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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Covid-19 and EdTech: a chance for HE to rethink quality of provision and equality of access

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 June 2020

Diana Laurillard.

COVID-19 has radically changed the way we do higher education in the space of a few months. The pandemic should surely change the way we plan the future of HE across the world, in terms of both quality of provision and equality of access.

Education acts as a force for good when the decision-makers are committed to the values of a socially just and progressive future for all. A simple expression of this is to be ‘committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals’ – all 17 of them. They  are remarkably robust and appropriate for the world’s needs in the current crisis.

To name just three:

  • SDG3 is to ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’;
  • SDG11 says ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’;
  • SDG17 aims to ‘Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development’.

Had we carried these through more assiduously over the last five years HE in the UK would be better equipped now to cope with the pandemic.

But how committed are we to those values, especially SDG4 on a universal basic education?

For over a decade many countries’ HE systems have walked a fine balance between elitism and widening access given the UK’s reliance on high fees from overseas students to bridge the shortfall in research funding. Universities do indeed tackle the goal of “health and wellbeing for all”, but our current funding model makes it hard to contribute to SDG4: ‘inclusive and quality education for all’.

How can we use our ethical principles to think through the alternatives now evident in our sudden realisation of digital learning? We have the technology, or very nearly, to reach every learner worldwide. Could we use it to contribute to achieving universal basic education?

Digital technology is the most far-reaching means of access to education, and is now being tested by almost everyone on the planet for the nature of the contribution it can make. We see that it does indeed bring access to education, as teachers everywhere discover what they can do to support their learners at a distance.

Digital access is not universal, but neither is access to conventional education. Worldwide, there are still more than 250 million children out-of-school (17%), while digital technology is reaching even the poorest people faster than school-based education.

Access to mobile broadband in the developing world is now 75%, and should reach 100% by 2023. By contrast, at the current rate of reduction in the numbers of out-of-school children, we will not reach universal education for over 70 years. This is a shocking comparison, but it means that digital methods for teachers’ professional development are indeed the most promising means to accelerate the goal to “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.

Now we have a race against time to discover how to do wholly online learning effectively. Most academics and teachers have the basic digital skills needed for a typical domestic life, and for research. But this capability does not transfer well to their professional life. Knowing how to use Wikipedia, or do online shopping, doesn’t help with knowing how to teach online.

A sprint effort to help teachers move online is taking place across the globe. Digital methods are the only effective way of supporting millions of teachers, at all levels of education, in all countries, in learning how to teach online. To provide just two examples:

  • The 3-week course ‘How To Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students’ is now running on FutureLearn, the UK’s global platform. It was put together in one week, launched on 23 March, and has enrolled over 40,000 teachers, mainly from the UK. It is is available on demand.
  • The majority of digital courses for teachers are offered in English, but the Edraak platform runs courses in Arabic. Edraak is supporting a UCL/Lebanese University course in Arabic ‘Teaching Online’ that launched on 26 April, also running every month and already enrolling over 22,000 teachers.

Such professional development courses could make a significant impact on the ability of teachers worldwide to move online for as long as it takes.

With our new experience of digital teaching methods, we should be able to take a much more inventive approach to the future. We can imagine a renewed focus on professional development. We can imagine how we could more quickly develop the 65m teachers needed for universal education by 2030. We can imagine partnerships with ministries of education that make more diverse offers of transnational education to students: not just 3 years of campus education, but a variety of hybrid models as well, mixing some years online, studied in the country of origin with local support, and some on campus in the UK.

We cannot switch to digital overnight, as teachers everywhere are discovering. Online teaching is importantly different from conventional methods. High quality requires high initial investment of time and effort to create a wholly online course. However, with careful planning and design digital methods can help all universities achieve both a quality experience and economies of scale in a more flexible offer to students.

We must not waste this crisis. It is a good time to rethink the responsibility of universities and governments to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. We can build on the fact that we do now have the technology, and have begun at last to understand how we might use it.


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