Opinion

COVID-19: A time for schools to level up their edtech game

Deep down, I am a little envious of the sixth formers who were supposed to take their A-Levels and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams this summer. COVID-19 has thrown everyone off guard and even our very own Oxford University has canceled all face-to-face teachings and resorted to remote learning for Trinity Term. This disease is proving itself to be one of the most disruptive forces in history. 

On the other hand, this is also the perfect moment for schools to up their technology game. In fact, all schools around the world need to improve on this level. It is long overdue. And if done right, COVID-19 can be a catalyst that makes many students, teachers and parents’ lives much easier. 

However, “leveling up” is far more than what the government has talked about for the past few years. Forget about the politics behind education policies. There are many deficiencies in the education sector that need fixing. However, let’s start with technology. 

Schools reportedly spent £900m on education technology in 2017. This year, the global market is estimated to be worth £129bn. Sounds like a huge industry? It is – as the industry map below serves to demonstrate, the edtech industry is massively crowded and competitive.

Source: https://www.navitasventures.com/insights/landscape/

So how to complete this edtech quest? Easy: think about schools that are doing remote-learning now. Firstly, they need an online conference software for content delivery, then a Learning Management System (LMS) to assign tasks, receive work for marking, and schedule lessons. Finally, they need a formative assessment software for teachers to monitor student progress. For example, think about periodic tests/quizzes but instead of teachers having to print out the test papers, students complete their tests online. With these tests, teachers don’t even have to mark them. A truly digital education experience is eminently possible – even on what seems like a small scale. 

The good news is that there are thousands of amazing software applications to help teachers deliver teaching remotely. Remember the image of the edtech industry landscape above? Teachers and schools literally have thousands of softwares to pick for different selections of functions they want. 

Much public attention has been given to Zoom, which is an online video conference software. Rather prudently, it was first to temporarily make its platform free to those impacted by the outbreak. Now teachers use Zoom to quickly set up virtual classrooms and students participate in online classes and continue their studies online. 

Source: facebook

College students very quickly made memes about this phenonmenon-particularly in the US where their tuition fees are much higher than those in the UK. There is even a Facebook group called “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens”: perhaps this is what the Silicon Valley calls “the Network Effect”. 

On the formative assessment front, Zzish, a UK-based edtech startup, has built a classroom quiz game application called Quizalize. Like Zoom, Zzish has made its premium version available for free to all schools affected by COVID-19. 

Yes, there are plenty of options for educators. However, there are still many challenges ahead for both consumers of technology, from consumers – students, teachers, and schools – to producers of technology, primarily ed-tech companies. 67% of educational software product licenses go unused in schools in the US and in the UK. This is the underutilisation problem. 

In addition to underutilisation, discrepancies in education equity present huge problems. In the most disadvantaged secondary schools, teachers are 50% more likely to be sick or absent, showing a reliable sign of stress and high workload. Moreover, these teachers are also less likely to hold a degree relevant to the subject they are teaching. In the most disadvantaged schools outside London, fewer than one in six physics teachers have a physics degree. Underfunded schools face the largest “learning crises” due to COVID-19’s disruption, and are the least equipped to tackle this crisis. If they are given access to edtech toolkits, I believe that these schools will show the most promising results and advocacy, improving student performance and facilitating easier online teaching. 

Will online learning translate into a financial boom across the entire education industry? Unfortunately, the reality is that there is simply too much chaos. Schools want to stick with what they know because there is little margin of error, and Ed-tech solution providers are busy either acquiring new customers or fixing bugs in order to accommodate the sudden surge of usage. 

It seems that the current short-term spike we are currently seeing in demand will not translate to longer-term needs from schools when there are so many tools and platforms that can offer the same features. What really equates to long-term demand, however, is to make sure that a specific ed-tech product is the best way to attack a weak spot in the educational market.

Traditional methods of delivery and systems of education are becoming fast outmoded and incapacitated, and the situation caused by COVID-19 is the perfect storm to level up education. Oxford students are privileged. We have got SOLO, Microsoft Office suite, and library databases at our disposal. As much as we complain about how technology has often failed us, we must bear in mind that not every institution in the world can afford this–many parts of the world are yet to be digitized. They are still in Level 1 of the technology game. 

Perhaps the best message to schools is that from the founder of Zzish, Charles Wiles, “Don’t close. Take your school online”. Edtech companies should join schools in leveling up their capacity. What a time to level up. 

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Jack Chong is a first-year student studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Christ Church. He has co-founded Level Up, an ed-tech startup formed from OX1 Incubator, winning a total of £10K+ prizes on Demo Day 2020. He has also co-founded UnbOx, a student initiative to select Oxford talents and place them into startup internships. He is passionate about student entrepreneurship and increasing access to the Oxford startup ecosystem.