It’s fair to say that, when the pandemic hit, many teachers and schools were underprepared with regards to the technological know-how needed to pivot rapidly to working remotely.
This is not surprising; no one had foreseen the need to have such skills, especially when the traditional methods had worked for so long.
But from March 2020, a rapid upskilling of educational professionals at all career stages and in all settings has taken place using a variety of methods, from self-directed learning by teachers to online CPD courses.
And in a timely bit of good fortune for the education sector, there was another route to gaining new tech skills they could turn to: the EdTech Demonstrator Programme, run by The Education Foundation, London Grid for Learning and Sheffield Hallam University and funded by the Department of Education (DfE).
“We’ve helped over 4,000 schools and colleges since we launched,” says Ty Goddard, director of The Education Foundation. “That’s an amazing achievement.”
The EdTech Demonstrator Programme also had to pivot as the pandemic unfolded, moving from an initial plan of taking a broad focus on how to help educators make better use of edtech generally, to switching entirely to focus on remote teaching. And delivering this all remotely, too.
“It was initially going to be a self-contained research project that looked at how we could unlock the potential of edtech with a peer-to-peer support system,” explains Goddard.
“But we turned it into a matter of days into a much larger delivery programme, a kind of emergency programme, to help schools and colleges that have never used education technology before to support teaching and learning and to get them doing remote teaching.”
How was this achieved?
The programme relied on bringing together existing expertise in the education sector to share insights and skills.
At the launch, it involved 20 schools and colleges (which were already skilled in technology delivery, whether for teaching and learning, using tools for assessments or sharing insights on areas such as the importance of infrastructure) before growing to 48 as the year progressed.
A key part of this, Goddard says, was ensuring that all sectors were covered with this support, so those that need help could be put in touch with a similar setting.
“We had EYFS, further education, secondary, primary schools…they all had different types of experiences but they all shared a depth of understanding about the potential for edtech. That sort of cross-phase mentoring in technology was a real plus.”
Schools and colleges register online for support based on their setting, location and requirements and are paired with a demonstrator to help support them with their requirements.
The demonstrators themselves were selected via an application process that involved outlining the expertise and skills a setting believed it could offer followed by an online interview.
One such demonstrator was Digital Learning Cornwall, the delivery used by those that lead ICT improvement for the Aspire Academy Trust, a multi-academy trust comprising a group of 28 primary academies across Cornwall and that had been running since 2012.
Giles Hill, the digital learning lead for Aspire, told Tes the group initially applied to be a demonstrator because “we thought it was very much in tune with what we had been doing in terms of training for staff around edtech”.
Hill admits that as the impact of the pandemic became clear he assumed the project would be shelved, but instead was delighted to see it adapt to focus on remote teaching: “I thought the project seemed even more relevant so was glad to see others thought the same.”
As such, it quickly became demonstrators using the expertise they had gathered over the past nine years to help schools understand what would suit their needs best in a short space of time.
“We road test a lot of products and take an unbiased look at them and test them in real-world circumstances. That helped us offer advice to others on what might suit them best,” he says.
“For example, we had one school who were looking at Microsoft Teams or Google Classroom, but their instinct was that it wasn’t quite right, so I gave them a demo of Seesaw and followed up with training for staff and so on and they ended up implementing it.”
At the other end of the scale, some of the work was just about working with less digitally savvy staff to help boost their confidence.
“There were lots of teachers who were nervy about tech and we had to give basic tips in using tools and using simple processes so they could put that into practice. It was wonderful to see their confidence grow,” he says.
It’s these sort of connections that makes Mr Goddard so effusive on what the project has achieved so far. “It’s about teachers helping teachers, about them training each other and showing the potential of technology,” he says.
It wasn’t just tech training or platform purchases that the EdTech Demonstrator Programme delivered on – it also offered guidance on how to adapt traditional classroom teaching to the online world, as Kelly Edwards, director of quality at Harlow College, another EdTech Demonstrator institution, explains.
“We would run sessions on how to run a basic online learning teaching and assessment session, essentially how to teach online, because lots of people were nervous teaching online because it is so different,” she says.
“So we had to teach them how to be confident coming in and out of Teams, and doing different activities and how to question and answer online and check people were engaged. These are all the skills teachers have in a classroom but they had to learn how to do them online.”
As such, the college set about helping upskill huge numbers of staff by running online training days discussing how to do these sorts of activities, with as many as 250 staff reached in a single day – and sessions were recorded and available on demand as well.
Edwards says Harlow College felt compelled to step up and help because as an Apple Distinguished School it felt it had “something to offer” as it had been through the pain barrier of upskilling staff itself when it made the use of apps and iPads central to its work in 2014.
