The silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic could well be a revolution in how further education utilizes the power of EdTech, writes Dana Dabbous

It has long been accepted that technology in education is vital for filling the digital skills gap. Successive governments have promoted greater use of EdTech in the FE sector. This includes the Department for Education’s 2019 EdTech strategy and, more recently, the EdTech demonstrator schools and colleges programme. The closure of schools and colleges during the Covid-19 pandemic has only turbocharged this need. In short, lockdown has focused minds.

Since September 2019, the Edge Foundation has been conducting a vital piece of research. The study looks at how four FE colleges across the UK have successfully integrated digital technologies into their practice. Although we knew this would be insightful, little could we know just how important our findings would soon be.

Following Covid-19, there is now a greater need for educational institutions to adopt digital tools, and at a faster pace than ever before. Luckily, many FE colleges are already well underway with this transformation. Existing digitalisation has helped many to respond well and adapt to the situation we now find ourselves in. This is particularly important for colleges. They are front and centre in minimising the UK’s technical and digital skills gap. In turn, this allows the economy to keep up on the world stage.

Because each of the colleges in the study had well-established digital strategies, we knew they would offer valuable insights. But what did we find? And how can these findings help other FE colleges as we emerge from lockdown?

Firstly (and reassuringly) we found that EdTech undoubtedly improves digital literacy. All the colleges in the study showed that, when applied effectively, EdTech can support learning and teaching. It gave students a taste of how digital tools are used in the workplace. Staff were also impressed by how technology could streamline administrative tasks, freeing up time and creating scope for a greater range of classroom activities. 

Perhaps more importantly though, the research identified challenges. One key issue, for instance, was staff confidence. Lecturers across all the colleges in the study were often disheartened by tech mishaps, especially if these occurred in front of students. To tackle this—and other teething problems—constant and consistent support was needed. Where possible, a dedicated digital support team proved highly effective in helping staff and students to adapt. Combined with on-hand support, CPD workshops and individual training, this promoted a graded cultural shift towards greater creativity, collaboration and openness.

Anyone who has implemented digital tech knows the practical challenges it can pose. Hardware issues, poor Wi-Fi, and just ensuring that tech-use stays industry-relevant are common factors (all are highlighted in the study). Ultimately though, these problems are manageable. This leads to perhaps the most interesting finding: staff and students needed to understand the transformative potential of EdTech before fully embracing it. A widespread concern—especially among those unaccustomed to digital tools—was that tech ‘holds all the power’. But once staff and students understood how EdTech could democratise the learning process (i.e. giving them power, rather than taking it away) then uptake vastly improved.

As staff confidence increased they were keen to share their newfound skills. One college highlighted how lecturers shared blended learning techniques with staff from other disciplines. This included traditional teaching, video feedback, learning apps and games to support students. This led to completely new approaches. Ultimately, integrating digital tools in and out of the classroom increased student engagement. Staff remarked how students’ enjoyment of learning visibly increased.

The challenge for other colleges, then, lies in reaching this goal. How do we break down resistance to change, and help staff and students understand the benefits that digital tools can bring?

The full report details each college’s digital strategy, offering insight for how others can follow suit. It explains how they developed their digital frameworks, the technologies they adopted, how they created physical and digital spaces, and—crucially—how they supported their staff and students. While each college had different objectives, a common aim was to create a culture of openness, support and experimentation. Before the pandemic, this was desirable. Today, it is essential. To discover all these insights, you can download the full research report here.

In these uncertain times, ready-access to education is more important than ever. The events of the last few months have only highlighted this fact. Despite the pandemic, though, I believe there is a glimmer of hope. The silver lining in all this could well be a revolution in how further education utilizes the power of EdTech. Because if now is not the time to fully embrace it, when will be?