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COVID Education: How Tech Is Transforming Learning

Silicon UK

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In this Silicon UK article on education in a post-COVID environment, Mikael Sandberg, Chairman at VX Fiber, provides insight into:

  1. What he sees as the main challenge facing the education sector’s use of technology?
  2. As not all students have access to digital technologies, how will these students need to be supported?

Commentary is also provided by Professor Jess Power, of Staffordshire University – through our conversations with the School of Creative Arts and Engineering at Staffordshire University – a collaborative relationship that started with a virtual design challenge set by VX Fiber earlier this year.



As schools return, Silicon UK considers how technology has been used to keep students connected to their teachers and, what the future of education could look like. As hybrid working looks set to become the norm for businesses, will we see something similar in our education system? How will education change thanks to COVID-19?

The pandemic has changed education systems across the world. COVID education has a technology basis, as students learn at a distance. For many in the educational sector, the rapid changes that have taken place may become more long term. If so, what does this mean for education delivery in the future?

As remote mass working has taken shape, will something similar also redefine how education is structured and delivered? Indeed, research from Cyber Safety brand NortonLifeLock of 1,000 UK parents found parents were caught off guard as they had neither the time nor the tech required for their children’s online learning during the lockdown. Key findings from the research also revealed that technology became a virtual babysitter for parents short on time.

Two thirds (70%) of British parents said their child’s school assumed that tech for online studying would be available at home. A third (34%) of British parents said they could not afford to buy their child the technology required for online education and over half of the parents in the UK struggled to maintain a routine for learning/schoolwork during the lockdown. And over a third of British parents had to give up a device so their child could use it for school (38%). In UK households with more than one child, two in five parents (44%) had to choose which child had access to a device for learning or play.”

Schools and higher education institutions have had to rapidly adapt to support their students as Dr John Couperthwaite, formerly an online learning specialist at a university and now a consultant at Echo360, explained to Silicon UK:

“When lockdown hit, the higher education sector responded quickly to shift lessons online. The pandemic has accelerated the move towards a more blended method of teaching and learning in our universities, and technology is at the heart of this.

John Couperthwaite
Dr John Couperthwaite, a consultant at Echo360.

“There’s been strong investment in the technology universities need to deliver courses remotely during the crisis. The tools that have been introduced have allowed staff to work from home and IT teams have delivered emergency training virtually to help ensure online lessons run smoothly. This has encouraged fresh thinking about how remote working could support the delivery of higher education moving forward.”

Couperthwaite concluded: “Some universities have recognised the potential advantages in broadening their remote working capability and are looking at this with fresh eyes as the sector emerges from lockdown. Technology has provided greater flexibility and improved the work-life balance of staff. There are potential cost savings associated with making better use of the on-campus office space and other facilities too.”

The question often posed is whether the school system across the UK is fit for purpose when technology is concerned. Atif Mahmood, CEO of Teacherly commented: “It’s a common misconception that schools don’t know how to use technology effectively. When you consider the amount of time, effort and resources put into education technology, it’s wrong to say that institutions are misusing it.

“However, what the pandemic has shown is how many EdTech companies still approach things in the same way, leading to very similar tools. It’s a fragmented market and this ultimately means that schools struggle to identify what solution is best for them, and the needs of their staff and pupils. As a result, there hasn’t been the right fit for dealing with some of the challenges presented by the pandemic, driving schools to turn to enterprise tech solutions instead.”

The scramble to deliver education digitally clearly caught some schools out, with their lack of technical infrastructure laid bare. However, the technology that is in place was used effectively. To evolve these systems, more integrated platforms are needed. And a deep understanding that an assumption all students will have the digital tools they need to learn remotely is often not the case.

Distance learning

As students have had to connect remotely to their schools, colleges and universities, the lack of widespread fast broadband has been highlighted once again. Research from OFCOM’s Connected Nations report is telling concluding only 14% (4.2 million) of UK homes have access to full-fibre broadband.

Commenting, Mikael Sandberg, Chairman at VX Fiber says: “The global pandemic has also highlighted the ongoing issue of the UK digital divide. To be able to benefit from the plethora of online learning tools, a student needs access to secure, stable and reliable internet connectivity and a laptop or computer at home, as well as the skills to be able to use both.

