Pandemic disruption is an ideal opportunity to reimagine and innovate secondary education

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  • The pandemic’s impact on secondary education
  • Challenging times call for remarkable innovations
  • Visions and predictions for the future of secondary education
  • Closing thoughts

The pandemic has led to the most devastating disruptions of educational systems the world has ever seen, with school closures affecting almost 1.6 billion learners across the globe. Educators have had to adapt to a new normal in which face masks and social distancing have become almost second nature. Education during this crisis has transitioned to online instruction at home or, in some cases, no education at all. Simultaneously, the pandemic has also resulted in the acceleration of innovation in this sector, with many innovative approaches coming to fruition. Now more than ever, we have also been reminded that educators and other key partners fulfil an essential role.

The pandemic’s impact on secondary education

School closures carry incredible social and economic implications and will have lasting effects on learners, educators, parents, and indeed on societies as a whole. Research has shown that millions of students are falling victim to gaps in understanding and skill knowledge, preventing academic progress. This situation also predominantly affects students from disadvantaged backgrounds – resulting in an even more exacerbated knowledge and achievement gap. “We found that the learning loss experience was quite pervasive, that almost all students were negatively impacted by the pandemic and pivot to remote learning,” says Margaret Raymond, director of the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. 

With educational facilities scrambling for solutions to address some of the challenges brought about by the pandemic, global edtech investment is predicted to have increased by €6.4 billion in 2020, which accounts for 15 per cent growth compared to the previous year. So, the challenges have also accelerated widespread adoption of educational technology and sparked innovation, with various companies across the globe coming up with ingenious solutions to help the sector better adapt to the new normal. Online learning software, virtual tutoring, blended learning, language apps, and video conferencing tools, have all seen significant increases in adoption. It is expected that these technologies will become an increasingly critical part of education going forward, with the overall market for online education expected to reach a whopping $350 billion by 2025. 

The pandemic has also presented us with valuable opportunities to reimagine and revitalise the educational system. This is the perfect time to take steps to bridge the digital divide and rethink our curricula to equip students with the knowledge and skills to flourish in this rapidly changing world. Competency-based education, for instance, “which calls for a laser focus on student mastery of learning objectives and student-specific supports and routes to mastery,” has emerged as one of the most promising alternatives to traditional models and has already demonstrated its worth during the pandemic.

Challenging times call for remarkable innovations

Global priorities have changed overnight. Educational institutions have had to rapidly adopt emerging technologies and new approaches – which normally take many years to implement – to cope with the disruption caused by the pandemic and ensure continuity of education for all learners. The future promises many more interesting developments and changes that can make education even more effective and enjoyable.

Mastering STEM skills with AI-powered learning platforms

To succeed in the world of tomorrow, it’s important for students to develop STEM skills. Silicon Valley-based AI startup Volley uses artificial intelligence to identify gaps in learners’ knowledge and create personalised courses that help address those gaps. The platform can take any existing unstructured educational content and use it to generate fun learning games that will make the educational process more enjoyable for students. Another AI-powered platform was developed by Querium. The StepWise software provides learners with personalised lessons and step-by-step feedback in subjects like math, science, technology, and engineering. StepWise is available on smartphones as well as computers and uses AI to analyse students’ answers, monitor how much time is needed to complete an assignment, and identify areas where the learner needs assistance. The software offers personalised, step-by-step instructions to help learners improve their skills and prepare them for the next stage of their educational journey. StepWise also offers educators valuable insights into their learners’ progress.

Speech recognition app for students with learning disabilities

Many learners, especially those with physical or learning disabilities, struggle to master typing and spelling skills, which can lead to a myriad of challenges. Not only in terms of their education, but also in terms of day-to-day tasks in life. US-based software company Nuance has recently launched their Dragon speech recognition software, which enables learners to use their voice to ‘write’ text in programs like Microsoft Word, browse the internet, and control various applications. Dragon can transcribe 160 words per minute, which is three times faster than the average human, is 99 per cent accurate and has proven quite effective at helping students with disabilities improve their reading, writing, and spelling skills. Speech recognition software has become ingrained in numerous other aspects of our lives as well and is already widely used to interact with a range of technology, from mobile devices to gaming consoles. Being able to use voice interfaces will become more and more important in the future, and secondary education facilities are therefore increasingly incorporating voice-to-text into their curriculums.

Augmented reality enhances knowledge retention

The medium through which students learn can have a considerable impact on whether or not that knowledge is retained. Research suggests that immersive mediums like augmented reality (AR) can breathe new life into learning. It can help increase a learner’s understanding of complex topics and enhance knowledge retention. AR adds extra creativity, and improves interactivity and engagement. The Blippbuilder learning platform developed by London-based AR company Blippar combines computer vision with augmented reality to change the way students learn about subjects like biology, physics, and geography. Educators using the platform will be able make static images and diagrams come to life or add dynamic assessments during certain parts of educational text. Pointing your smartphone at an image in a textbook can, for example, launch a museum tour or generate a 3D model of the solar system. The platform also enables you to overlay digital content onto real-world surroundings to get a better grasp of the concepts involved.

Visions and predictions for the future of secondary education

In order to prepare learners for the world of tomorrow and ensure they have the skills needed to succeed, we need to radically rethink our entire education system, says Richard van Hooijdonk, trendwatcher, futurist, and international keynote speaker. This forthcoming transformation will be driven by emerging tech like robotics, artificial intelligence, and AR/VR. Apart from improving educator efficiency, the use of AI and machine learning can also ensure that each learner receives education tailored to his or her individual needs, enabling them to reach their full potential. According to Van Hooijdonk, it’s also important for educators to emphasise the importance of lifelong learning. 

Dr. Junaid Mubeen, research mathematician and director at Whizz Education envisions a fundamental shift in secondary education. “The pandemic has exposed the inflexibility of our education system, and 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,” says Mubeen. While schools will eventually return to in-person teaching, educational technology will remain an important asset in secondary education. The future of education will see an increased focus on hybrid or blended learning, which will enable learners and educators to optimise their time together.

According to Jacqueline Daniell, chief executive of educational services company Wey Education, edtech had been gaining ground in schools and colleges around the world for a number of years, but the pandemic has sped up its adoption by about five years. “The pandemic has proved the benefits and opportunities of virtual learning, and it has also shown parents and children alternative ways of learning beyond bricks-and-mortar classrooms,” says Daniell. And Dr. David Lefevre, director of the Edtech Lab at Imperial College Business School, says “When the dust settles, digital education will have advanced years in months. Working practice has already changed and many temporary solutions will become permanent. A growth in digital education is inevitable.”

Closing thoughts

Like every other educational level, secondary education has been severely disrupted by the pandemic. The sector is expected to undergo a major tech-driven transformation that will forever change how students learn and teachers teach. With schools closed and learners confined to their homes, the sector has been forced to look for innovative solutions to ensure the continuity of education. Technologies like the IoT, AR/VR, and artificial intelligence, will play an increasingly prominent role in secondary education, and the accelerated adoption of these digital technologies could help create a more engaging learning environment. Another trend that is expected to feature more prominently in the classroom of the future is educational robotics. Apart from assisting educators enhance student engagement, educational robots can also ensure that students who are unable to attend classes physically can still attend lessons in the form of a digital avatar. This enables them to participate as though they were actually present in the classroom. Another important aspect of secondary education in the future is educating students about the importance of lifelong learning. This is not only critical for the moment students enter the job market, but will also benefit them well into their future careers.

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