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A year into the pandemic: Reflections on how education systems responded & where we are heading


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Disruption resulted in fewer learning hours

Most of Europe has now been in lockdown for more than a year. As we begin to emerge from this difficult period, we look at the lay of the land: why was the adjustment to digital learning so difficult for so many educators and learners and which areas are ripe for innovation and mass adoption across education systems?


With barely a few days notice, educational institutions around the world were required to pivot to remote learning. The development of guidance on ‘blended’ and digital learning for most departments and ministries of education was in its nascency. It was only a select group of forward thinking institutions that had comprehensive digital strategies in place- for this group, switching to online, digital provision proved considerably easier, for everyone else it was a steep learning curve.


Surprisingly, even in the ‘richest’ European countries, many students lacked one or more of the four ‘pillars’ of remote learning:






2 in 5 students were learning for 2.5 hours or less per day


The uneasy transition meant fewer learning hours during lockdowns than during usual on-site provision. The findings are staggering, a study created during the first UK lockdown (March-June 2020) found that 2 in 5 school-age students were learning for 2.5 hrs of learning or less per day, compared to 5-6 hrs/day in school (Green et al, 2020). A German survey of parents of school children found that time spent on school-related activities fell by more than half from 7.4 hrs to 3.6 hrs/day with 38% of students studying for no more than 2 hrs/day (Woessmann et al, 2020). The same study found only 6% of students had group online lessons on a daily basis.


Most published studies of this nature were created during the first period of closures in March-June 2020, reflecting the period in which online, digital provision was at it’s worst. Future studies will show how learning hours evolved. Some of these issues were addressed by expanding the pool of students able to attend settings in person during subsequent partial closures. In places, this resulted in five times the number of attendees compared to the first lockdown. However, most students will have missed over half a year of normal, in-person schooling, representing more than 5% of their time in school (Institute for Fiscal Studies).


Sources: OECD / Harvard University, via OECD, (2020)






Learning effectiveness also suffered, according to teachers




A McKinsey & Company study from March 2021 considered teachers’ perceptions of learning effectiveness during the Spring 2020 school closures, relative to in-person learning.


Not only were classroom hours lost, and remote provision limited, but virtual instruction was perceived as less effective, particularly in the first period of closures when teachers were coming to terms with distance teaching.


Source: McKinsey & Company, 2021






Considering ‘scarring’ long-term impacts


The long term impacts, or ‘scarring’, of fits and starts of on-site schooling and inadequate distance learning are anticipated to have a significant impact on job prospects. As a result, many governments are already exploring various mitigants, including encouraging employers hit hardest by the restrictions (see Figure 3) to widen pools of candidates affected by the 2020-21 period of schooling and supporting prospective job seekers through programs like the UK governments’ Kickstart Scheme.


Supporting students to catch up and reach the levels they would usually achieve at a given education stage is at the forefront of many governments’ priorities. This is a complex and nuanced priority, given such significant variation between lost learning within and between learner groups i.e. a pupil with consistent internet and device access may in fact be ahead of where they would usually be in a normal school year, while another may be a number of months behind. It’s also perfectly possible that these two students are in the same class. The impacts of lost learning will have affected learners from the early years (including with basic numeracy and literacy) through to students about to enter college, university or the workforce.


A July 2020 McKinsey & Company study looked at how this lost learning would impact the global economy:



A global school shutdown of five months would generate learning losses with a present value of $10 trillion.



The study equates this to a 16% loss of governments’ investments in education globally.


Several groups have sought to assess the impact of this lost learning on career earnings and also the impacts of slower economic growth on earnings, often referencing similar past economic events such as recessions. A 2019 study by Schwandt and Wachter suggests that new entrants to the labour market during a recession experience a persistent wage loss that lasts up to 10 years, as well as skills mismatches between the jobs they are ‘qualified’ for and those they are able to obtain.


