Technology and Learning: What We've Learned and Where We’re Going

The global pandemic has dramatically transformed the way that we educate and learn—possibly forever.

Even before the pandemic’s isolation and lockdowns shifted virtual learning into high gear, the adoption of innovative education technology was increasing, with global investment in its development totaling US$18.66 billion in 2019. With adoption accelerating during the past 18 months, the World Economic Forum reports that EdTech investment will increase to US$350 billion by 2025, based on Renub Research’s Online Education Market Study 2019. 

The development of these platforms, apps, and software options and their rapid and ongoing evolution allowed learning to continue during the pandemic. Although the learning curve has been steep with obstacles along the way, online learning has delivered several notable benefits for students.

Technology and Online Learning in the Last 18 Months

Empirical and anecdotal data suggests that education technology increases access to learning, democratizes knowledge, and increases the breadth and richness of the learning experience.

Approaches to online learning may include virtual tutoring, video conferencing, language apps, and online learning software. Student experiences across these and many other EdTech tools highlight the advantages of online instruction, including the following.

  • Improved retention through enriched engagement: Data tells us that receiving schooling doesn’t always translate to learning. The Stanford Social Innovation Review cites, for example, the ASER Centre’s Annual Status of Education Report on India. The survey findings indicate that, even with increased enrolment rates and extended years in school, only around one in every two learners in fifth grade can read second grade content. The review suggests this is true for multiple nations in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • However, advances and developments in online learning tools combined with creative teaching methods may engage learners in ways that improve learning. Average online grade achievement tends to be similar to offline learning, but actual outcomes  depend on several factors, including class size, content complexity, and teaching skills. However, the Research Institute of America reports that eLearning significantly increases retention rates, from 25 percent to 60 percent, versus average retention rates of just eight to ten percent in physical classroom learning. This improvement is attributed to the increased control online learners enjoy over their learning process, including the ability to review the material repeatedly and in their own time.
  • Access to education in emergencies: According to UNESCO, pandemic-related challenges over the past 18 months impacted 1.6 billion learners across 194 nations—over 90 percent of total enrolled learners. In response, educators and learning platforms boosted their digital learning capabilities to offer distance learning via virtual classrooms and other education technology. According to UNICEF, digital instruction was the most common, deployed by 42 percent of nations for pre-primary level, 74 percent for primary, and 77 percent for upper secondary education.  The advantage of online education was all these learners continued learning online during the pandemic.
  • Opportunity for education for those out-of-school: Among its multiple benefits to educators and learners, digital learning offers greater access for remotely based learners—a substantial proportion of out-of-school children and youth. Looking beyond the pandemic, education technology and online learning provides new opportunities for the millions of children and youth worldwide currently excluded from location-based education. Today, this  cut-off from learning can occur through external factors such as conflict, lack of infrastructure and resources, cultural restrictions, or situational limitations, such as remote location, disability, hunger, or language barriers.  But as technology advances drive down the costs of computers and internet access, these millions of children will increasingly have access to online learning, giving them the opportunity to raise themselves, their families, and their community out of poverty.
  • Increased democratization of knowledge: Through facilitating broader access to education in the population and across nations, online information and digital learning create the potential for far more expansive acquisition of knowledge, skills, and progress for students, that results in reducing education inequality.

The number of children entering education is growing, albeit incrementally, and that growth is in part thanks to education technology. Matt Jenner, Director of Learning at FutureLearn, reports that in 2007, over half (57 percent) of the world’s countries were providing ten years of formal education; by 2017, the number of countries had increased dramatically to 173–a 303% increase in just one decade. At the same time, the number of nations unable to deliver five years of formal learning has reduced from 47 to 32.

While enrollment rates are at their highest, there are still endemic problems with access to education. Global out-of-school rates remain high, with around 258 million children and youth cut off from schooling and subject to ‘learning poverty’. Substantial barriers to education continue to exist, which means for educators and administrators, the work is not over. Multiple disruptors drive out-of-school rates, including attacks on education, natural disasters and climate change; conflict and violence; child marriage and labor; disabilities; gender inequality; hunger; lack of sanitation, education funding, infrastructure, facilities, resources, and educators; distance and transport challenges; and language barriers.

Basic education is considered a global human right, representing one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Can technology and digital learning meet this critical need?

Where To From Here?

