What FE should learn from edtech’s pandemic legacy (and what it shouldn’t)

Edtech’s pandemic legacy should not be defined by buyer’s remorse but by the clear need for a longer-term strategy for e-learning, writes James Earl

Edtech’s pandemic legacy should not be defined by buyer’s remorse but by the clear need for a longer-term strategy for e-learning, writes James Earl

8 Feb 2023, 5:00

Before the pandemic, the post-16 sector was fraught with negativity about e-learning. Assessors were too nervous to adopt blended learning solutions because they thought it posed a risk to their jobs. Sweeping statements dismissed full distance learning with notions of horrific achievement rates.

In truth, there were bad practices just as there were many organisations with a matured e-learning strategy. As a whole though, the system was years behind many corporate markets.

Now we seem to be in a transitional phase, and I fear the pandemic experience, rather than bringing about system maturity, could be catastrophic for the ed tech market.

Panic purchasing and buyer’s regret

Many organisations, through no fault of their own, purchased edtech through curtailed procurement processes and ended up systems that were not fit for their purposes. For example, they may have adopted 100 per cent online lectures instead of more future-proof blended solutions, emailed assessments rather than assessment systems or learner management systems developed for staff training in corporate markets rather than a regulated environment.

What we’re left with now is many colleges and providers coming out of the contracts they were originally tied into thinking that learning technology isn’t for them, rather than that the system or solution they purchased wasn’t quite what they needed.

We’re beginning to see this in a number of ways – the slowdown of recruitment in ed tech firms and  redundancies amid new entrants to the market. This is being led in part by the back-to-class strategy, and the resulting cancellation of online application forms and many other systems that can support a learner’s journey in many provisions.

This is bad for the edtech sector, but the point of markets is to adapt. More worryingly, it’s bad for colleges, providers and most importantly learners. We need a fully thought-through e-learning and systems strategy for the further education system to stop these knee-jerk reactions.

Where do we go from here?

In the absence of a system-wide strategy, there is much that individual providers can do to support their staff and their learners and to keep driving innovation.

First and foremost, the most crucial step is to hire and develop staff who will drive innovation at all levels. This is not a question of just one job role, or even a dedicated department; a culture only works when everyone understands it, agrees with it and adopts it. A lot of work went into professional development to adapt to the pandemic. The staff who benefited from that didn’t just learn to use a specific tool or set of tools. They learned to engage with and critically evaluate those tools and educational technology more broadly. These skills shouldn’t be lost, and they should be nurtured across the workforce.

But developing staff to understand and use edtech solutions will be ineffective if they don’t work within a system that supports them to explore what’s available. So it’s important to also maintain and develop policies and expectations that allow learning technology to be adopted through both internal and external processes

Sector leaders and policy makers should all be working to support this too. At every event and in every policy discussion, edtech should be seen as an enabler. It is and should be instrumental to implementation, not a bolt-on to be developed responsively once decisions are made.

And finally, this all depends on sharing best practice across the sector. Further education is in the advantageous position that the idea is not controversial at all and that many platforms exist to do so. If you are doing it well and getting good results, others will want to learn from you.

We can’t afford to repeat the cycle of panic buying and buyer’s remorse. It hampers colleges’ ability to adapt to future crises and developments, stifle learners’ chances to get the best from their learning journey and holds back effective innovation.

We need a long-term strategy, to keep learning technology at the forefront of educational agendas to ensure the sector moves forwards – and that starts with providers themselves.

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