One of the most prominent studies, produced by the OECD, predicts that losing a third of a year of learning results in a 2.5-4% loss of income across a working life (see Figure 4). A study from the Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning on behalf of the UK Department for Education, published in February 2021, found learning losses in mathematics at primary (age 5-11) to be 3 months (approximately a third of a school year). Given that the data used in both studies predated subsequent missed classroom learning during the Autumn and Spring terms (using assessments undertaken in or before September), it is possible that the impact on lifetime earnings could be considerably higher than the range outlined above and may in fact be 5-8% across an individuals’ working life. This assumes that these young people are not able to catch up their lost ground.


Learners, teachers and institutions will have learned a great deal from the process of adapting to online, digital learning. Some will have affirmed longstanding trust in an effective ‘blended’ approach, others will be ruing not establishing access to devices prior to school closures. What’s certain, however, is that there is no going back: full digital capability will be normalised, governments will demand that teachers and learners are able to operate digitally and will prioritise funding accordingly, and this presents enormous opportunity for education and learning technology providers to demonstrate the value-add of their products.


What follows is our assessment of what we were missing when the pandemic struck, priorities moving forward and where we expect education and learning tech to experience long-term adoption.






Job risk by employment sector



Jobs at high risk of furloughs, layoffs, or reductions in hours or pay during periods of high physical distancing.


Sources: Office for National Statistics, US Bureau of Labour Statistics, McKinsey Global Institute Analysis, via McKinsey & Company 2020






Predicted impact of learning loss on an individual's income across their working life

As per the OECD’s analysis, the values in parentheses in the row heads are the income return per standard deviation of individual test scores.








What we were missing




3 areas to consider





A. Learner preparedness

Substantial variation in learning losses emerged between and within student groups as lockdowns took hold. A two-speed system emerged, between those able to learn remotely and those unable to access material.


Learners in OECD countries could expect to have remote access to materials and their teachers. But given a lack of centralised standards on remote provision, many students were not able to learn at a ‘usual’ rate during lockdown periods. This is because they lacked one or more of aforementioned remote learning pillars (device access, reliable internet coverage, appropriate content and a workspace conducive to learning).


Though some settings had prioritised 1:1 device and internet access, the vast majority had not, relying instead on support from governments to purchase and distribute devices to students that need them. This process was painfully slow - it took a number of months for many students to receive a device and internet access. Global shortages caused significant delays to distribution. Avoidable learning losses continued to slip by as governments continually adjusted their eligibility criteria and settings struggled to navigate convoluted purchasing processes..


This said, device access is certainly not an end in itself- it’s only the beginning. Having the hardware in place is a pre-requisite for software access, be that learning management platforms, or subject-specific personalised content. But government support during the pandemic often ended at providing devices, highlighted by the fact many measured their remote learning support by device distribution figures.


Given device shortages and variation in delivery styles, student engagement has been difficult to track, with insights limited to engagement with digital learning environments and insights reported by parents, carers and teachers. Parental engagement is strongly correlated with deprivation levels so this evidence has been patchy.


Meanwhile, students in settings with advanced digital approaches were able to receive content from educators via digital platforms and smoothly transition from on-site to remote provision.






B. Setting and educator preparedness


Educators’ experiences varied enormously. Some were well-versed in delivering digital content. But many, typically older, more experienced educators were less comfortable with the new requirements. Their personal attitudes will have been shaped by attitudes and support within their setting. Multi-academy trusts (UK) and large charter schools (US) were arguably better placed to produce and distribute central support.


When the pandemic struck, educators either needed to shift their content online (or start sign-posting existing online content) or persist with distributing physical resources. In settings with varied device access, educators had to duplicate work and tailor provision to the needs of smaller pupil groups. The World Bank refers to this as a ‘multi-modal approach’: making sure that content is available on devices (including mobile) and in hard copy.


There was limited guidance on how to monitor students’ progress and on the quantity and quality of content that teachers should deliver. In several countries, including China and Croatia, education departments guided settings and parents to facilitate a set number of learning hrs/day, as well as limiting the number of classes available to pupils on centralised platforms. This was intended to level the playing field for students with limited access to digital content- e.g. students sharing devices with their siblings or relying on mobile phones.


It was and continues to be challenging for teachers to remain sensitive to the diverse circumstances of their pupils.


