Written evidence submitted by Dr Carmel Kent
The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
The evidence presented here is particular to technology use and availability during COVID-19.
Support for pupils and families during closures
The speed with which schools were required to provide remote education for all students other than the children of frontline workers and disadvantaged learners meant that those schools who had previously been unable or unwilling to develop robust technology enhanced home learning facilities were left having to pull together mechanisms for ensuring that all of their pupils received access to education in very short order. The schools that were best equipped to deal with this unprecedented situation were those in the Independent sector who can rely both on adequate resourcing at school and at home, and state schools who have previously engaged fulsomely with the technology agenda.
Resources in this situation are crucial and this goes beyond the mere provision of technology, important as that is. Resources need to include a quiet place for every child to work at home and a supportive family background where the needs for and requirements of studying are well understood and respected. The remote learning challenge is exacerbated in this case, because the majority of parents who are charged with ensuring that their child takes part in the learning opportunities provided by their school, are also maintaining their own jobs whilst working at home. This means they have little time available and what is provided by their child’s school needs to be straightforward and easy for them to apply. This is no easy task for schools to achieve successfully.
The provision of effective technology-based education is not as simple as merely ensuring that every participant, whether parent or child, has access to technology. For technology to be used effectively in the support of learning, both the technology designers and those who are using the technology need to understand what makes for a successful online learning experience. There is good evidence that can help educators develop technology-based education that is likely to be successful, but this evidence is not necessarily known by or easy to access for educators and school leaders. Examples of summaries of research include: Nesta’s Decoding Learning LINK: offers general advice about technology use in education, the Scottish Government’s: Literature Review on the Impact of Digital Technology on Learning and Teaching https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/24843/1/00489224.pdf, plus more accessible reports on sites such as https://www.edsurge.com/research?type=All%20Research&filter=All%20Ages
Better communication of evidence about technology use is needed and more attention to the requirement for educational technology to be developed in a research-informed manner is essential. The EDUCATE programme was pioneered by UCL’s Institute of Education and is now being taken forward by a spin-off company (https://www.educateventures.com). EDUCATE was founded on the principle of the ‘Golden Triangle’. The points of the triangle represent the three communities that need to be brought together: the people who develop educational technology, the people who use educational technology and the researchers who can ensure that technology development is driven by sound learning objectives, along with data and evidence about the extent to which any educational technology genuinely supports learning. The triangle is golden, because at its heart is the gold: evidence about if and how a technology ‘works.’
During the years 2016 to 2019 the EDUCATE team created a research accelerator aimed at small and medium sized educational technology businesses operating within London. The vision was to create an EdTech ecosystem in which evidence about what truly works for learners and educators drives technology development and in which all participants know how to leverage technology for learning. Cohorts of companies joined the programme for 6 months free of charge, with the costs funded through European Development Funding (ERDF) for the London region.
Data is essential for evidence and one of the priorities in the current situation is to capture data about what is happening while students are learning at home. This will be essential to understanding how best to support schools, parents and students over the coming months and years. It is also essential if we are to ensure that all the skills and knowledge of using technology in a crisis is not wasted, but rather used as a lever to provide better education for more students, should the need arise again in the future.
One thing that is clear from the evidence derived from research studies, is that it is not effective to merely duplicate what happens in school for learners who are at home. Learners often need more support when learning online and the organisation of activities needs to respect the different context of learning when done at home as opposed to when done at school. For example, a five-minute video about the process of photosynthesis might be shown during a science lesson at school, where there is a teacher present, other students studying the same material, various equipment resources along with a teaching assistant perhaps. The interactions in this environment will be very different to the interactions that take place if a student watches the same five-minute video about photosynthesis when they are at home, where they may be on their own or where they may/or may not have some support from parents and siblings. The video resource is precisely the same in each setting, but the learning that is experienced by the same learner at school compared to at home will be quite different.
For learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, the situation is particularly difficult. These are the children who would benefit from extra help and who will need extra help when trying to learn remotely, but they are also the students who are least likely to have extra help at home and may not even have the technology and workspace to be able to engage with what their school is providing. Some students - the most vulnerable - are still entitled to attend school, but in reality, many are not.
We therefore need to ensure that the way learning at home is designed is not a mimicry of what happens in school. Students who do not have human help within the home environment are likely to suffer more from the absence of the school teaching environment than those learners who have human support readily available to them at home. This disadvantage will be more acute for very young children for whom the early years of school are vital to their ability to gain the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy that will act as the foundation for their future learning, as well as important social and emotional development opportunities.
Exams and Fairness
Knowledge and understanding gained over a long period cannot be rigorously evaluated through a series of relatively short exams. Exams are stressful, unpleasant, and require time away from learning. There are now alternatives available, for example the increased use of ‘open book exams’ that can be done at home and that reduce the pressure on students to remember lots of information. The increased use of formative assessment data can help teachers assess student performance in place of exam scores. These exam-alternatives are far from perfect but can, at least, make sure that the hard work of many students is recognised during the current pandemic in a manner that enables them to continue through education or into the workplace.