Mikael Sandberg
Mikael Sandberg, Chairman at VX Fiber.

“This is something that has been highlighted through our conversations with the School of Creative Arts and Engineering at Staffordshire University – a collaborative relationship that started with a virtual design challenge set by VX Fiber earlier this year.

“Professor Jess Power recently explained to us that: “The challenges have changed somewhat in the last few months with the global pandemic. Technology has now found usage in all corners of education that we previously wouldn’t have dreamed of. In her own school, they have conducted virtual rehearsals in drama, facilitated online studios and laboratories, showcased digital galleries and produced virtual portfolios, in addition to using technology to deliver blending modes of learning using more traditional models.

“The recent increase in usage of the internet has brought challenges in terms of reliable, affordable networks and Jess is sure we have all experienced dips in connectivity due to increased reliance on existing networks. The biggest challenge currently is how to facilitate reliable, affordable internet packages so all users can get connected. We have discovered new ways of working and internet usage is only going to increase. Making faster, cheaper networks that are available to everyone is essential, so no one is left behind in the technology revolution.”

Of course, as students have now returned to their classrooms, the technology used to deliver their education must be robust and fit for purpose. However, research from Epson conducted with UK primary and secondary school teachers has revealed that ‘cheap seats’ exist in the classroom. The display technology used in many schools is restricting the viewing, and thus learning, the experience of many pupils, and having a detrimental effect on their education. The survey revealed that 40% of teachers had noticed a correlation between pupils being unable to see a screen correctly and lower test/exam scores.

Ross McGill, Founder and CEO, TeacherToolkit, comments: “For the past 25 years, I have always prioritised seating plans for every class that I have taught, but this new research flagged something I had never really contemplated before – the fact that some students may be sitting in ‘cheap seats’. These results show that there’s a misconception in education that needs to be addressed. Schools have the challenge of choosing the correct projectors, screens and positioning in classrooms, but need sufficient funds able to do so.”

As businesses have had to alter their digital transformation roadmaps radically, education providers have had to react as the pandemic widened similarly.

Silicon UK asked Jonathan Holmes, Deputy Head Academic, St Dunstan’s College for his view: “Our three-year IT development programme has accelerated dramatically since the pandemic began, in particular the use of Microsoft Teams to deliver live interactive lessons to groups of students. We have also utilised several other virtual learning environments and online software to enhance that provision when the teacher and class are all remote, be it mini whiteboards, collaborative presentations and quizzes!

“When there’s a mixture of on-site and remote learners (or teachers!), we are supporting this technology with visualisers in classrooms to conveniently stream more of a classroom and its participants to home environments. In short, technology has been a fantastic opportunity for us in education to ensure students continue learning as much as possible from personal interactions with our specialist teachers.”

Understanding the components of today’s COVID education is critical. Whether technologies are used in the classroom or remotely, they all require robust and secure data communications. Designing a digital learning experience, all students can benefit from is quickly coming into focus.

A secure COVID education

As millions of workers have been accessing their business networks remotely, the security – or lack thereof – of these channels has been highlighted. Delivering comprehensive learning experiences remotely must also be accomplished in a secure environment.

Matt Aldridge, Principal Solutions Architect, Webroot explained to Silicon UK:
“Unfortunately, the education sector is a common target for cybercriminals throughout COVID-19 and is struggling to get to grips with the subject of cybersecurity. Criminals are targeting providers due to a perceived weakness in their cybersecurity, as well as the value in their data. Other institutions should take this case as a wake-up call to address their cybersecurity and privacy compliance quickly if they haven’t already.

“As the education sector is a huge pool of sensitive data, organisations within it need to engage cyber-resilience plans to protect their IT infrastructure and data regardless of the crisis. Also, staff training is essential for defending against phishing attacks and business email compromise. The training materials used also need to be updated continuously to reflect the latest threat trends, and regular simulations should be run to ensure that the training has the desired effect.”

This was reiterated by Ben Hansford, Managing Director of Apprenticeships at Firebrand Training, a leading accelerated IT training and apprenticeship company who said: “The number one issue has to be safeguarding. I think everyone has heard the example of the Zoom class that was joined by some unsavoury characters. This could have been prevented with simple cybersecurity measures like setting a hard to guess the password for the call and ensuring both the platforms you choose and the way they are administered is secure.

