Rob May, CEO ABE Global, Examination Body

(Part of a series on Covid-19, Learning Technology and Lost Learning)

This series explores the reactions of different countries to the Covid-19 education emergency and suggests that policy makers must now aggregate the best practice that emerged during lockdowns into a collective change programme and a robust plan to deal with future school closures.

According to the UNESCO Global Education Coalition, 58 out of 84 surveyed countries postponed or rescheduled exams during the 2020 summer session, only 23 (27%) introduced alternative assessment methods such as online or home-based testing, and only 22 maintained public exams, while in 11 countries they were completely cancelled.

The pandemic exposed both the weaknesses of conventional continuity planning practices, traditional assessment methods and the limits of regulatory oversight, but it also challenged the idea that learning technology is being effectively integrated into state schooling systems or that it has had a ‘game changing’ effect.

In recent years, learning technologies have helped to engage marginalised young people in the UK and in some of the world’s poorest communities. Innovative technologies, practices and ideas abound across the educational landscape. Learning technology provides the tantalising capability to ‘jailbreak’ the existing architecture of the way schools teach and test, which is currently based almost exclusively around standardisation.

Student-centric technologies enable modular customisation, which is ideal for supporting learners who are forced to work away from the physical school setting. Over the past decade the learning technology market has exploded at a dizzying pace. The value of the E-Learning Market, which is just one component of the virtual learning eco-system, had surpassed $200 billion USD in 2019 and was anticipated to grow at over 8% annually between 2020 and 2026. A post pandemic surge in demand for learning technology spending is now likely.

Despite the swell in learning technology and the concomitant promise to transcend geographies, progressive technology-based pedagogy has remained largely experimental and fragmented in the public education mainstream. Spreading and codifying learning has not occurred at the level needed to provide seamless learning experiences through a major crisis. Going into the pandemic, access to technology and hardware remained concentrated in rich Western countries, but even in these locations access is still subject to a ‘digital divide’ between economies. The OECD average for children having access to a computer and home internet connection is 89%, but this falls to 60% in Japan and as low as 23.5% in Indonesia.

Why schools and colleges struggle with adopting learning technology

There are two key barriers to the adoption of learning technology in the college setting. Firstly, there is the macro-level ‘heavyweight organisational design’ of the school system, which is geared against customised, individual learning.

Overall, the school system does not teach to mastery levels or multiple levels of intelligence and acquisition, but to timescales, processing batches of students in a system where everything from the layout of buildings to the streaming of students is designed around standardisation.

Secondly, and at the same time, there is a micro-level functional problem of ‘lightweight teams’, that is, a low level of co-ordination between different departments and actors within a school or college. Changes to the way that faculty members set, deliver, and assess routine coursework are usually controlled within sub-school departments. In the UK this was shown to be the case during COVID-19, when many parents and children had to grapple with different digital learning platforms being beamed-out from the same school. Combined, these macro and micro level preconditions create a sclerotic and chaotic environment, disenabling progressive change.

Different levels of tutor confidence in using online platforms also accounted for disparities in learning quality and engagement. This wasn’t just an issue in UK schools and colleges, across the developed world, a capacity and skills deficit was quickly exposed, which points to a lack of government ambition in providing the right structure for all schools to innovate at the same pace and in the same direction.

Funding is only a small part of the equation, cramming classrooms with computers or pushing laptops through letterboxes is of no use in an emergency. While some governments have dished-out free digital equipment to students, many schools were unable to adapt to new teaching practices despite the easy availability of the latest tools.

Disruptive change is occurring heroically and tangentially rather than systematically, largely because the short-term nature of political administrations is not equipped to steward the long-term radical changes needed to confront the demand for standardisation, high-stakes assessment events, and the regulatory and funding disincentives to change - such as national league tables.

Going into COVID-19 lockdowns, insufficient tutor training, low integration of technologies at a macro (system) and micro (sub-school) level, and little preparation resulted in a lottery of learning experiences. 

What can government do to avert more learning catastrophes?

Reform is partly about widespread incorporation of new technologies, but technology is only part of the equation.

More broadly, reforms must be guided by a genuine long-range political process which embraces a multitude of changes. The extent to which innovation occurs and the extent to which it is amplified is subject to political choices, but there is a growing problem of ‘asymmetric information’ wherein policy makers are disconnected from the realities of education delivery or the pace of learning technology. There is also a problem of ‘policy amnesia’ wherein new administrations rehash old ideas under the banner of ‘reform’, only to repeat the failures of previous ministries ad infinitum, compounding the dominant logic that chokes the life out of real reform programmes.

If the Department for Education can take any lessons from Covid-19, the main one should be a reflection on the yawning chasm that now exists between policy and practice.

The ability to innovate in a school setting has been decentralised, and that has produced some promising initiatives, but now officials must re-aggregate these gains into a collective change programme, and an operational plan to deal with future national school closures. The ability to execute and scale-up change depends both on the quality and technical knowledge of the civil service and the courage and commitment of elected officials. The responses of governments in performing a co-ordinating role has varied considerably across countries. COVID-19 exposed a lack of bureaucratic quality and capacity across many different countries and contexts, but most surprisingly perhaps in major developed economies. As a result, these governments and regulatory watchdogs now face a credibility deficit. In re-imagining the structure of education and assessment, and developing bold public policy choices, supra-national institutions, think-tanks, schools, trusts, colleges, universities, and NGOs must be invited to perform a path-finding role, with best practice diffused with the help of government agencies. The work, vision and reach of the sector itself transcends the myopic political priorities and timescales of government and is the only mechanism for producing real change.

Follow this series only in FE News

Rob May, CEO ABE Global, Examination Body

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