What has the lockdown taught us about the challenges facing ed tech?

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

Education has relied on technology more than ever before during the lockdown. With half the world’s student population – over 850 million students – currently not in school or university, many institutions worldwide have used technology to a much greater extent in attempts to offer education remotely as effectively as possible. This has required fundamental changes in approaches towards teaching and learning for many educators, students and institutions, at all educational levels.

The potential of educational technology – or ‘ed tech’, as it is commonly referred to – is huge. Consider, for example, the possibilities of artificial intelligence (‘AI’). Future developments in AI are among those likely to generate the most significant educational advances. Some hold that AI will completely transform education. In a recent essay in the Guardian, ‘Can computers ever replace the classroom?’, Alex Beard discusses a meeting he had with Derek Haoyang Li, founder of Squirrel AI Learning, an ed tech company that offers tutoring delivered mostly by smart machines and only partly by humans. Li claims that this approach will transform education, and Beard writes that Li ‘rhapsodised about a future in which technology will enable children to learn 10 or even 100 times more than they do today’.

Li’s claims are controversial. But it’s not difficult to imagine transformative possibilities for education offered by AI or other areas of ed tech which are less controversial. Consider the potential that ed tech offers for assessment – for example, if technological advancements enable AI-supported programs to mark students’ work reliably. This could significantly reduce the amount of marking teachers have to do, potentially providing teachers with much more time to focus on areas such as lesson preparation, innovative teaching practices and professional development. Given the amount of time educators spend on marking, such an advancement could alter the landscape of education as we know it.

It is difficult to conceive how AI assessment could be applied to the marking of certain areas of work, though. Consider a music performance exam where the piece performed involves jazz improvisation, or an art exam where a student’s final piece is conceptual art, or a writing assignment in which students have to write a poem. Notwithstanding the challenges facing and potential limitations of AI in assessment, if AI-supported programs could reliably do a substantial amount of marking across subjects, that alone would mark a transformative moment in education.

Ed tech has moved forwards more rapidly in recent months. It has become a far more familiar part of the everyday lives of many educators and students during the lockdown, familiarising many people with technology that they might not have used for years to come, if ever. Ed tech opens many doors and shows much promise. With some schools in the UK re-opening yesterday, in this week’s blogpost we ask, What has the lockdown taught us about the challenges facing ed tech?

In what follows, three challenges are outlined. There are challenges beyond those discussed here; we have chosen to discuss these particular challenges because they either draw upon the work of some of the educators who have spoken at CIRL events this year, or because the challenge discussed will be the topic of a forthcoming CIRL event.

Ed tech (image courtesy of edtechtimes)

1. Earlier educational levels benefit less from ed tech

At earlier stages of education – for example, primary school rather than secondary school or university – interpersonal interaction, between teacher and pupil and among pupils, is much more important for teaching and learning. Videoconferencing can imitate the community of a classroom, but that imitation can only go so far. The importance of interpersonal interaction has led to some primary schools requesting teaching assistance from pupils’ family members to a greater degree than the requests that have typically been made by secondary schools.

Primary teachers and headteachers identified the significant increase in parental responsibility in teaching and learning as one of the main challenges they’ve faced during the lockdown, during a recent CIRL online workshop on ‘challenges of remote learning in primary education’, led by Prof. Dame Alison Peacock, Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching. One of the questions discussed in that workshop was, ‘What are the distinctive challenges presented by distance learning for primary school children?’. The themes in the responses by primary teachers and headteachers revealed some of the limits of ed tech at the primary level.

Primary teachers and headteachers said that primary schools have been relying on pupils’ families to help with teaching, given the importance of group work and interpersonal collaboration. When material has been taught to primary school pupils remotely, it has often been taught by parents. Pupil peers have sometimes been replaced with what some primary school headteachers called ‘family hubs’ – asking a pupil’s family to be involved in the teaching and learning process, as a strategy to imitate the community learning environment provided by the classroom.

This has, in turn, raised a further challenge: the uptake for this from parents and guardians has been hugely variable. Various factors influence the degree to which there has been uptake, such as the number of children in the household and their ages, the family members available to assist with teaching, and the availability of areas in the household which can be used as imitation classroom spaces.

