Edtech for good: how the education sector is using tech to navigate the impacts of COVID-19

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Written by Justin Cooke, Chief Content and Partnerships Officer at leading social learning platform, FutureLearn

Edtech has always been a pioneering space for purpose-driven innovation built to make a positive and lasting impact on society. FutureLearn’s mission, for example, is to transform access to education across the globe. And right now around the world, thousands of companies within the edtech industry are working their socks off, innovating towards this same goal of transforming education, and providing useful solutions not just for schools, universities, their students and their staff, but for professionals and businesses in a wide variety of different sectors.

At a time when the industry – and indeed the world as we know it – faces some of the biggest fundamental shifts in its history, edtech companies have subsequently been met with unprecedented demand to help individuals, as well as organisations, navigate this uncertain period.

Helping educational institutions respond & adapt 

As a result of the pandemic, schools and universities worldwide have had to close their campuses and buildings to students and staff alike. This has led to institutions now having to accelerate their move towards online teaching and learning. In the UK, this has meant teachers, academics and lecturers working faster than ever before to digitise learning materials and whole chunks of their curriculum in order to ensure the continued education of 2.3 million plus higher education students and over 10 million school pupils

Prior to the pandemic, there was already a lot of appetite for edtech solutions such as online learning, which offers educational institutions a way to enhance their in-person offerings. In fact, we would need to build 7,000 universities to fulfil the needs delivered by online degrees alone due to the sustained demand for them. Now, the edtech industry is providing solutions for an even higher volume of individuals and institutions. 

Though the value of edtech has been widely acknowledged, many institutions are only now unleashing its full potential and are leaning into edtech innovations to help overcome present barriers. At FutureLearn, for example, the number of higher education partners working with us at pace to deliver online course materials for their students has increased dramatically.  Since the start of the pandemic we have seen a five times increase in traffic to the platform, and we gained over a million enrolments in March alone. 

Naturally there has been lots of discussion about learning online, but our data showed us that there was little on how to deliver teaching online. So we decided to create our very own How to Teach Online course on exactly that in just two weeks which received over 45,000 enrolments in under a month, showing just how much need there is among educators for a community of sharing, curating, and supporting each other in a time that has often felt isolating for them and many. 

We, like many other edtech companies, are working to develop solutions for challenges that have existed for a long time but have now become more pressing under today’s unfortunate circumstances. For example, we expedited the launch of FutureLearn Campus so that universities can more rapidly facilitate online teaching and learning for their staff and students. We also very recently launched FutureLearn Schools in partnership with Pearson and Tes Global – it’s a new initiative that gives millions of students aged 13-18 free upgraded access to over a hundred relevant short courses on the platform, in order to support their learning and expand their horizons.

We have also worked with partners to make a number of pre-sessional courses available, which allow students to stay on top of their academic learning and prepare for university as soon as normal study resumes. 

The broader edtech sector has stepped up in a number of ways – from apps for kids being homeschooled to remote teaching tools to support educators – in order to deliver socially-impactful innovation, responding at speed with highly practical and accessible resources for the short term that will no doubt also leave an indelible mark on the way the whole industry operates in the long term.

Navigating the new future of work

It’s not just the education sector that’s being impacted by these radical changes to the way we learn as a society. The world of work has been undergoing disruption for many years, especially with regards to the growing importance of professional learning development. Almost 80% of the global workforce already places great value on job-related training opportunities, and while technological innovation continues to drive the need for new skills year on year with 42% of core skills for existing roles needing an overhaul by 2022, lifelong learning has become imperative.

However, the pandemic has since brought about a number of unforeseen changes to professionals and businesses around the world. The widespread adoption of remote working in order to combat the spread of the virus has been among the biggest of these changes, and has completely altered the way millions of people work and subsequently train.

For some individuals who need to retrain or upskill for new or modified roles at this difficult time, edtech resources have proven to be an empowering tool that is helping them to adapt to this uncertain landscape, as well as for the future beyond it. This is why the government recently launched The Skills Toolkit, a selection of free, online courses designed to help boost the nation’s skills during lockdown, which include a number of FutureLearn’s digital skills courses from the Institute of Coding and the University of Leeds as well as Accenture.

Through online learning opportunities like these, people can learn the skills needed to nurture or even redirect their career paths in an increasingly technological age. Already, up to 40% of FutureLearn’s community of over 11 million learners are using our platform to further their professional goals.

Edtech in a post-covid world

During the crisis I have at times been reminded of words from Roy Amara, Stanford University computer scientist and long-time head of the Institute for the Future. Amara concluded that we tend to overestimate the impact of a new technology in the short run, but we underestimate it in the long run. 

On the contrary, FutureLearn has invested seven years and millions of capital into developing a scalable, long-term solution that goes beyond the current ’emergency remote teaching’ and caters to the needs of millions of learners across the globe. 

In reality, this pandemic has acted as an accelerator of underlying trends in higher education, trends that were already well underway to becoming the norm but are simply happening at a much faster rate now, albeit under incredibly tough circumstances.

We have just reached the inflexion point when edtech and online learning becomes ubiquitous and disruptive, and in the post-coronavirus world there is no doubt that the socially-driven innovations and resources that have come out of the sector will continue to prove valuable and life-changing for many

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