There is no going back to pre-Covid edtech scepticism

Educators now accept that digital tools are neither inapplicable to educational settings nor incompatible with sector values, says Jo Johnson

August 25, 2021
A student with a computer, illustrating edtech
Source: iStock

Once billed as “Woodstock for edtech”, the annual ASU+GSV Summit, held earlier this month in San Diego, has entered the mainstream. The pandemic has ended a frustrating standoff between the worlds of tech and education, allowing the sector to pass an inflexion point in its journey towards systemic digital adoption.

This moment has been a long time coming for host Michael Crow. As the pioneering President of Arizona State University, he has perhaps done more than any sector leader to demonstrate how universities can transform their regions by leveraging technology to scale up access to world-class research-led teaching.

In the pre-Covid era, cultural conservatism had often dismissed technological solutions as inapplicable to educational settings. This resulted in a lack of educator interest in online learning, half-hearted attempts to develop new teaching materials, and too little attention paid either to staff training or the uneven availability of decent internet access and computing equipment.

Post-Covid, we still know that technology will never replace great teachers. And that it will never wholly substitute, for all students, the benefits of face-to-face learning with and from peers in a fully immersive environment. There are always going to be learners for whom the social components of the education bundle – the formation of friendship networks, the acquisition of social skills and the ability to grow up in a safe environment – matter as much or more than the simple acquisition of a qualification.

Yet there is no going back. The forced adoption of remote methods of recruitment, admissions, learning, assessment and staff management seems to have triggered a virtuous adoption cycle: increased familiarity and awareness of the potential benefits of technology are overcoming the scepticism and driving continued use and deeper penetration.

The sector is shifting to a new equilibrium in its relationship with technology, driven both from within educational institutions and demanded from without by outcomes-focused governments. Investment in digital tools that simultaneously reduce inequalities and drive efficiencies from education budgets will soon be – if it isn’t already – a top priority for sector leaders and policymakers globally. 

There is now an appreciation among educators that digital tools are, in fact, neither inapplicable to educational settings nor incompatible with the values and ethos of the sector. On the contrary, there is recognition that they can make the lives of teachers and school administrators easier and more productive, freeing them up to focus time and resources on widening access and improving outcomes for learners. 

Spending on augmented/virtual reality and artificial intelligence is expected to increase exponentially. And software that liberates teachers by automating burdensome processes – like making timetables, filling out class attendance rosters, logging safeguarding incidents and organising parents’ evenings – has gone from nice-to-have to must-have. 

Policymakers have also had a wake-up call. For students around the world, this has been a calamitous 18 months. The learning loss adds up to hundreds of millions – even billions – of school and college years, and it has been the technologically disadvantaged who have had the worst outcomes of all. The poorest have paid the price for policy failures that left them the wrong side of the digital divide. Investment to bridge that gulf is now a political imperative. 

Leaving aside preparedness planning for the next shock that closes schools and colleges, few policymakers now dismiss the potential of education technology. There is growing recognition of its power to expand access to learning, so that societies are less wasteful of their human capital; to engage students, raise attainment and enhance outcomes; and to reduce teacher workloads, optimising use of resources and driving efficiencies from hard-pressed budgets. 

Anyone in any doubt should follow the money. According to projections by market intelligence organisation HolonIQ, global education and training expenditure will grow to $7.3 trillion (£5.3 trillion) by 2025. Within this envelope, spending on edtech will nearly double to just over $400 billion (£292 billion).

In the face of major structural trends, strong investor appetite for education technology assets is unlikely to be fleeting. Successful IPOs from online platforms such as Coursera and 2U, as well as the likely listing of other players waiting in the wings, are encouraging a surge of investment into an edtech sector that is in many respects still in its infancy.

Expect next year’s ASU+GSV Summit to be bigger – and even more blue chip – than ever.

Jo Johnson is chair of Tes Global and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Reader's comments (2)

OpenSource and Linux.
I hate when it's referred to as "the sector". It's another indicator that a profession that was once inspired by scientific progress and the pursuit of truth has been reduced to its outer shell that merely follows the money -- another industry sector like tourism and manufacturing, with the awful but creeping consequence that our society is getting dumber by the day.


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