to hone their digital skills over the course of the pandemic.

"We've also seen more collaboration between teachers and schools who are more keenly sharing knowledge in order to speed up digital professional development and the creation of better online lessons for increased engagement," Mahmood tells TechRepublic.

"This has only been possible due to digital platforms that provide lesson-planning templates and online resources that can be easily shared between networks of teachers. As the digital transformation of education continues, it's likely that we'll see this become more widely adopted."

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