Rapid advances in technology over the past decade have impacted on all aspects of our lives and this includes the world of education. From kindergarten through to university and professional training at any stage of a career, technology is being used to enhance learning with new ways to deliver lessons, monitor progress or to give students a more enriching experience. While it might be expected that this would be seen in the more technological subjects, these changes are also happening across the entire curriculum from arts subjects to humanities to vocational training. While, for some of the less technically-minded, these changes can take some getting used to, most agree that the use of technology is making learning more exciting than ever.
A wealth of information
The internet has meant that it has never been so easy to be able to access information from world-leading experts on any subject no matter how obscure. This has revolutionized projects from the days when students might be limited to whatever research materials were available in their homes or school and public libraries. With so many students now possessing their own mobile phones and tablets, schools have become keen to utilize mobile technology, with many teachers reporting that students can become even more engaged in their learning if they are using these devices. It also opens up opportunities for students to extend their learning themselves, using the internet for further research to build on what they have learnt in the school or college or to further investigate their own interests.
One of the biggest changes that technology has brought to learning is that it is no longer necessary for students and teachers to be physically together in the same space. Online learning materials, webinars and video technology allow learning to be delivered from anywhere with an internet connection to anywhere with an internet connection with a choice of materials that can be accessed at any time.
This change came into its own during the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when many schools and universities were closed. Using a variety of software, teachers were able to keep in touch with their students, setting them lessons and allowing them to submit work for marking and feedback without needing to see them in person. It even allowed students to be able to ‘meet’ with each other at a time when many were feeling isolated or to let staff check on their students’ welfare.
Another way that it has changed learning is by making it more accessible. Traditionally, those wanting to undertake study or training would need to attend a physical premises within reach of their home or move to be near to one. This, of course, meant that many would not have a suitable course near them, forcing them to miss out or take a less suitable option. Others might not have the time to attend lessons at the time when they are in progress due to other commitments. Now, online learning allows students to attend courses from anywhere in the world, giving them a vast array of possibilities to suit their interests, budgets and level, often providing the flexibility to fit it around work and family commitments. One change that we have seen is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), a usually free course with open access that is often quite short in duration, allowing students to gain knowledge without the need to make a huge financial or time commitment.
Once, an online course might have seemed a second-best option to in-person learning, but just as technology has improved, many universities and other course providers have risen to meet the challenge, with their online courses rivalling anything that their in-person counterparts can offer – including practical courses that you might think would be impossible to be done remotely, such as medical and nursing. Marymount University is one place that is enhancing learning with technology, allowing students to study nursing remotely with a mixture of online study and clinical placements within easy reach of the student, as well as education and business courses.
Collaboration and participation
Tech makes collaboration and the sharing of ideas easier. Using cloud technology, students can work together on a project or share ideas even when they are not together. It can also increase participation in lessons, with students easily able to share their thoughts with the whole class. This can be particularly beneficial for the less confident students who balk at the thought of speaking up in class, but who might be happy to put together a video presentation. Increasingly, it can allow all students to become active participants in a lesson, rather than passive listeners who only speak when called to do so.
Traditionally, a student seeking academic or pastoral support from a teacher could only easily contact them during school hours, often when the teacher has many other matters on their mind. And with other students around, it may be hard to speak in confidence. However, today a teacher is likely to have a school email address they can be contacted on, or a school might have their own communication platform, where students can message a teacher at any time and the teacher can reply at a time when they can give the matter their full concentration. This is particularly valuable for sensitive matters, as it is easier to keep it in complete confidence.
For younger students, this ease of communication is also beneficial to parents. No longer do they have to wait for a designated parent-teacher confidence. Instead, they can use the messaging system, helping to nip problems in the bud before they become serious and increasing the three-way collaboration between teachers, students and parents that can help boost results.
Monitoring and recordkeeping
Gone are the days when educational records meant reams of paper and files. With recordkeeping and monitoring digitized, it can be easy to see, at the touch of a button, information on students’ results or attendance – allowing better analysis, access and sharing of data to help track student progress, or quickly identify any problems. Digital copies of student progress can also be sent directly to parents, so no longer can students ‘lose’ a less-than-favorable report card!
Teachers can keep their teaching materials more easily organized and that same analysis they use to monitor their students’ progress can also be used to track teacher performance, highlighting good practice and identifying areas of improvement.
With tech facilitating greater collaboration, lesson plans and project ideas can be shared online, easing a teacher’s workload and helping successful lessons to reach a wider audience.
Special educational needs
One thing that tech excels in is improving communication, and this can be particularly valuable for students with additional needs. Using speech-to-text technology can help students whose mobility or coordination issues prevent them writing, allowing them to share their ideas and creativity regardless. Braille technology or text-to-speech provides greater access to students who are blind or partially sighted. With eye-gazing technology, even a paraplegic can learn to control a screen to communicate their ideas.
Dyslexic students often struggle with the standard black text on a white background, hindering them in their reading. Today, there are apps that can change the background color, making it easier for these students to follow the material.
Students who are on the autistic spectrum can be assisted with visual timetables that are easily created on a variety of software, enabling them to have the clear, organized structure that helps them to thrive. When they are struggling, noise-canceling headphones might help, or a school could create a calming, sensory space using technology to control music or lights as appropriate.
The internet is awash with educational games and activities that can help boost skills across the curriculum or reinforce knowledge from lessons. These are increasingly used as classroom activities or homework. Teachers can also use software to create their own activities, with quizzes being popular group activities, where students can answer on their own devices. For reluctant learners, this type of learning can often seem more like fun than education and so helps them to make progress without them fully realizing they are learning.
Testing can also sometimes be carried out on a computer, both for formal qualifications or internal assessments. If the software also marks these tests, this is another way that tech can ease the workload of teaching.
Have there been any downsides?
While tech has changed learning and education in many positive ways, it is fair to say that it has also brought some challenges and not everyone is convinced that the increase in technology has been a good thing.
Some detractors are concerned that young people are spending too much time glued to their screens and are losing the capacity for social interaction. It is certainly true that screen addiction can be a problem, particularly in teenagers, and that it would not be healthy for these young people to spend all day at school on a screen, before coming home to their tablets, PCs or consoles. However, schools are aware of the potential for problems and work hard to create a balanced curriculum that includes a variety of activities that are not technology-based. By doing this, they can help children learn to strike a healthy balance in their own lives with plenty of social interaction and physical activity, as well as time spent gaming.
Being able to easily contact teachers is a benefit of technology, but there will be students and parents who take it too far, expecting teachers to be permanently ready to reply to messages. It is important that schools set out their expectations on this and communicate them to students and parents, so teachers feel able to have some downtime when they are not on duty. Teachers may also need to be particularly careful with their social media account privacy, as some students will enjoy tracking them down.
As more and more students have social media accounts, this can also cause problems. While most students will use it for communication and sharing news, some will use it for bullying, and many schools have needed to update their bullying policies to keep pace with this.
While it is exciting that students have the internet to carry out their research, the younger the child, the more necessary it is for this to be supervised. Alongside all the informative and fun sites on the internet are many that are less savory. Controls on sites can mitigate much of the problem, but it is also important for schools to now teach safe internet usage so that their students can enjoy the benefits without the pitfalls.
Just as the technological advances of the last 10 years have brought changes to learning, so the next 10 years and beyond are certain to do the same. Already, artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in educational settings and this is something that may increase. It could be used in test marking, freeing up teachers from this time, or to allow educational software to be tailored to the abilities and weaknesses of individual pupils. It is possible that more sophisticated chat bots could become a student’s first port of call if they are struggling, before contacting their teacher.
Virtual reality is another technology to look out for. This is something that could truly transform lessons. Imagine a history lesson where you put on a headset and take a trip around ancient Rome or a geography lesson that transports you to the Sahara Desert without needing to leave the classroom. Perhaps one day, medical students will spend many hours carrying out virtual operations before they meet their first human patient.
Elon Musk’s Starlink project has the aim of bringing the internet to almost everyone on the planet. If he, or anyone, achieves this, it can bring the chance of online study anywhere in the world. Perhaps one day, the greatest achievement of technology will be to bring the opportunities of formal education to everyone. We can certainly hope so.