In the longer term, now is the time when we could and should be looking at real alternatives that solve the limitations of exams and the ‘stop and test’ approach. Technology, and in particular Artificial Intelligence (AI), can help provide ongoing formative assessment that can happen in parallel with learning and can inform the learning process. This approach reduces stress and anxiety, enables a broad range of abilities to be assessed in addition to the performance of a student within the standard curriculum subjects – in terms of resilience and self-motivation, for example - and ensures that assessment is completed over the long term while learning is happening and supported (see https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-016-0028)
The effect on disadvantaged groups
In this section, we focus particularly on learners with specific learning difficulties (SpLDs), such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There are substantial numbers of people with SpLDs in the UK and they will have been impacted by the COVID-19 situation in different ways. However, there is an enormous potential for technology to be leveraged for the benefit of this population, both within and beyond the restrictions of the current pandemic.
Examples of technologies that have been shown to improve learning for people with SpLDs, when used judiciously by skilled educators, include tangible devices that allow physical engagement and multisensory interaction, mobile devices and tablets, such as the iPad, can increase student motivation, improve academic achievement and student behaviour as well as helping students participate in self-directed learning. Game-based learning can also provide exciting activities that maintain motivation to practice skills learners find difficult to master.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to bring great benefit to all learners, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, learners who are falling behind and learners with SpLDs. With increased use of technology for remote learning, AI could be a huge asset. AI that has been designed well enables personalised learning that addresses the needs of each individual student. AI also enables interfaces, such as voice activated interfaces, that can help people who find it hard to use a keyboard or a mouse. It also can help us better evaluate and understand how and under what circumstances learners do or do not achieve their best.
In short - If developments in AI technology and in our understanding about how people learn continue to progress as they have in the last decade, and we leverage them effectively, the potential for increasing educational achievements for all students is significant. This could be a positive benefit for those most disadvantaged by the pandemic restrictions if we could make it accessible for these groups.
Contingency planning for the future
We need to challenge the notion that the solutions used during the disruption of Covid-19 are a temporary measure until we can return to the former classroom practices. The educational infrastructure needed for national emergency preparedness is no less needed to be in place in normal circumstances and has been needed for a long time. Our biggest 'peacetime' educational challenges, such as preparing the younger generation for the 21st century workforce, inequality, and how to assess achievement and attainment, were all brought into a stronger focus as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, but none of these are new and were always at the core of our educational eco-system.
The school lockdown has forced the educational system to retransform and reinvent itself in many ways, in an amount equal to at least five years of 'peacetime' innovation. So, there is no going back. The need for pupils to learn remotely, diversely, to be assessed differently, and to use and understand technology, is there and needs to be met – both in extenuating circumstances and in “normal” times.
Vision and investment are essential
The problem with a ‘national effort' of remote learning is that deploying and introducing educational technology is never a one-size-fits-all. Every school needs to develop an approach which is contextualized to the socio-economic background of its students, their ICT capacities and their human capabilities. If a group of students is not safe, is hungry and does not have proper broadband or enough devices at home, there is little use in thinking about advanced delivery methods.
Creating a level playing field on which the most disadvantaged pupils can be taught and can learn at levels comparable to those in more well-off families, requires proactive input at government level, in the form of an audit of student preparedness for learning from home, and a national strategy and vision for remote learning, underpinned by substantial financial commitment to ensure that students – and teachers – are equipped - emotionally, practically and technically - to meet these challenges and expectations.
To this end we propose the creation of an infrastructure that will pay attention to the following:
○ Improved ICT infrastructure
■ Broadband in rural regions schools
■ Better accessibility, usability, security (https://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/security-settings-essential-as-online-collaboration-increases-07-apr-2020)
■ Areas where the assumption of access to a digital device (even a smartphone is not usually sufficient) cannot be met
○ Social infrastructure – inequality
■ Inequality can include the inability to self-isolate, or to have a supporting environment at home that is conducive for study.
■ Variation in hardware and human resources available to children
○ Communication infrastructure
■ Between and within schools, sharing networks (what works, in which context and why)
■ Between students, as the situation of social isolation requires special attentions to safe interaction
■ With parents, for whom home-schooling is a first and unique experience
○ Human capabilities infrastructure:
■ How well educators are trained to make use of technology and how good their own access is to this. It needs to be recognised that many lack ICT skills and have limited preparedness in monitoring and evaluation.
■ Educators need support in shifting their pedagogical methods, in being able to have an evidence-based basis for evaluating what works and what does not.
■ Teachers need support in being able to rely effectively on technology, understand what it can help with, understand what it isn't good at, and any risks involved in using it.
■ Educators should be trained in technology-assisted assessment and monitoring.
In the weeks and months following the Covid-19 crisis there will be large national and international forums taking place to share experiences and spread good practice. This is likely to be an on-going exercise, which will be subject to evaluations, reports and recommendations.
We strongly urge the UK government to be an active participant in these discussions, to learn from the experiences of others, and to work collaboratively with governments, researchers and educators worldwide to put in place a sustainable plan in the event of future UK school shutdowns caused by health or other crises.