COVID-19 school closures: the disaster that will put edtech to the test

Edtech firms have been quick off the mark to offer their systems as palliatives for school closures. JL Dutaut explores the pros and cons of this unplanned shift to digital home learning

“In moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure.” So says Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, which theorises that what for many is a disaster is to some an opportunity, and that the wheels of our economic system are well oiled to profit from these situations.

After years of worrying about Brexit and budgets, headteachers could be forgiven for thinking both that the shock is finally upon us, and that Klein’s theory has merit. As well as government and agency updates on the spread of coronavirus, their inboxes are swelling with a plethora of offers of help from education technology companies – a marketing onslaught likely to sow confusion and worsen panic. Unequal knowledge and skills across the school system could very well show up a lack of herd immunity to online harms.

In fact, exposing and worsening our system’s inequalities may be the greatest threat posed by coronavirus and schools’ dependence on technology to mitigate its effects.

Priya Lakhani is dismissive of the idea. “We have Syrian refugees in Lebanon and children in rural Africa using our technology,” says the CEO of UK-based social enterprise Century Tech, the first company to offer its services free to closed schools in China and Hong Kong. “You and me get frustrated when things don’t load quickly, but they haven’t quite got impatient yet.”

The global crisis caused by COVID-19 is morphing into a proving ground for the claims that have been made for decades by the self-styled edtech “disruptors”. Schools in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Italy have already been forced to replace their provision with online learning. International schools, too. Day by day, it seems more and more likely UK schools will have to follow, and when it comes to business, the early bird gets the worm.

School leaders must ensure GDPR compliance, but compliance is no guarantee of safety

Online study platform Quizlet is reporting an increase in usage in affected areas globally and has issued guidance to support teachers to use its tools. Sector leader Twinkl is offering its services for free for one month to all teachers and parents of children in UK schools “which are closed, or facing closure”. “Our mission,” its statement reads, “is to help those who teach”.

An even bigger beast in the edtech world, Google’s microsite for its suite of education software (free to schools since 2006) has a page dedicated to COVID-19 Resources. These resources add up to instructions on how to use the G-suite For Education tools to support distance learning.

For Lakhani, who has extended the free offer to UK schools, it’s not about profit. Her investors see the company as “a philanthropic part of their portfolio”, and the decision to offer free access was led by motivated members of her team. But social enterprises are an exception, and it would be churlish to suppose any company – especially start-ups in a high-risk sector like technology – would not be driven by profit. The data collected by tech companies alone is likely more valuable than any revenue from service charges. School leaders must be aware of that and ensure GDPR compliance to the best of their ability, but compliance is no guarantee of safety.

Nevertheless, the profit motive is the same forward-looking drive that leads businesses to invest in capacity, and it’s precisely why, on the supply side at least, things are looking good for tech solutions to the looming potential crisis. It’s capacity on the demand side that’s in a more questionable state.

It is very difficult to sustain teaching from home without the support of colleagues

First, for all its promise of workload reduction, edtech does create extra workload in the short term in the same way that any policy implementation does. There’s the time to set up the resources and their allocation, to learn new practices and streamline new workflows and, as principal and CEO of Hong Kong’s Kellett School, Mark Steed says: “It is very difficult for teachers to sustain prolonged teaching from home without the support and camaraderie of colleagues.” While companies like Google can set up training in the form of web pages and online videos with little pull on resources, putting these into practice is no mean feat, and is worsened by working in isolation. And if that’s the case for teachers receiving tuition from tech companies, the challenge is doubled when it comes to passing that on to pupils.

An international school teacher who has recently returned from China because of coronavirus confirms the challenge. “There’s an optimism born of necessity,” he says, “but you can’t sit at a computer for hours just planning and marking. We weren’t set up for it, and just sharing resources through Dropbox folders is not going to enthuse children for long. The novelty wears off after a day.”

There’s another difficulty: “I’m not getting work back from about 30 per cent of my students. Chasing them up is difficult. They might have lost a grandparent or something.”

Supporting trauma and bereavement and sustaining attendance are hard enough, but Mark Steed adds that “young children find it very difficult to access home learning even with parental support”, suggesting that the level of challenge is likely to be very unequal between primaries and secondaries, and much the harder for the former.

The level of challenge is likely to be very unequal between primaries and secondaries

This hypothesis is strongly backed by a recent Teacher Tapp investigation that found that, while almost all secondary teachers would know how to set and receive a submission of online work, one-third of primary teachers would not. Teacher Tapp also found that 12 per cent of secondaries already had a platform for creating video lessons, and 43 per cent of secondary teachers felt confident they could figure it out. For primaries, the percentages respectively were 8 and 24. For special schools, they were 6 and 14.

Certainly, some schools and trusts have a head start. Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which runs 58 schools serving 31,500 students, has already invested heavily in embedding Google’s G-Suite. In a statement this week, the trust says that “the concerns around the coronavirus have focused our efforts even more”. While others have no such systems, AET has a network of edtech specialist teachers they call “innovators”, whose efforts are currently focused on training staff to better use the tools already at their disposal.

Nevertheless, even given AET’s large capacity, the same statement says that they “are focusing in particular on our Year 6 children and older pupils in Years 11 and 13 who are taking public examinations in the summer”. So while AET’s lead is symbolic of the inequality that exists between schools and trusts, internally there already seems to be an acceptance that there will be an inequality of provision between year groups, at least in the short term.

A spokesperson for the trust told me: “Edtech can go a long way to help in situations such as these, but clearly there remain sector-wide challenges around issues such as the number of devices, home and school broadband capacity, and the availability of teachers to deliver content through these platforms.”

Rapid implementations could cause problems for a number of disadvantage gaps

And many other inequalities continue to dog edtech besides, which the Office for National Statistics categorises under the header of “digital exclusion”: 5.3 million adults (parents and carers) are classed as internet non-users, with substantial regional variation in their distribution disfavouring the north-east. By far the largest proportion of them is among those classed as “economically inactive” – which includes those looking after a home or family.

Predictably, the likelihood of a household having an internet connection is almost directly correlated with income. And nearly twice as many disabled people (29 per cent) report a lack of skill as their main reason for not using the internet compared with non-disabled people. The “digital divide” of the 90s has been rebranded, and all of the markers have improved, but it hasn’t entirely gone away.

There is no getting away from the fact that COVID-19 is a threat to the continuity of education for the current cohort of students. But computers get viruses too, and sector leaders would do well to remember that rapid implementations could cause problems for workload, wellbeing, cost, safety and a number of disadvantage gaps. In the longer term, the cumulative impact of many implementations could also rewire our education system in ways the sector has fairly consistently resisted until now, and changing it back could prove difficult.

Ty Goddard, EdTech UK executive chair and member of the ISC’s Digital Strategy Group, says: “Our advice stresses caution: use what you have, audit your communication channels and think through what could be safely possible.”

Goddard states that further guidance is on the way for UK schools, and there is evidence that sharing knowledge is already having impact. However, his advice probably ought to have been followed at system level when the sun was shining. Instead, our just-in-time education system is likely to be robustly tested, and there’s no magic cure for the damage that may ensue.