The higher we move up the educational level, the more we can expect students to engage in independent learning. This is among the reasons that distance learning is far more common in higher education, as the extent to which learning is completed independently increases as education reaches higher levels. Ed tech has been used to support distance learning at university level for a longer time than at school level. We could draw the conclusion that ed tech, in its current stage, is less beneficial for earlier educational levels.

Much of the existing research on online teaching and learning is based upon studies in higher education. For an overview of research-based effective online teaching strategies based on research in higher education, see this blogpost.

2. Where access to the Internet is scarce, fundamentally different approaches towards ed tech are required

The potential of online ed tech is huge, but for families and schools with extremely limited access to the Internet, fundamentally different approaches towards ed tech are required. As ed tech continues to make rapid and significant advancements and the number of students receiving education online also increases, greater focus needs to be paid to providing educational opportunities for those with limited Internet access, otherwise the gap in educational outcomes between those with access and those lacking access will grow.

Increasing Internet access worldwide is important to addressing this problem. Facebook recently announced plans to build an undersea cable almost as long as the circumference of the earth to supply faster Internet connections to sixteen African countries. This project, in collaboration with several African telecommunications companies, is estimated to be completed by 2024. But accessing materials on the Internet at a reasonable speed requires devices that provide a good Internet connection, which many people cannot afford. So many people will still lack access to online education following this project’s implementation unless other measures are taken.  

Some schools and organisations are addressing this challenge by offering education using technology that does not require the Internet. For example, Redearth Education, an NGO based in Masindi, Uganda which trains teachers and school leaders at rural government primary schools, have been working with Ugandan radio stations and partner organisations (such as Global Learning Partnerships) to develop audio lessons for primary school pupils given by local teachers, and audio professional development sessions for teachers, to be broadcast across local and national radio. Radio is far more readily available to citizens in rural areas of Uganda than the Internet, so this offers a way for many more pupils in rural areas to access education. Redearth are hoping to broadcast their first radio-based lessons and professional development sessions within the next two weeks.

This initiative faces many challenges, such as translating the lessons into some of the many languages spoken in Uganda (there are 43 living languages in Uganda, 41 of which are indigenous[1]). Other national efforts are also underway to try to provide education to those living in areas with limited or no Internet access, such as delivering education through televised programmes and providing more television sets throughout the country. Yesterday, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, gave an address in which he announced plans to give two television sets to each village in Uganda – 140,000 television sets across the country – to provide distance media learning more widely. But this proposal also faces challenges, such as the absence of electricity in many Ugandan districts. 

Redearth Education spoke about their work at a CIRL colloquium earlier this year, which will be made available on our podcast soon.

3. Privacy

Some developments in ed tech give rise to increased concerns about privacy. Data about users is extremely useful for the development of certain areas of ed tech; but concerns about privacy arise more as larger amounts of user data is gathered, some of which is increasingly personal.

In the article mentioned above, Beard describes how Li’s company Squirrel AI uses technology that continuously tracks, records and timestamps every single one of a user’s ‘key strokes, cursor movements, right or wrong answers, texts read and videos watched’. The data shows where a student has ‘skipped over or lingered on a particular task’. Beard also describes cameras installed in a classroom in a middle school in Hangzhou, China in 2018, which employed technology that could ‘read seven states of emotion on students’ faces: neutral, disgust, surprise, anger, fear, happiness and sadness’. ‘If the kids slacked’, Beard writes, ‘the teacher was alerted’.

A challenge facing education as it embraces technology more is balancing an increased use of ed tech and supporting its advancement, on the one hand, with maintaining careful respect for the privacy of users, on the other. Some of us will become less sensitive towards sharing data during the lockdown, which may be good for ed tech, but poses serious risks if that data is used irresponsibly.

Technology privacy laws vary across countries. Given this variance, one of the challenges facing international collaboration in education is how to engage in fruitful international collaboration in a world in which ed tech is becoming the most important area of innovation in education. This will be among the topics we discuss in a forthcoming CIRL Zoom webinar series on collaboration in education, which will be announced next week.


[1] Eberhard, D. M., G. F. Simons, & C. D. Fennig (Eds.) (2019). Uganda, in: Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Twenty-second Edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International. https://www.ethnologue.com/country/UG

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