School's in
Written by: Vaughan O'Grady | Published:
Child in mask reading textbook Governments and technology companies have sought to deliver remote learning in emerging markets during the pandemic (credit: Adobe Stock/Tom Wang)

Vaughan O’Grady talks to Amazon and Lenovo about the future for education following the recent, massive uptake of digital home-learning tools.

A glance at recent headlines shows what could be seen as a frantic dash by governments and technology companies to deliver remote learning in emerging markets.

Of course, this isn’t a new need: the more remote parts of the world have long been difficult to reach, due to often overwhelmingly rural school locations.

For example, there is iMlango, an educational programme in Kenya, which uses high-speed satellite broadband to connect schools in the countryside. In Nigeria, meanwhile, education technology (edtech) start-up ScholarX Technologies is working with operator Airtel Nigeria to extend the reach of LearnAM, a new mobile learning platform.

However – following wholly new ways of ‘virtual’ learning occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic – it is clear that telecommunications and IT can make a real, previously unexpected, difference in even the most urbanised settings.

In this article, we are going to examine some of these new ways of learning, as well as the platforms which enable them. This includes looking at ‘online classrooms’, but also touching on concepts such as the increasingly popular ‘gamification’ of education, as well as aspects of the virtual assessment process.

Embracing technology

Discussing how communications technology will likely become increasingly integral to the learning experience going forward, director of global education solutions at Lenovo Intelligent Devices, Rich Henderson, says: “Educators must embrace the latest technology to meet the demands of the modern classroom.”

At the same time, however, he also acknowledges that students are not always going to be located in one place within the classrooms in question. Thus, in March, Lenovo announced a new generation of its Chromebooks and Windows laptops, specifically designed for education.

According to the company, these are intended to help students and educators transition between the classroom and remote learning. Features to enable this include flexible docking for easy connection of external devices, quick charging, as well as a new HDMI port enabling the connection of a second display to “extend the learning workspace”.

"Educators can virtually transfer the classroom experience more completely to students learning remotely.”

According to the company, these devices can be Wi-Fi 6 and LTE-enabled. At the same time, Lenovo has also developed ‘hybrid’ classroom solutions, such as its Google Meet room kits, as well as what it calls the ThinkSmart Hub, leveraging either Microsoft Teams Rooms or Zoom Rooms.

Discussing these, Henderson continues: “[These] purpose-built conference solutions can help teachers deliver lessons in digital environments. Educators can virtually transfer the classroom experience more completely to students learning remotely.”

Another way in which the company is attempting to add a new layer to the remote learning experience is through VR. With that in mind, last year it launched its VR Classroom 2, a solution which Henderson says “includes a seamless combination of hardware, content device management, training and support” to aid virtual reality lessons and field trips.

Lenovo says course content is not just ‘educationally focused’ but also includes a career exploration stream. According to Henderson, as well as transmitting information, VR can also address the inevitable distractions of distance learning.

Speaking of this, he says: “VR Classroom 2 offers students and teachers a visually and audibly isolated environment to fully engage with instructional material.” This is facilitated by headset hardware, also provided by the company.

Virtual computer lab

Central to all this of course is the cloud, a major player in which is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Regarding remote learning in particular, relevant products offered by AWS include the Amazon AppStream 2.0 platform.

The company describes this as a fully managed application streaming service that can help educational institutions create virtual computer lab spaces at scale. Amazon Chime, meanwhile, helps to enable virtual classrooms by letting users connect with voice, video and chat features.

At the same time, AWS also provides a platform for the development of specific remote learning solutions, developed by industry partners. One example of this is Blackboard, whose edtech platform runs on the AWS Cloud.

Discussing this further, head of UK & Ireland education, AWS, Ken Harley, says: “Blackboard’s platform has become an increasingly important part of the instructional landscape. That includes both students using the Blackboard tools to create their own blogs and collaborate on group projects, as well as teachers leading interactive discussions.”