Most institutions (schools, colleges and universities) had considered implementing technologies prior to the pandemic. In many cases, settings were in the first iteration of their digital strategy, still trialling solutions to match their needs. Limited best practice guidance is a major challenge for settings with no digital experience. Though attempts from government, such as ‘demonstrator programmes’, are intended to address this dearth of guidance, the lack of product accreditation or proven impact adds uncertainty to procurement decisions.


But there is an underlying issue here: budgets in the state sector are extremely tight. Settings were and are often reliant on cheap or free resources rather than the ‘best’ or most impactful. How will students make the most of devices and how will educators deliver high quality lessons without access to affordable, quality learning products? The funding issue lies with governments, but they’ve got away with measly funding for edtech solutions because large numbers of educators have remained resistant to change. Educators’ patchy support for edtech highlights the information and awareness gap between how much edtech has advanced in recent years and understanding of use cases. For many educators, smartboards cast a long shadow.


The good news is that this information gap should be easy to address, particularly given the experience of the past year; maybe then, governments will direct budgets accordingly, broaden the markets available to edtech companies and make innovation more viable.



% of countries w/ teachers trained to use online platforms


Source: UNESCO, 2020







C. Government preparedness



As outlined in the ‘learner’ and ‘setting’ sections, state support for digital learning varies significantly between countries. But during the pandemic, all governments were forced to reconsider fundamental questions:


a. How will education be delivered?

For developed countries, the answer was simple: every student needs access to a device and the internet, so devices must be purchased and distributed to students that need them. In South Korea, for example, a rapid assessment revealed that 223,000 students were without suitable devices capable of accessing learning platforms and content. In the following weeks, the government formed a technology lending scheme and delivered devices to all 223,000 students, along with unlimited free data access. Many other governments have been slower to support blanket internet access. But public outcry over the digital divide has led many to remedy the issue via public-private partnerships. It’s no longer politically acceptable in developed countries for students’ home environments to dictate whether they can access learning materials. We hope these initiatives are maintained following lockdowns.


b. How will content reach students?

Given the slow roll-out of devices and internet access, governments supported a range of temporary initiatives, free at the point of use. Some of the more interesting examples include:


Spanish and Kenyan governments have been working with children’s entertainment

companies and personalities to produce popular, engaging television and audio content.


In China, the government created two online schools. Major tech companies including Tencent and Alibaba, were enlisted to facilitate digital classes on their networks, provide free cloud space for pupils and to act as a basic interface between pupils and their teachers.


In the UK, the BBC has provided online and broadcast content (from January 2021)


c. How will education institutions equip themselves?

Like the UK’s Edtech Demonstrator Programme, Nordic and Baltic governments developed ‘Teach Millions’ to provide guidance to settings on appropriate resources and portfolios of products. Many members of the British Education Suppliers Association (part state-funded) and other equivalent organisations provided free product access during closures. Several governments also funded centralised, free online curriculum content.


Providing products and resources for free was a great initiative that enabled improved learning, but it’s not a long-term solution for either settings or edtech companies. If there isn’t budget available for edtech products, then the businesses aren’t viable. Many companies will have been operating at a loss during this period, despite serving record numbers of settings and students. Even with these free resources, less than a third of English schools’ additional Covid-related costs were covered by the government’s pandemic funding in the 2019-20 academic year. Indeed , the average schools’ ‘ICT budget’ equated to £59 per pupil pre pandemic, relative to £74 per pupil on energy and £90 per pupil on educational consultants. It’s unsurprising that schools are struggling to purchase technology products when these budgets need to cover hardware, technical support and software. The UK is quite typical of other countries in this regard.



Governments’ responses to school closures


Sources: Brookings; Centre for Global Development; World Bank, via The Economist






Overview by areas









Moving forward





3 priorities for education systems



Governments and education leaders always walk a tight-rope when balancing their priorities: budgets and resources are finite.


