How smart are our ‘smart schools’, and the evolution of education technology

EduTech is having its moment. It has moved on from being a ‘nice to have category’ and a sort of ‘marketing edge’ for schools that partnered with Educomp or any ‘smart class’ provider.

Many surveys had indicated that most such facilities were in disuse. Very few teachers would use it, or such ‘smart boards’ were used to play content when a teacher was absent. It was fashionable for school owners to claim that they were running a ‘smart school’. Many times, it was also fashionable for the parents that their children were attending a ‘smart school’.

After a few years of selling the hardware of an interactive whiteboard, a projector, and a PC with ‘canned content’ into the classrooms, the teachers stopped using it. Obviously, the teaching-learning process and the underpinning pedagogy are different for different teachers and different subjects. A good teacher is always versatile and agile enough to change gears as they pay close attention to the student’s body language, eye contact, and the quality of interaction. A regimented lesson, with a fixed ‘set’ of digital content objects delivered in a fixed sequence, does not provide the ‘freedom’ of instruction, interaction, and the ability to be spontaneous to the teacher. The beauty and effectiveness of a teaching-learning session is always the ‘unexpected’ connections that the teacher can make to real world issues, or it is a question asked by a student that sparks a healthy debate.

The teacher in a classroom is like the conductor of an orchestra: someone who weaves a wonderful session using all the resources at her command, including all digital and non-digital resources, the interactions with students, etc. Technology and digital content should support and empower the teacher to deliver effective sessions in his or her own inimitable style. Each teacher is different, and they evolve different teaching styles, many times also factoring in the ability of the class of students. Teachers calibrate and recalibrate the pace, the extent of elaboration needed for particular concepts, revisit the prerequisites for learning, the short quizzes, the extent of concept abstraction, the extent of interdisciplinary learning, etc.

If smart classes in smart schools do not provide this freedom, the fundamental objective of empowering the teacher and making the teaching-learning process more effective, the use of technology in education becomes questionable. This was a grey period during the early phase of technology adoption with a genuine aspiration to improve the quality of education delivery in schools.

Manufacturers of smart interactive boards, projectors, and the producers of curriculum-driven ‘canned’ digital content, benefited. It was more a hardware selling and leasing business rather than an education business. Most schools did not renew the lease as they found it ineffective. Students and parents developed the impression that the use of technology in education was all about the use of ‘smart boards’ in classes. Hence, the extra fee component that such schools were collecting for covering the costs, plus the margin for the ‘smart boards’, stopped.

In a way, the learning management systems, driven by the types of Blackboard, started to gain market share in the US, and it was only a matter of time for the other countries to pick it up — particularly in higher education. The power of an LMS, combined with the internet, made the fundamental value system of e-learning or education technology happen — anywhere, anytime learning, live lectures online, assignments and quizzes online, etc. As the market opportunities grew, more LMS players started emerging in the marketplace. Blackboard had competition, and they started to add newer modules, plug-ins, and lots of other features.

Lack of simplicity because of too many features, not being easy to configure, and the ‘one size fits all’ approach — the same platform from school education to university education with minor tweaks — was not going to work. Obviously, how we learn and how we teach is different for different age groups. Technology tools and digital content had to be more tightly glued. The education market started to witness clear segmentation for education technology providers.

The pedagogical approach that the technology platforms had to incorporate, and obviously the content design and production that had to align with them, became a necessity. This meant that there was a renewed focus, and the products or solutions were age-group-specific, and also subject-specific. The examples of this are the tools like Geogebra (for learning geometry and algebra), Geometry Sketchpad (for learning geometry and trigonometry), Stellarium and Celestia (for learning astronomy), programming for Ordino Boards, etc. These technology tools and software tools were complemented by the ‘manipulatives’ and models to deliver a complete learning experience.

Online learning platforms also evolved to deliver a personalised and adaptive learning experience simply because each individual has his or her own learning styles or learning vectors. All of these, with capabilities to support smart devices like iPads and iPhones, made education technology more ubiquitous. Assessments and high-stakes tests have also gone online, and the paper & pen exams are fast disappearing. The psychometry, security, and proctoring tools have made online testing possible.

The sudden onset of the nCOVID-19 pandemic was a litmus test for education technology paradigms. Going to school stopped. However, humanity cannot afford to discontinue education, learning, and assessments. While the immediate response was to deliver live lectures online, which had some challenges of the ‘digital divide’ — lack of, or poor access, to the internet. Students not having access to laptops or smart devices because of the ‘financial divide’, made it less inclusive in certain parts of the world.

With no end in sight yet for the nCOVID19 Pandemic, returning to school is possibly still a few months away. All the key stakeholders in the education sector and in the testing sector have evolved and adapted, and contributed significantly, to the maturity of using technology in education. It is becoming more inclusive and universal in a new world that is fighting hard to endure the pandemic.

Even in the best case of everyone getting vaccinated, which may be in the latter half of next year, there will be a period of uncertainty and fear which will only make resuming ‘education as usual’ slower. And when it happens, education will never be the same again. The new normal, whenever it comes, will have a new blended form of education.

It is the reshaping of education, business, work, travel, and how we live.

About the author

D Sudhanva is the founder and CEO at Excelsoft Technologies, a globally renowned eLearning Solutions Company. With a focus on transforming education across the world, Sudhanva has steered Excelsoft to be a thought leader in Education Technology with robust products delivering innovative solutions.