When COVID-19 was first discovered in December 2019, few could have predicted just how big of an impact on our society it would have. Now, one year later, the coronavirus pandemic still holds the world in an iron grip. Countries around the world seem to be stuck in a perennial loop, forced to choose between implementing lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus and save human lives and loosening restrictions to keep the economy running. Many have described it as a lose-lose scenario. While the closures of non-essential business have been instrumental in reducing the number of infections, they have also had a devastating impact on various sectors, the consequences of which may ultimately turn out to be worse than the virus itself. However, not every sector has been equally affected. Some have even managed to thrive in the new normal, while others are just trying to keep their heads above the water. So, where exactly does secondary education fall in?
The impact of COVID-19 on secondary education
With the novel coronavirus spreading at an alarming rate, 190 countries across the world made the difficult decision to close their schools and send students home. It’s estimated that school closures affected nearly 1.6 billion students worldwide, or approximately 90 per cent of the total student population. While the pandemic’s impact on the education sector has been nothing short of immense, it may not necessarily be all bad. In fact, one could easily see a silver lining in the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the adoption of digital technology within the sector. With schools and universities scrambling for solutions that would enable them to address some of the challenges brought about by the pandemic, global edtech investment is predicted to increase by €6.4 billion in 2020, a 15 per cent growth compared to 2019. It’s often said that difficult times bring out the best in people and that was certainly the case this time, at least when secondary education is concerned, with edtech startups coming up with some rather ingenious solutions that could help the sector better adapt to the new normal.
How the pandemic is promoting the use of AI in education
The use of adaptive learning technologies in secondary education has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. In addition to automatically adapting the learning material to each student’s individual needs, these innovative technologies also give teachers access to dashboards that offer them valuable insights into their students’ progress. Now that home schooling has become the norm, adaptive learning platforms have also been updated with new functionalities that make them more suitable for the remote learning environment, such as integrated communication modules that allow teachers to communicate directly with their students and provide real-time feedback. That way, even though they are located far away from each other, students can still enjoy a sense of community that typically pervades classroom learning.
Nuance unveils a new speech recognition app
A lot of students, especially those with physical and learning disabilities, struggle to master typing and spelling, which can create a number of problems for them not just during their education but also later in life. To address this issue, the US-based software company Nuance has developed a new speech recognition software called Dragon, which allows students to use their voice to ‘write’ in word-editing programs like Microsoft Word, browse the internet, and control just about any other Windows application. Dragon is capable of transcribing 160 words per minute – three times faster than the average human – with 99 per cent accuracy and has proven quite effective at helping students with disabilities improve their reading, writing, and spelling skills. However, it’s not just students with disabilities who can benefit from this technology. Speech recognition software has become ingrained in numerous aspects of our lives and is used on a daily basis to interact with all sorts of technology, ranging from mobile devices to gaming consoles. This means that proficiency with voice interfaces will soon become a necessity, which is why secondary schools are increasingly incorporating software like Dragon into their curriculums.
AI-powered learning platforms help students master new skills
To succeed in the world of tomorrow, students will also need to develop STEM skills. Querium has developed an AI-powered software named StepWise, which provides students with personalised lessons and step-by-step feedback in subjects like math, engineering, technology, and science. Available on both computers and smartphones, StepWise uses artificial intelligence technology to analyse students’ answers, as well as the time it takes them to complete their assignments, and identify areas they may be struggling with. It then offers personalised, step-by-step instructions designed to help them improve their weaknesses and better prepare them for the next stage of their educational journey. StepWise also benefits teachers, as it gives them valuable insights into their students’ thinking and problem-solving processes. Another AI-powered learning platform comes from the Silicon Valley-based AI startup Volley, which uses artificial intelligence to identify gaps in students’ knowledge and create personalised courses and quizzes that will help them address those gaps. The platform can also take any existing unstructured learning content and use it to automatically generate fun learning games that will make the learning process more enjoyable for students.
Transforming the way students learn with augmented reality
The medium through which we learn can have a significant impact on whether that knowledge stays with us or not. Research suggests that immersive mediums like augmented reality can increase our knowledge retention by up to four times. The London-based AR company Blippar has developed a new learning platform that combines augmented reality and computer vision technologies to change the way students learn about subjects like geography, physics, and biology. By pointing their smartphones at an image in a textbook, for example, students can bring up a 3D model of the solar system or launch an AR experience that takes them on a virtual tour of a campus. They can also overlay digital content onto their real-world surroundings to get a better grasp of the concepts involved.
Predictions about the future of secondary education
Edtech has been gaining ground in schools and colleges around the world for a while now, but the pandemic has accelerated its adoption by approximately five years, according to Jacqueline Daniell, the chief executive of Wey Education, an educational services company that runs online secondary school InterHigh. “The pandemic has proved the benefits and opportunities of virtual learning,” says Daniell. “It has also shown parents and children alternative ways of learning beyond bricks-and-mortar classrooms.”
A similar view is shared by research mathematician Dr Junaid Mubeen, the director of education at virtual maths tutor solution Whizz Education, who envisions a “fundamental shift” in secondary education. “The pandemic has exposed the inflexibility of our education system,” says Mubeen. “Students face countless threats to learning: illness, poverty, the passing of loved ones and, indeed, pandemics; let’s not assume COVID is the last. Flexibility must be ingrained in education systems. Learning must be resilient to the inevitable disruptions faced by students in an increasingly volatile world.” There is no doubt that schools will return to face-to-face teaching eventually, but edtech will remain a pervasive force in secondary education. There will be more focus on blended learning models, which will enable both students and teachers to make the most of their time together.
Dr. Mohamed Watfa, the founder of the International School of Innovations, believes that innovative technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the Internet of Things can help us create a more engaging, interactive learning environment. “Education through technology can be ‘gamified’ to sustain learning for a longer period of time, and improve student motivation, eagerness to learn and competitiveness. This is particularly important in COVID-19 times,” says Watfa.
Secondary education, like every other level of the educational pyramid, has been severely disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. With schools closed and students confined to their homes, the sector was forced to look for innovative solutions that would allow it to preserve the continuity of education. As a result, technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the IoT are set to play an increasingly prominent role in the classroom of the future. The accelerated adoption of digital technology in secondary education could ultimately prove to be a good thing, helping us create a more engaging learning environment that motivates students to learn and improves their knowledge retention.