EdTech takes centre stage in Pandemic education, for good and ill

Professor David Webster, Director SOAS Foundation College, University of London

Professor David Webster, Director SOAS Foundation College, University of London

Educational Technology was on an upward trajectory in 2019. The industry was hosting well-attended events, software interfaces were making huge strides in usability and we were seeing increased, albeit incremental, up-take by academic staff who had been perhaps less enthusiastic previously. The move to mobile and the primacy of apps had been taken to heart by the more agile and savvy in the Ed Tech world, and there was a buzz in the sector.

Then everything changed. 2020 has been a tragic and traumatic year for people globally, and this needs foregrounding in any piece assessing EdTech’simpact. But further than that, I want to take this opportunity to trace a parallel between the structural inequities which have led to much noted differential outcomes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the way educational technology has formed part of thisresponse in relation to schools, colleges and universities. As the Health Foundation have found in the UK (and this has been replicated globally), poor people, disabled people and non-white populations have been more severely impacted by COVID-19.

So, while in one sense we might hear that ‘we are all in it together’, or that ‘the virus doesn’t discriminate’, it is clear that we might be all in the same flood, but we don’t all have the same vessels in which to try and navigate these dangerous waters. This might initially seem unconnected to our work in educational technology, but I want to suggest that our sector is also at risk of inadvertently intensifying inequality.

Of course, there are a number of potential benefits in using educational technology for learners. EdTech has long been helping students with specific learning needs, and a range of disabilities, to better access learning, and recorded asynchronous content has a number of benefits to a diversity of learners. Remote, digitally mediated learning can be accessed, potentially by anyone, anywhere. With this is mind, we might argue that educational technology is actually well placed to help combat educational disadvantage, to level the playing fields that selective education, the privilege of wealth, health and other social inequity skew so much against some learners. I agree. There is that potential. But there is also the current circumstance where the roll out of global remote online learning was layered on students’ existing socio-economic circumstances.

I am not arguing that this is the fault of the EdTech community, and poverty, discrimination and social disadvantage should not be shunted exclusively to educators to solve. These are political problems requiring political solutions. From politicians. Nonetheless within our pedagogic milieu we do have some power and opportunity to examine how our practice either embeds inequity or seeks to at least adapt and consider some of these issues. With this in mind, what can we do, to acknowledge and react to the current EdTech realities?

I think the best initial approaches here are mostly low-tech and based on thinking through what life might be like for our learners. Not all students have high end machines, so let’s try and ensure our solutions have tolerable legacy compatibility. Wi-Fi is not as widespread or good as we would wish, and students may be sharing, using 4G data hotspots, so we need to ask if our hungry bandwidth delivery is actually needed (or if we can provide off-line, or other versions for students to download in advance). Learners may be in domestic situations that they would rather not share, and their old laptop might not support virtual backgrounds – so do you really need to insist on cameras being on? It is beneficial for most – but an insistence might further put at a disadvantage those in shared, cramped, or otherwise problematic situations where they would rather drop the call than reveal a circumstances which they may embarrassed or otherwise self-conscious about. In the economic collapse of many sectors, should we insist on live synchronous attendance as a course requirement to pass, where learners may have to suddenly take any paid work they can get (and this is often in the gig economy where the flexibility is with the customer, and the worker - our student - is driven more often by economic necessity than choice).

EdTech has been thrust into the public view like never before. The world is video-conferencing. Technology has become a lifeline for learning, and much that goes with it in social experience terms. If we are attuned to the ways that our work can potentially make things worse for those students possibly already at a disadvantage due to a range of factors, we can act to avoid these pitfalls. If we are proactive in addressing these issues when we design and deploy our learning solutions, EdTech can make the most of its moment in the public gaze, and bring the benefits of education to ever-wider groups of learners, giving people – young and old – the chance to learn, grow and thrive.

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