Edtech, and the role of digital aids in the learning process has been a big topic of discussion since the rise of the first online encyclopaedia – but is it all it's cracked up to be?
The role of technology in education is an oft-discussed topic, that ignites strong opinions from both opposing sides. On the one hand, there are those who celebrate the potential of educational technology and digital aids to make learning a more rich, interactive and exciting experience. On the other hand are those who warn against overestimating the role of technology. They argue this undervalues the importance of human contact, personal relationships, and the empathy that a teacher can offer in a physical classroom.
Big dreams, big business
Despite this debate, there’s a lot of buzz around the world of edtech. Whether it’s the gamification of learning a new language in an app, or exploring the inside of the human body with virtual reality technology, new ways to integrate technology into learning are being developed at rapid speed. Investors, too, are seeing the opportunities.
According to education research firm HolonIQ, the edtech market was en route to surpass $7.5 billion in 2019 – though it’s hard to say how the insecurities of 2020 will hit this market.
The edtech market was en route to surpass $7.5 billion in 2019 – though it’s hard to say how the insecurities of 2020 will hit this market.
It’s easy to see why many digital learning aids, such as interactive online platforms and VR environments, are so attractive. They hold many potential benefits. For the teacher and the student, these benefits include:
Digital aids are interactive, which a lot of students respond well to
They offer many options to adapt them to your needs, making them ideal tools for differentiating for specific learning needs
Children often enjoy them, as they include ways to gamify the learning process
For producers or publishers of educational materials and methods, digital products offer benefits too. Software or digital platforms hosted online are easily updated or corrected. They’re also easier to roll out and distribute to many schools at the same time.
However, these benefits do not hold up for hardware. Designing the latest gadget or tool that will revolutionise learning often comes with many hurdles - one of which being its lifespan. And by lifespan I don’t just mean how long the gadget can last before its chip is fried or its batteries no longer charge, I also mean its relevance lifespan. Technology is developing faster than most large educational institutions can keep up with. Investing in VR headsets for a large number of students, or a new DIY robot that can teach kids how to code is a risky bet when the competition could bring out a newer, better model within two years.
Bursting the bubble
This results in the following situation: new, boundary-pushing technology often boasts its potential for educational purposes, and excites the general public, but is rarely actually implemented in the national curriculum nor standard teaching practises. Often, this comes down to funds. Research from HolonIQ suggested that the education sector is grossly underfunded compared to other sectors on a global scale.
Their numbers suggest that only 3% of global education expenditure was spent on technology. This will vary greatly between countries depending on their economic wellbeing, but it’s still a shocking statistic.
Only 3% of global education expenditure was spent on technology.
The resistance again digitisation isn’t merely based on finances. There is also still a lot of discomfort around introducing too many technological aids into our educational systems. This resistance can come from the older generation of teachers, those who have been teaching for many years and have a tradition view of what the educational system should look like. In reality, this might not be as common as it would seem. Often, the issues lies with teachers who are willing, but not confident enough to adopt new methods. They might feel they lack training or technological insight to pick up these tools independently.
David and Goliath
Thirdly, there’s the simple issue of logistics. In most countries, like here in the Netherlands, the educational system is a huge, intricate, sensitive beast of an institution. Implementing changes requires a lots of jumping through hoops. And with good reason, as it’s an institution that is built to nurture and protect some of the most vulnerable members of society. Cost, privacy regulation, safety, effectivity – there are many factors that need to be taken into account. After all, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture how it could go wrong when we adopt a new, exciting piece of technology too quickly.
The battle of the C-word
In this time of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen how crucial the role of digital learning within our education system can be. Earlier in this blog, I mentioned just how big the edtech market was getting in 2019. Could it be possible that the forced switch to digital learning has benefitted this industry, in a time when everyone else seems to be struggling?
However, we’ve also seen the cracks form, once it became clear how quickly we had to switch, and how heavily we had to rely on it. Teachers were breaking under the pressure of how to keep their students on track, and meet the curriculum requirements, while putting extra time and energy into adapting their lesson plans into a digital format. Parents were struggling combining their new working-from-home routine with homeschooling duties. Students were facing insecurities over grades, exams, their social connections, and how to stay focused at home with so many distractions.
Most importantly, it marked the start of a new war that none of us were willing to face: the battle for the WiFi, the laptop with the best webcam, or the one quiet spot in the house to attend an online lesson or Zoom meeting. For lower income families, with less access to advanced computers or tablets, fast broadband, or spacious housing, the battle was extra draining. It’s safe to say that there are many victims in the switch to long-distance education.
The future of digital learning
And that’s not even taking into account the effect it has on the student’s learning journey. It’s too early to say how relying solely on digital communication affects a student’s attention span, retention of information, and depth of understanding more complex principles. It’ll be interesting to see these students’ progress further down the line. Will the foundations laid out in year one turn out to be shaky when they need to build on them in year two? Though it’s a tragedy that these students have become guinea pigs in the face of a crisis, their experiences may teach.