“While disruptive, the past 19 months have given us a glimpse of what is possible during and after the pandemic. Together with partners, we have been hard at work to leverage the power of technology and to provide learning opportunities for children and young people everywhere.”

Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director

If the explosion of technological advances associated with global pandemic restrictions has confirmed anything, it’s that technology-enabled digital learning can be a significant part of the future of education, whether as a primary or hybrid approach.

Over 90 percent of nations have introduced remote learning policies in some form. However, at least 463 million students worldwide are unable to access these learning opportunities, contending with a lack of equipment, skill gaps, or limited parental support.

More than 50 percent of the world’s youth and child population are on the wrong side of the digital divide. For example, with a population that is 40 percent youth under 15, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest global out-of-school rates, the lowest literacy rates among the youth, and the widest mobile broadband coverage gap, not to mention significantly below-average Internet penetration and the least affordable mobile data.  These are the places in the world with the largest barriers to digital learning.

Addressing the Digital Divide

“The first step to resolving the digital divide is to further highlight the current situation. While technology isn’t the sole answer, a lack of it can be a barrier.”

Mike Jenner, Director of Learning, FutureLearn

Worldwide, at least 200 million children live in nations that are poorly prepared to deploy remote learning. According to a recent UNICEF report, among the 31 nations ill-prepared for remote online learning, almost half kept their schools closed through most of the pandemic, leaving 102 million young people without access to education.

What would it take to lower those barriers? The cost of connectivity and mobile devices is declining over time, creating the possibility of bridging this divide in nations where digital access remains a barrier. Regardless of current obstacles, providing the means and opportunity for remote education through technology-enabled digital learning is the best option for promoting equity and providing life-changing education to all.

Addressing this gap requires wide accountability, including among education organizations, governments, and technology companies.

An Incremental Approach to a Digital Future

For now, given the obstacles, there is no universal, all-powerful replacement for in-person learning. Even in educational systems where digital access is available and viable, online education may not be suitable or effective for all students in all cases.

Education technology includes versatile, innovative, and learning-enhancing tools, but these resources alone are not boosting engagement, retention, and learning.  Expanding access to online devices and connectivity is not enough without increasing digital usage and literacy.  As with the physical classroom, the educator still has, by far, the biggest impact on a student’s learning.  Technology cannot replace the educator’s role, but it can enhance it.  The effectiveness of online learning will only increase as  educators become more adept in  applying technology and the technologies themselves  evolve to assist the  educator, especially when they form part of an incremental, blended approach.

When Should You Implement and Scale EdTech?

How can you weigh the value of educational technology? A simple fourthree-step approach is the solution:

  1. Set specific goals around the school system’s capacity, needs, and infrastructure, including its budget.
  2. Review and assess the evidence: Study and evaluate outcomes associated with the technological solutions that may match your goals.
  3. Pilot the technology before scaling: Monitor, measure, and evaluate outcomes before engaging in a complete implementation. Educational technology should facilitate easy access to information, enhance lessons, and increase learning outcomes.
  4. Engage the educators: The biggest indicators of success will be that educators find new ways of engaging students for effective learning that compliments their existing pedagogic methods.  

This post looked at the last 18 months, both from the opportunities online learning created and the digital divides that still remain. The pandemic created a huge momentum towards online learning, and that momentum will raise millions out of poverty that otherwise would have waited years for technology to advance.

As the world’s leading open source project for virtual classrooms, the BigBlueButton project has been building upon this momentum and lowering the divides. The project offers freely available virtual classroom systems software, a global community of developers constantly improving it for teachers, and a world-wide network of community and commercial support. We want to close that divide and enable more students to build a better life.

About BigBlueButton

BigBlueButton is an education-specific, open-source virtual classroom that is natively integrated by over 75% of the world’s learning management systems including Moodle, Canvas, Sakai, D2L, Jenzabar, and Schoology.

BigBlueButton focuses on empowering teachers to engage remote students for effective online learning. This is a result of collaboration with educators world-wide over the project’s 10+ years of development. Our goal is to enable every student to have a high-quality online learning experience.

BigBlueButton is localized into over 55 languages, supports LTI 1.1., and is commercially supported by companies around the world. For more information on BigBlueButton and how to leverage it for online teaching at your organization, visit https://bbb-feb.bigbluebutton.org/