Another AWS-based online educational tool is Firefly, which lets teachers set homework while students share and access resources. Firefly also enables parents to track students’ progress.

The application’s Learning Experience Database, meanwhile, monitors student experience and quality of teaching across all learning spaces. As well as ‘traditional’ learning methods, some AWS partners are also exploring more experimental avenues, such as remote learning through play.

One example of this is FunChinaWorld, which offers virtual content to help students learn Chinese at home, while also providing a curriculum to teachers.

Discussing what might be regarded as the ‘gamification’ aspect of the online learning experience, Amazon’s Harley says: “FunChinaWorld students are encouraged to explore Chinese culture through an immersive multiplayer game.

“In this virtual experience, students collaborate with others from around the world. They can interact as different characters, completing quests that educate using storylines and in-game achievements.”

Assessment is critical

While the ‘learning’ aspect of these solutions is starting to become more widely discussed, a less-talked-about element is assessment.

This aspect is represented by companies such as ExamSoft, Sumadi and ProctorFree, which have been developing remote invigilation and assessment solutions, again using the cloud.

Speaking of this, Harley says that human beings are still needed to safeguard the integrity and security of exams. However, use of the cloud “has enabled these companies to build solutions that allow people to monitor assessments live from a remote location, or after students finish the exam, via a recording”.

Needless to say, the importance of this capability grew throughout 2020. The pandemic has clearly prompted an acceleration of new approaches in the education sector, based, in large part, on digital communications technology.

The benefits – both to students and teachers – have been immense. That being the case, however, it also needs to be remembered that none of this is actually worth anything if the students in question haven’t got access to the requisite technology in the first place.

According to Harley, this is something which very much continues to be an issue. He says: “One of the challenges over the past year has been that many learners still do not have access to the technology, be it in terms of devices or a reliable internet connection.

“Educators are proving to be resourceful in this regard, however. Many are using low-bandwidth technology – including chat apps – to learn and connect with their students, parents and peers. In countries with no connectivity, educators are [having to] resort to television and radio to deliver content. An example of this is Mexico, where 30 million students in 2020 were taught using television. Ninety-four per cent of households in that country have TVs, but only 60 per cent have an internet connection.”

Closer to home, AWS is supporting Oxford University with a VR project which aims to help disadvantaged pupils who do less well than their peers. One app, enabling students to learn remotely at their own pace, became more relevant during the pandemic. In the case in question, 90 Oxfordshire pupils tested a VR tool which transported them back to Victorian London to help their study of Oliver Twist.

According to Harley, the virtual reality educational tool led to a 65 per cent improvement in children’s educational outcomes. As for other educational opportunities that could be explored, he says: “To reap the full benefits of technology, educational institutions should embrace a culture of change.

“[They need to] use this pandemic as an opportunity to experiment and innovate to meet the changing needs of their students.”

“To reap the full benefits of technology, educational institutions should embrace a culture of change."

One such opportunity, according to him, is ‘personalisation’. “We have something now, known as the ‘flip classroom’ model,” he says. “This is where students absorb new materials as homework, while using classroom time for discussion and working through content. There have been attempts to personalise this, with some success.

“Technology can also provide personalised learning assistants to students, in order to remind them to do their assignments, as well as offering feedback on their learning experience.

“Another area where technology can be a benefit is helping to make assessment more inclusive of students with mental health conditions. It can allow them to learn at their own pace, with data analytics enabling teachers to better understand how students are learning, and what interventions are needed to support them.”

It is clear that effectively deployed communications can make a massive difference to the learning experience, whether during a global pandemic or rolled out across emerging markets. At the same time, there are still challenges, such as the often non-existent connectivity mentioned above.

Nevertheless, education continues to offer major business opportunity for technology companies. Quoting figures provided by HolonIQ, Harley suggests that the global education market is set to reach at least $10 trillion by 2030.

“Remote learning will play an integral role in this,” he says. “The enforced shift to an entirely remote learning set-up over the past year has undoubtedly expedited this process.”

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