Edtech: Tackling the elitism that excludes adult education

We must unpick the elitism at the heart of edtech if we’re serious about delivering ‘the world’s next Silicon Valley’, writes Natalie Nezhati

We must unpick the elitism at the heart of edtech if we’re serious about delivering ‘the world’s next Silicon Valley’, writes Natalie Nezhati

4 Dec 2022, 5:00

Earlier this month we learned that adults in lower socio-economic groups are twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socio-economic groups, with some significant regional disparities. The report was published during Lifelong Learning Week and acknowledges the accelerated role of online learning and edtech since the pandemic.  

Given that automation will disproportionately affect lower income workers in jobs like food distribution, driving and manufacturing, it’s depressing to hear about what the Learning and Work Institute refer to as a ‘class penalty’, which has persisted since their surveys began.  

There are even subtle differences in terminology which echo the ‘parity of esteem’ issue in vocational versus academic education. Most of the time, when we discuss technology for ‘corporate learning’ or ‘Learning and Development’ (L&D), we’re talking about the kind of HBR-reading, LinkedIn-posting learners who use Duolingo for holidays in France and Coursera to sharpen their project management skills. There’s a divide between this and what we refer to as ‘adult education’.

The Adult Participation in Learning Survey found that the two main barriers to adult participation in learning are time and money, which won’t be helped by rising costs of living. And in further gloomy news, government spending on adult education and apprenticeships in England are predicted to be 25 per cent lower in 2025 than in 2010. There’s no shortage of learning technology for adults that promises to close the gap between social classes and geographies, but it’s clearly not enough to build it and hope they come.

Sometimes, learning technology teams can overlook a key barrier, which is that not everyone feels as they do about learning. It’s the same blind spot they warned us about during teacher training: being an academically successful person makes it harder to understand why our students struggle or reject opportunities to learn.  

Adult learners and educators are overlooked

Most learning tech teams I’ve worked with are led by successful individuals from the world’s most elite companies – often, it’s McKinsey – who have the time, money, and skillset to start a new venture. It’s rare to find a professional carer or delivery driver doing the same – yet they’d understand their end user better than anyone else could.

Adult educators are overlooked too. Despite their unique position to understand what post-16 learners need from technology solutions, FE is largely ignored while edtech teams focus on schools, higher education and corporate markets.

But as a timely reminder of what’s possible, the adult learning sector has just celebrated ‘Week of Voctech’. This annual exploration of the impact of digital technology on vocational training is notably inclusive of learner groups from all socioeconomic backgrounds. This year’s showcase included an online classroom to help social housing tenants progress through work, an immersive VR car production line and an interactive platform for pest control professionals. 

Much of this technology was created with an understanding of the challenges faced by adult learners and a genuine desire to support them. The ‘Marco Writing Support’ app, for instance, was developed by an FE lecturer in Animal Studies to support and motivate vocational learners with their written work. In a brilliant convergence of ‘ed’ and ‘tech’, Marco was devised in Google’s Stockholm offices as part of a design thinking academy for educators and is now supported by UK charity, Ufi Voctech Trust and Bridgend College.

The ‘Week of Voctech’ was a good reminder that we’ve never been more connected to opportunities. In theory, anyone with a phone and WiFi connection can learn anything they like, as anonymously as they’d like, without fear of embarrassment or failure. An apprentice can log onto their learning at any hour and a time-poor working parent can study at their own pace.

In this month’s budget, Jeremy Hunt pledged investment into digital skills and infrastructure to make the UK ‘the world’s next Silicon Valley’. If we’re serious about that, edtech must shake off old ideas that lifelong learning is for the affluent. And the surest way to do that is to support further education providers to meaningfully engage with and co-create edtech solutions with the people developing them.

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