This period presents an opportunity to re-evaluate some of our fundamental assumptions about how education is funded and delivered. As we emerge from this pandemic purgatory, there are three priorities for government and the sector to consider:



A. Addressing the catch-up challenge: making up for lost time


Pupils have lost months of classroom time again this academic year. As such, several governments reliant on end of year exams to determine grades have cancelled the 2021 exam series. These governments will be supporting education systems to address learning losses, by helping settings deliver tutoring, summer provision, improved resources and staff training.



B. Building resilience in the system to withstand shocks: delivery no matter the conditions


Effective remote provision remains patchy despite efforts to make improvements since lockdowns began. We can expect considerable time and money to target improving distance learning practices in the coming months and years, to create a generation of digital learning natives (both students and educators). This operating model will be capable of withstanding shocks and should be self-improving.



C. Improving and proving efficacy: focusing on what works


The edtech marketplace is ultracompetitive. Settings need guidance on which solutions best match their needs and are proven to be effective. They have limited budgets and limited time to explore solutions. It is likely that an accreditation will be developed by governments to simplify procurement decisions and set formal / informal efficacy standards. Settings will need space in their budgets to make these purchases and funding will need to be rebalanced accordingly.







To focus on catch-up or on long-term reform?



When governments and education sector leaders are deciding how to address these three priorities, they must balance the following trade-offs ⚖️:





Sources: UNESCO and McKinsey & Company, 2020






A closer look at ‘catch-up’: 3 types of government support











Where we are heading




How edtech supports countries pursuing education reforms


It’s important for investors, entrepreneurs, governments and education settings to take a step back and consider the future of edtech integration within education at a system level.


All groups would do well to consider the World Bank’s perspectives. Though the World Bank naturally tends to focus its resources on the developing world, its work provides a helpful indication of where governments and policymakers are likely to provide support to education providers and therefore, edtech companies.


In December 2020, it identified 7 areas in which edtech directly fits within education reforms:


1. Access: access to technology infrastructure, which includes both devices (computers, laptops, tablets, and phones) and connectivity to the Internet.


2. Skills: edtech should be used not only to support basic literacy and numeracy, but also to help develop so-called ‘21st century skills’, including socio-emotional as well as ‘digital’ skills, from basic technology competencies to higher order skills such as those related to coding, computational thinking and ethics.


3. Teachers: edtech requires teachers to utilise new skills, competencies and pedagogical approaches, in addition to those that they traditionally employ. Edtech can enrich and scale up continuous professional development for teachers and school leaders through online learning tools and just- in-time, in-service coaching.


4. Content: edtech can offer wider access to more engaging, relevant content to inspire and motivate learners and teachers. Whether through digital textbooks, digital simulations of scientific processes, educational games, open educational resources (OER), edtech can complement, extend and help reimagine traditional approaches to teaching, learning and assessment.


5. Assessment: edtech can be integral to providing learners and teachers with better ‘formative’ assessments as well as ‘summative’ assessments that are administered at scale by to assign grades and determine promotion to higher levels. Artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms can help to support the use of more adaptive, and in some cases, personalized learning assessments and opportunities.


6. Data: edtech offers opportunities for more evidence-based and transparent decision making at the level of the learner, classroom, school and education system.


7. Community engagement: edtech can enable new connections between students, teachers, parents, and broader communities to create networks in support of learning, inside and outside the classroom, fostering greater and more diverse human engagement in teaching and learning processes.





Where we are heading


We have distilled these insights into 3 interrelated areas where we expect accelerated and eventual mass adoption of technology within education systems:




A. Resources



Learning management platforms


Learning management platforms provide administrative systems that enable education institutions to become more efficient and reduce administrative burdens. These products are the backbone of effective digital provision. They provide easy communication within and between both teacher and learner groups, as well as relationships between institutions and the home. This isn’t a new concept, but adoption remains limited and the products are continually improving. E.g.Aula, Firefly Learning.



Centralised learning content


Given the popularity of centralised pools of resources funded by the government during the pandemic (and the fact funding will end when learners return to premises), we can expect edtech companies and publishers to be looking at how to synthesise and improve digital content so that it seamlessly integrates within educators’ courses. This will mean that learners can access all of their resources across subjects in a single place- including course material, supplementary content, revision guidance etc. Such resources prove popular with educators, given that they can help reduce workload and allow them to focus on pedagogy. E.g. government funded solutions including Oak Academy (UK) and My class at home (France), scaleups like Epic! (specialising in reading) and startups like Perlego.





B. Delivery




Personalisation


Lockdown emphasised disparities between learners’ home environments- some had their own device and active, engaged parents, while others shared a mobile phone with their siblings and had parents unable to assist their learning. Just as a personalised approach to catch-up will be necessary, broader device access enables a more personalised approach for the longer term. Students can progress at their own pace in class and in their own time, revisit parts of the curriculum they find challenging and learn in a way that suits them. Adoption of personalised learning solutions will continue to accelerate as studies on improvements to attainment become more authoritative. E.g.Century Tech, MyTutor, Zen Educate, Sparx, some of which are supported by the work of the Edtech Evidence Group and similar initiatives.


We can also expect personalisation to feed into professional development for educators and leaders, creating a generation of edtech natives. This will likely be in partnership with teaching colleges and other relevant teaching organisations. E.g.TeachFX




Gamification and simulation


Gamification has long been adopted by more tech-savvy educators and learners, but we can expect it to go mainstream, as awareness increases and systems become more accessible for wary adopters. As with personalisation, we can expect adoption to accelerate as the evidence base on learning and knowledge retention deepens. Adoption is also likely to accelerate if pools of centralised resources are maintained, as this will allow educators to spend their time on diversifying delivery modes, including exploring VR and AR possibilities. E.g.Quizlet, Hack The Box, Fundamental VR, Labster and Seneca Learning





C. Monitoring


Assessments and feedback


Arguably the most contentious education issue of the past year has been deciding how to award grades in the event of cancelled or limited exams. In some countries, a ‘portfolio’ of work was submitted (a.k.a. coursework), but in others, like the UK, algorithms were preferred to award grades, taking into account the characteristics of individual students. We can expect a sustained change in the way learners are assessed and their progress measured, representing opportunities for innovation. Pearson, for example, has already launched a major consultation into the future of UK exams and assessment, focusing on conditions and environment, purposes and value and trust and equity. Renaissance Learning has also been pushing its Star Assessments, which are also doubling as some governments’ source of information on the scale of learning losses. Rosalynis a further example of a proctoring solution that facilitated remote exams. These low-stakes assessments highlight how smoothly assessments and feedback can be managed via edtech solutions.



Wellbeing


Assessing and responding to wellbeing needs is an important blind spot in the digital learning offer. With minimal direct interaction and the limitations of a webcam and microphone, educators and learners are unable to accurately gauge whether a colleague or learner requires wellbeing support, and indeed, what kind of support might be most beneficial. Attempts to digitise wellbeing have thus far been limited to digital app support. A willing and sizeable market exists for a product or offer that solves this issue, both in assessing whether help is necessary and directing an individual on the most appropriate course of supportive action. E.g. Kooth.








In Summary



1. The pandemic caused significant learning losses, given sparse existing digital provision in the majority of education settings, limited and unknown personal device access and limited central guidance on how to deliver effective remote learning.


2. If left unaddressed, this lost learning is likely to lead to both short-term knowledge gaps and poorer later life employment and earnings outcomes for affected students.


3. Significant learning losses happened because education systems weren’t prepared for the scale of upheaval that immediate closure requirements would cause. Learners, educators and settings and governments didn’t have adequate resources in place to support distance learning.


4. Some interventions have proved effective, led by edtech companies, governments, educators and learners and they will be taken forward strategically.


5. There are three challenges that education systems now need to address:


- Addressing the catch-up challenge- minimising learning losses and longer-term impacts on employment and earnings outcomes

- Building resilience in the system to withstand shocks- future-proofing education systems

- Improving and proving edtech efficacy- building understanding of what works for leaders, teachers, students and parents


6. There are three areas in which we expect edtech to experience mass adoption:


-Resources- learning and institution management; centralised learning resources

-Delivery- personalisation; gamification and simulation

-Monitoring- assessment and feedback; wellbeing










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