Ben Hansford
Ben Hansford, Managing Director of Apprenticeships at Firebrand Training.

“The platform providers are working hard on their security, but simple things like changing the dial-in codes for meetings and ensuring these are shared securely and not reused over and over again can make a huge difference. The biggest weakness on any system is the end-user so a level of education and training in security fundamentals for students and teachers is a must.”

Jamie Boote, Security Consultant at Synopsys also explained that digital technology itself is just one component of a secure learning channel. “Remote learning is very much like work from home scenarios that organizations have been forced to transition to in recent months. Many classes are being operated via SaaS cloud solutions that students must sign into via SSO. Due to this, third-party cloud management best practices and SSO security considerations are paramount.

“Infrastructure concerns are a major element in this conversation, as weak infrastructures are ripe for attack. Schools need to accommodate students with weak or no internet connection as well as those who may not have access to devices through which to carry out remote learning protocols. Schools may consider a limited re-opening to account for these students with valid needs by bringing them on-site in a socially distanced, safe arrangement.”

The future of education tech

What does a COVID education future look like? Dr John Couperthwaite concluded: “Higher education took the bull by the horns to ensure learning could continue online during the lockdown. Ensuring the network and infrastructure is in place to continue to deliver a successful hybrid teaching model in the months and years ahead could be a challenge for some institutions.

“Now more than ever, IT solutions need to be robust and resilient enough to meet the changing needs of students and staff. This may require universities who were previously reluctant to look again at the cloud-based options available that might better meet their needs in the future. We could be moving towards 100% adoption and usage of technology. With more students and staff accessing systems remotely, costs could increase. So, it’s worth talking to suppliers to explore the different payment plans they might offer to help with this.”

Will the pandemic ensure lasting technological change right across the education sector? Adam Blumenthal, Vice President, Nucco Brain a digital studio that creates innovative learning experiences says: “If one considers the adoption and impact of new technologies in other sectors over the last 100 years, one can see epic evolutions such as from rudimentary automobiles to high-performance electric vehicles; from the invention of manned flight to landing on the moon; and an evolution from the typewriter to tablet computers. But in the same 100 years, our teaching and learning have barely evolved.”

Blumenthal continued: “Students from the 19th century could walk into a typical classroom today and feel right at home with the format. We are now well-entrenched in the Digital Age. At least two generations of digital natives have gone through the education system from primary school to university, yet the education sector has hardly responded to new needs and expectations of Digital Native learners. Teaching and learning today should include technology-empowered personalization, adaptive models, engaging learning and assessment experiences, multimedia, and interdisciplinary approaches – like the tools and toys we use for social media and entertainment.”

Anthony Tattersall, Vice President Enterprise EMEA at Coursera outlined his view of how a COVID education future could look like:

  • Blended classrooms. Particularly as the pandemic causes campus closures in waves, both students and teachers will need to adjust to periods of learning and instruction on and off-campus.
  • Online courses and credentials. With blended instruction, institutions will need to provide more online content, including courses and fully online degrees. Every university will need to invest in building and buying online content.
  • Pressure on tuition. We’re already seeing evidence that students do not want to pay the same tuition for an online experience. Due to economic pressure and rising unemployment, students will also have less to spend.
  • Job-relevant education. Soaring unemployment also means that job-relevant education will be critical. Students will demand skill-based, hands-on learning from both university and industry educators.
  • Lifelong learning at work. Workers are expected to evolve with the changing skill landscape, and, because people are not willing to give up their job to continue learning, this learning will happen at work.
  • Modular and stackable. As more people learn at work, they’ll need to learn in smaller chunks. Projects, courses, and certificates that stack into a more extensive credential (like a degree) will become more prevalent.

Ultimately the entire education sector has had to accelerate its development of digital technologies. All educational institutions have been on a digital transformation journey, which has had to shift into high gear. Over the medium to long term, COVID education will require robust, secure, comprehensive and inclusive use of technologies to deliver education.

Silicon in Focus

Kate Jillings, Co-Founder, ToucanTech.

Kate Jillings, Co-Founder, ToucanTech.
Kate Jillings, Co-Founder, ToucanTech.

How is the education sector using technology to cope with the impact of COVID-19?

“COVID-19 has accelerated a trend that had already started – to move learning online. But the education sector has also had to rapidly adopt technology in lots of other ways – to send communications (no paper noticeboards), to organise virtual events (no admissions tours) and to run campus logistics (no free movement around school corridors).

“Most of the EdTech founders I know have been busier than ever, responding to increased demand, on-boarding new customers and pivoting their products to meet the fast-changing needs of school IT departments. At ToucanTech, we had our busiest summer ever, as more schools and colleges decided to move their communities, fundraising and careers support online.”

Hybrid working has become the norm for many workers. Will we see something similar in our education system?

“We see it already! My kids went back to school two weeks ago, but already Years 8 to 13 have been sent home due to four confirmed cases of COVID – so half the school will be home-learning for at least two weeks, whilst the rest learn with masked teachers and their lessons on a live stream. My personal belief is that in-person education provides huge benefits (e.g. socialisation and peer interaction), especially for younger children, and I can’t see a permanent shift away from traditional schooling.

“But I do think the new ‘norm’ will be a twin-tracked provision of education that offers online learning alongside classroom learning, to facilitate for people who can’t be in school – whether this is due to COVID or any infectious disease in the future. I also think that Higher Ed and professional courses are likely to be taught progressively more online – the lower costs and convenience of online tuition, particularly for part-time courses, make eLearning much more appealing for this sector.”

Has the pandemic highlighted how education still does not use technology effectively? Does education need a digital transformation roadmap?

“Yes, the education sector can use technology better – we all can! But COVID has demonstrated that schools – and parents – can adapt pretty quickly: within just a few weeks of enforced lock-down most schools across the UK – and other major economies – had some degree of home learning provision, even if simply sharing useful course content from YouTube, Khan Academy and other education-focused channels.

“Technology innovation and work ‘hacks’ move so quickly that a roadmap will always be work-in-progress – but there are certainly some basic building blocks that education policymakers can put in place to ensure effective digital learning in the future – such as high-speed, secure Wi-Fi for all communities and centralised curriculum content that can be shared across schools helping to reduce the digital divide.”

As education expands its use of digital technologies, what are the security issues that must be paid attention to?

“Some of the security issues are the same as pre-COVID – ensuring children don’t access inappropriate sites or share personal data unintentionally online. Unicef has published sensible guidelines for parents, encouraging families to set ‘rules’ about internet use and reminding kids there’s no reason they should need to share pictures of themselves to access digital learning.
“Schools also need to think about password management for different learning programmes and secure ways to share a child’s work and videos using channels such as SeeSaw or Kinteract.”
Where are the significant developments in EdTech at the moment?

“Personalisation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are big areas in EdTech innovation – the ability to deliver tailored learning for each person based on their level, previous work, interests and teacher direction. Combining information from across massive data sets can help to answer common questions from students and guide learning journeys more efficiently. My kids are learning on responsive programmes like Reading Eggs and Doodle Maths which serves them new questions based on their last answers and helps them progress at their individual pace.”

What do you see as the main challenges facing the education sector’s use of technology?

“I think there’s a lot of excellent online learning content and apps out there, but school’s don’t necessarily have the in-house skills to choose, procure and deliver the best combination of technology… I foresee a rapid re-writing of staff job descriptions – every teacher now needs digital and screen talent, along with everything else they’re expected to do!”

As not all students have access to digital technologies, how will these students need to be supported?

“There’s a huge divide between wealthier schools and education systems in developed countries, versus poorly resources schools and lower-income economies. I’m the Trustee of an educational charity, MADaboutART, in the township of Nekkies in the Western Cape of South Africa – we had to stop our programme of after-school classes during the Spring and only re-started on 1st July with an adapted programme to fit COVID prevention guidelines. There was no opportunity to offer an online programme to MAD kids as most don’t have internet access or suitable devices to use.

“These children face a different reality to kids in other locations, and our priority has been to raise funds to provide food and masks, although we hope to start funding more digital access for the Nekkies community in the months ahead.

“In the UK there have been several recent studies (e.g. by the Institute fo Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust)  to suggest that children of higher-income parents fare much better than others – governments have a role here to step in and democratise access to online learning, which in theory should be easier than consistently delivering the same education across physical schools.”

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