Coronavirus took school on line, but how digital is the future of education?

Students working on computers in library

By Reyer van der Vlies

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Digital learning was once the field of the imagination. While digital technologies swiftly found their way into our economies, the education sector has been more reluctant to open itself to the digital world. But that is changing. Over the past decade, the industry for education technology – commonly known under its portmanteau ‘EdTech industry’ – has grown steadily. Global expenditure in the EdTech industry is predicted to grow from USD 163 billion in 2019 to USD 404 billion in 2025. A recent market review also suggests that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a positive impact on EdTech, even though overall spending on education and training has taken a hit during the crisis.

Digital education strategies

OECD countries have tried to push the agenda well before COVID-19. Our new working paper on digital education policies shows that they take a keen interest in the opportunities of digital education, yet at the same time struggle with the societal challenges that come with digital innovation. In recent years, many OECD countries published specific policy papers on digital education, explaining the governments’ strategies on digital innovation in education. By comparing these strategies, we learn about the worldwide ambitions for digital education, at least as they were before the pandemic.

Digital education strategies typically emphasise the need to reap the benefits of digital technologies to improve educational practices, and to prepare students for increasingly automated economies and societies. There are striking similarities between these strategies, not in the least because they largely focus on the societal challenges, such as data protection, digital divides, and 21st century skills. Certainly, many OECD countries elaborate on the importance of investing in ICT infrastructure, but they also acknowledge that technologies will only be worth the investment if teachers know how to use them well and students learn the right skills.

The strategies don’t tend to turn education systems upside down. Instead, they often start with what already exists and then argue how to renovate the infrastructure into a state that is fit for the current digital world. Digital innovation itself is left to the EdTech industry: digressions on the application of artificial intelligence/machine learning, robotics or other technologies are scarce. There are interesting examples however. Policy makers in Australia and the European Union for example look at the possibilities of blockchain for innovation in the field of credentialing. Another aspect that draws a lot of attention from countries is the capture and use of (smart) data and learning analytics. Japan and Turkey are but a few of the countries that mention the possibilities of these for teaching and school or government administration.

For those who like to think of the coronavirus crisis as a ‘wake-up call’, it is interesting to reflect on what could have been different if countries’ ambitions had been reality

Of course, strategies should be read with some caution, as it is not always clear to what extent ideas are feasible or the result of political wishful thinking. That being said, a good strategy is without doubt a first step to a successful digital transition. Digital education strategies are a welcome addition to national strategies on digital innovation, in which education is mainly seen as an input to the digital economy and the labour force.

Digital education in a COVID-19 world

These digital education strategies were shaped before COVID-19 forced schools to close and embrace a variety of digital tools for learning. The pandemic has shown that familiarity with digital technologies is still limited. It also created a remarkable shift in the understanding of online learning. While schools remained closed, digital technologies often became a last stronghold for the continuity of education, as these stories from all over the world illustrate. For those who like to think of the situation as a ‘wake-up call’, it is interesting to reflect on what could have been different if countries’ ambitions had been reality, and to what extent current ambitions are still sustainable for a future in which digital learning is no longer exclusively part of the genre of science fiction.

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