Learning goes Virtual: How EdTech is transforming education

In the wake of COVID-19, we explore the EdTech sector and its potential to both extend and disrupt traditional learning environments

Writer: Dani Redd


Over the past couple of months, the news has been full of stories about coronavirus. As the death toll mounts, an increasing number of countries are closing their borders and businesses. At the time of writing, a third of the world’s population have been placed into “lockdown”. In the UK, for example, people are only allowed to leave the house to buy essentials, care for others, undertake one form of exercise a day and go to work (if their employment is essential). 
 
With schools, colleges and universities shut, millions are having to learn from home. This creates a necessity for innovative forms of virtual learning, which is where EdTech comes in.
 
Even before coronavirus, EdTech – or education technology – was one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors. According to the Education Foundation, it accounts for four percent of all digital companies, and is growing at a rate of 22 percent year on year. Around a quarter of all EdTech companies in Europe are based in the UK (around 1,200) and the industry is projected to be worth $159 billion by the end of 2020.
 
So, what exactly does the sector consist of, and what explains its popularity? In short, EdTech is the idea of integrating technology with educational insights in order to improve both the learning and the teaching experience, deepen engagement and provide interactive learning experiences beyond the classroom. It aims towards greater inclusivity by improving access to educational opportunities for people who might not normally benefit, such as those with disabilities or full-time caring responsibilities. While the sector’s early days saw the rise of computer-based learning (CBL), virtual whiteboards and online courses, it has become increasingly sophisticated.
 
EdTech trends for 2020
 
Artificial intelligence – ranging from chatbots to voice recognition software – has long been a feature in the EdTech industry. However, in 2020, AI will continue to help personalise education, enabling students to learn at their own speed by adapting content to their abilities.
 
AI software can also benefit teachers by streamlining administrative procedures. A focus on improving teachers’ wellbeing is a key focus for EdTech in 2020 – a 2019 Oftsted report showed that while teachers enjoyed their job, a poor work-life balance was affecting their mental health. Throughout 2020, many EdTech companies will be looking at ways to help mitigate this stress. Examples include ZipGrade Cloud – an optical scanner app that can grade multiple choice exams automatically – and Edmodo, a virtual classroom where teachers can upload resources and message students quickly with reminders, thereby reducing time spent on administration.
 
Meanwhile, extended reality – which encompasses virtual, augmented and mixed reality – will help bring experiences and ideas to life for students. For example, Google Expeditions allows the teacher to guide the students on a virtual tour, where students can explore the world using cardboard headsets with phones inside. One benefit of this is that students can immerse themselves in foreign cultures and landmarks without the prohibitive expense of school trip fees.
 
Another area of interest is cross-curricular learning – combining ideas from different disciplines to allow students to think more creatively and approach a subject from a new perspective. Robotics, for example, educates students in engineering, technology, design, coding and AI. British-based company Cool Components sells a variety of easy-to-build robotics kits, including motor controllers, smart cars and articulated arms. It is hoped that this immersive, hands-on approach will encourage more women to enter into STEM careers, thereby addressing an imbalance in the field.
 
EdTech doesn’t just focus on learning itself – it can also help streamline the learning environment. Over the next few years, schools and universities will continue to be altered by smart tools such as automated heating and cooling, facial recognition technology to take attendance and security systems. Needless to say, many of these smart decisions will be based on the analysis of data-driven insights. 
 
Learning will increasingly be driven by the insights an institution gathers though the programmes it uses. This will help teachers to see what students need extra help, and individual departments can assess where extra support is needed.
 
Challenges encountered in moving towards virtual learning

But the EdTech sector is not without its challenges. According to a report by electronics service distributor RS, teachers still show a lack of understanding of EdTech – 13.6 percent of those surveyed had never heard of EdTech, while 35.6 percent had heard of it but don’t know what it is. Many teachers (60 percent in academy schools) believed that there was a lack of training in these new technologies, which meant they were struggling to adapt to them. 

For EdTech to be successful, then, it will be necessary to address this gap. DfE (the UK’s Department for Education) recently partnered with Nesta to unveil a $5.72 million fund supporting more effective use of technology in the classroom, to stimulate industry innovation and ensure the technology meets the needs of its users.

Introducing new technology to both classrooms and behind the scenes necessitates a network with capabilities to handle traffic demands. The rise of 5G technology will help ensure these capabilities are met, but not all schools will have funding to install it – indeed, any extra technology might prove prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, when it comes to home learning, it’s necessary to remember that not all homes are equipped with Wi-Fi or computers. However, some schools are attempting to combat this by providing students with tablets for home use.

A further challenge for EdTech startups is that the field is evolving so quickly it can be hard to keep up and maintain a competitive edge. In order to stay ahead, producing an effective learning product is vital. But judging the efficacy of a product can be difficult, requiring critical insight from both educational psychologists, teachers and users themselves.
How effective is EdTech in facilitating learning?
 
There has been a great deal of academic research devoted to the effectiveness of EdTech and various e-learning product as well. Effectiveness, according to scholars Signe Schack Noesgaard and Rikke Ørngreen, can be measured in several ways: empirically (through observing teachers and students and listening to feedback); quantitively (through assessing test scores); or through follow-up questionnaires, where students could evaluate their learning according to different results, such as improved confidence.
 
Many EdTech products have been designed according to various theories surrounding pedagogy and cognition. For example, UK-based Developing Experts – a platform providing interactive science lessons – has partnered with the well-known educator Dr. E. D. Hirsch Jr., whose advice helped it design a platform. It elected to use multiple choice questions, based upon the idea that breadth of understanding across a wide range of material can be tested quickly.
 
Meanwhile, a popular learning app, Memrise, came about as a collaboration between one of the top competitors in the World Memory Championships – Ed Cooke, who can memorise 2,265 binary digits in half an hour – and a Princeton neuroscientist. One technique the app uses is “elaborative learning”, which gives extra emphasis to facts so they stick in your mind, such as a humorous association. Memrise currently has over 42 million users.
 
However, some educators believe that with EdTech it can be easy to lose track of what really matters – a strong emotional connection between student and teacher. In Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s fourth annual Educator Confidence Report – a survey of over 1,200 teachers and administrators – created in collaboration with YouGov, 94 percent of educators stated the most important quality determining a positive learning environment is the connection between student and teacher. 
 
Such a connection is unlikely to be replicated by an e-learning app or a chatbot. However, what EdTech can do is make the lives of educators easier by streamlining their marking process, entering grades and gathering information about students’ individual abilities. This leaves educators free to focus on the part of teaching that matters most to them – connecting with their students.
 
Is COVID-19 a wakeup call?
 
As previously mentioned, COVID-19 has bought EdTech to the forefront of millions of minds, as parents adapt to home schooling their children and employers turn to virtual platforms to facilitate training and meetings. 
 
Shai Reshef, President and Founder of University of the People, believes that COVID-19 is a wakeup call for people to see that education and training can be moved beyond the institution. 
 
“Viable alternatives should be held up as examples of how the future of education could develop. This, in turn, could go a long way to help address the inequalities that currently exist in the higher education system as access becomes more easily scaleable and is democratised as a result,” he explains.
 
It is undeniable that EdTech does contain the potential to make huge changes to the education system by improving access and increasing the opportunities for immersive, experiential learning. We, for one, are excited to see how the field develops.