Last reviewed 6 July 2023

Unbelievable advances

In 2000 it was estimated that only 47% of UK adults had a mobile phone that could do very little other than make calls. It is now estimated that 84% of UK adults, together with countless children and teenagers, have smartphones performing functions that 20 years ago could only be done by a desktop computer. This degree of advance would have seemed unbelievable in 2020.

Today’s classrooms are now packed with technology, from tablets and laptops to digital readers and interactive whiteboards making it possible for learning experiences to be enhanced and personalised in many new ways.

The need for adequate resourcing

Having access to these tools and online resources is becoming increasingly important for meeting individual learning needs and helping students from all demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds as they prepare for further education, work and life in the digital economy.

Clearly, many schools are still under-resourced. This differentiation is highlighted by Ofsted reports of students in schools rated “inadequate”, where 72% did not have access to individual devices in their classrooms. This compares to 59% of students in schools rated “outstanding”. Teachers in schools that Ofsted has rated “inadequate” are particularly likely to say that they have insufficient tools, or lack of access to the tools that aid the development of the skills that students require.

The onset of the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic was a tremendous shake-up, causing schools to reconsider the best ways of using technology. Overnight, teachers were ordered to move to hybrid learning, with many students expected to access their entire curriculum remotely. Former schools minister Jim Knight, now Rt Hon Lord Knight, pointed out how the pandemic had “accelerated the evolution of technology adoption, curriculum, and other key elements of learning”.

Inequality of provision

However, an immediate effect was to draw attention to the digital divide, with lack of access to technology highlighting the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest children.

Since most home learning required students to have access to the web, and some connected tools in order to participate in learning, clearly for many of them this was not the case. It rapidly became clear that children from independent schools had a distinct advantage over those in state schools, particularly if the school was in a disadvantaged area.

In 2020, a survey conducted by Microsoft revealed that 38% of independent primary schools provided devices for pupils to take home. Only 1% of state primaries were able to do the same.

The problems with remote learning led to the Government stepping in to provide laptops and tablets for schools. The greatest investment in devices came between July 2020 and June 2021, when over 1.1 million devices were purchased for its Get Help with Technology Programme.

Although the situation has markedly improved, the divide between the haves and have nots is still of major concern.

Positive aspects

Reports suggest that the UK education system is a world leader in the adoption and use of technology in the classroom, with 64% of schools actively using technology in everyday teaching and learning processes.

One encouraging feature of remote learning was that parents became much more involved with their children’s education. In many cases home learning proved to be a major inconvenience for them, but research subsequently showed that 55% of parents backed this and had received guidance in ways of supporting their children.

Hence, the outcomes of lockdown and remote learning were not all bad. Technology has rapidly spread throughout schools and revolutionised the way that students learn. Today it is not at all uncommon for each pupil to have access to their own online tools.

Access to devices such as computers, laptops and tablets help pupils to develop technological literacy as they get more comfortable using a variety of materials, tools and programs.

Collaborative software helps pupils work together on projects. Lord Knight commented on how data supported the idea that technology, including collaborative and game-based software had increased levels of student engagement and led to improved holistic outcomes. Students might be in the same classroom, or on the other side of the world, but teachers can still stay connected, assign tasks and plan extension work. Assessment software can be used to evaluate pupils and gauge their understanding of various concepts, indicating specific areas in need of improvement.

Gamification is a new learning model that can incorporate an element of fun in the classroom. It commonly uses game design elements to improve user engagement and boost motivation among pupils. Students can participate actively and frequently in ways that help them to learn and master a range of different skills, and it is widely available for anything from touch typing to language learning.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers and pupils had to get used to video chat, and this continues to have its uses with 39% of schools continuing to use remote learning practices in some capacity.

In addition to benefits for students, technology has also supported teachers, an example being that staff meetings can now take place online. Communication and collaboration have also seen a major change. Technology now enables pupils, teachers and parents to communicate in different ways that allow for more co-operation and opportunity, for instance, in quickly clearing up any misunderstandings.

The new technology also enables schools to use online wellbeing trackers to monitor mental and physical wellness. These can distribute surveys and gain a valuable insight into pupil and teacher wellbeing.

Concerns for the future

Clearly, technology has had a profound influence on UK education, but nobody knows what developments the future may bring. A current burning issue concerns the growth and risk of Artificial Intelligence, or AI.

The Guardian reports that “schools are bewildered by the fast pace of development in artificial intelligence and do not trust tech firms to protect the interests of students and educational establishments”. Not the least of these are chatbots such as ChatGPT that can aid cheating.

Recent months have seen breakthroughs in generative AI where tools can produce plausible text, images and even voice impersonations on command. Educational leaders feel that it is necessary to form a task group to advise schools on this developing issue.

The DfE said that the Government was always anxious to pursue opportunities and manage risks and that “it would continue to work with experts, including in education, to share and identify best practice.” Rishi Sunak has said that “guardrails” would have to be put around AI, but in a letter to The Times, educational leaders expressed the view that AI is moving too quickly for Government or Parliament alone to provide real-time advice to schools in need.

The Times has reported that heads of science or digital at 15 state and independent schools are already creating a website to offer schools guidance on developments in AI and what technology to avoid and what to embrace.

The high degree of uncertainty with respect to future technological developments suggests that the ability to read a crystal ball would be a very useful asset.