“We moved to a system where students and staff have iPads and worksheets are provided through an app called Showbie. Students upload work there and teachers can leave audio notes, or we ask Btec students to time-lapse themselves building a joint in woodwork on their iPad and that is uploaded for feedback,” she explains.
Because of this learning journey and the support needed to guide their own teachers around how to incorporate technology into every day, they were then able to pass this knowledge on to those participating in the EdTech Demonstrator Programme.
How was it received?
As Goddard notes, some 4,000 schools took part, with an estimated 10,000 teachers trained up through the platform – and they are effusive about its impact, as Patrick Leavey, the deputy principal of Northampton College, makes plain.
“Soon into the first lockdown we touched base with [Harlow College] and discussed their EdTech Demonstrator status,” he explains.
“A week later, we met Kelly and her enthusiasm was infectious and led to a staff skills audit, a staff development action plan, a staff structure appraisal to support edtech, support for developing our college-wide digital strategy.”
“It has all been a very exciting journey and a very productive, rewarding and supportive experience.”
Meanwhile, Martin Post, the IT strategy manager at Crofty MAT in Cornwall, said working with Digital Learning Cornwall had a huge benefit – not just for the pandemic but beyond, too.
“I and many of the teachers within our Trust have attended most of Giles’ webinar series for the past year. They have provided us with some brilliant pointers when choosing the right edtech for us and highlighted some pieces of software/plugins that we have started to use to improve our educational offering,” he said.
“This was of benefit during the lockdowns but will continue now that we are moving back to a more traditional learning environment.”
And as Post’s comments allude, the future use of edtech after the pandemic is an important consideration – and something the EdTech Demonstrator is already thinking about.
In fact, the project has just received further funding from the DfE to carry on for another year – with the intent that it can return to its original goal of offering a broader focus on helping education settings improve their use of edtech, which Goddard says has been accelerated by the pandemic.
“You’ll see teachers using edtech with much more confidence. The fear factor has gone. It’s not about whether you use technology, it’s about how and how can we make it the most effective tool alongside teachers to support their work and to support learners.”
Edwards agrees, and says that her hope is that colleges and schools recognise that there is an approach for a more blended use of technology now.
“It’s not about an online-only approach but an in-class approach, where you utilise technology to complement what goes on in the classroom or the college – how do you use Teams, for example, for communication or reducing using huge amounts of paper?”
“Or it may be about continuing to use technology in events like virtual parents’ evenings – why would we go back to the world of parent evenings when you can use technology?” she says.
Of course, though, just because there may be more innovation or willingness to use technology does not mean there won’t be challenges – such as schools and colleges having the right infrastructure to adequately use technology.
“One of the challenges we had was that [the pandemic] really revealed a long-term neglect of infrastructure,” says Goddard.
Hill agrees: “This [poor infrastructure] could be a fly in the ointment because if you don’t have good reliable wi-fi and filters and so on then people will be wading through treacle and eventually give up.”
As such, they both say that a focus on supporting schools on how to boost their infrastructure and make it fit for purpose is one area where improvements may be needed.
Changes at the top
Perhaps even more fundamentally, though, Goddard’s hope is that, thanks to the pandemic, this recognition of the power of technology – and how to support it – has not just become embedded in classrooms but the corridors of power, too.
“I think we're going to have to see a new edtech strategy in this country [and] we're going to have to see Ofsted at last, taking an interest in edtech,” he says.
“I think the inspection framework is going to have to actually have a look at how technology is deployed and have some of the inspectors really skilling themselves up in terms of technology.”
This is not wishful thinking either, with the EdTech Demonstrator Programme also using its skills to this purpose: “We organised a couple of seminars for Ofsted researchers about the power of technology and what it could bring you within an institution.”
For education settings that have rapidly upskilled when it comes to technology, this could be a welcome development – and for those that feel they are still behind it may, in time, become a strong motivator.
The key now, though, says Goddard, is to build on the gains made over lockdown and ensure the momentum of the past 12 months is maintained long into the future.
“This moment of crisis revealed edtech's potential, its power to support teachers and support learners – [but] edtech is not just for a crisis. It's a year-round tool that has enormous potential.”
A mahoosive shout out to the @EdtechDemo network of #schools #colleges - over 4,000 institutions received direct #edtech support and over 10,000 benefitting from advice / guidance - policy, video and courses.— Ty Goddard (@ty_goddard) March 31, 2021
Good work in any year; extraordinary in this. @LGfL @EdnFoundation pic.twitter.com/KPNRQIRF8J
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes