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What can the education sector do in order to improve students’ access to digital learning tools, and how should it engage with the private sector to both acquire the most efficient educational technology (EdTech) and enable students to enter the technology sector after graduating? These were questions asked at a digital event hosted by Big Tent Digital last night (8 September).

After an introduction by Mark Martin, an educator and campaigner working with technology companies to improve the teaching of ICT around the world, the event was kicked off by Gillian Keegan MP, Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who praised the UK education sector for its response to the COVID-19 crisis:

“Everything went digital, and everything went digital very quickly. The education sector did a brilliant job adapting,” she said. “We’ve gone through baptism by fire in a way.”

In terms of what the Government is doing to support the education sector, Keegan highlighted investments in improving access to technology as key:

“The pandemic has been a great challenge for education, but it is also an opportunity to adopt behavioural and technological changes.”

“We’ve responded by making rapid investments in technology and make sure everyone has access to technology. We’ve provided laptops, tablets and routers to those in need.”

Keegan also expanded on how access to apprenticeships for students with T-levels will be key in order to boost employment as students leave school, saying it is “crucial young people get opportunities no matter the challenges we face as a society.”

“Before the pandemic we had low unemployment, but we still had a massive skills gap in every sector. These will re-emerge and be exacerbated in the near future.”

“I am the world’s number one fan of apprenticeships. They are a great way of young people to get the experience they need.”

Jen Persson, Director of DefendDigitalMe, an advocacy group that campaigns for children’s digital rights, in turn criticised how the UK Government and education sector has been handling the sudden influx of technology in teaching:

“A lot of children are still missing; they are not getting the EdTech and broadband infrastructure they need,” she said – something she attributed to a lack of overarching strategy.

“We don’t have a very joined up strategy at the moment. The vision isn’t just inconsistent, it’s in fact contradictory,” she argued. “We’re looking at selling more products but not looking at a systemic way to fill important skills gaps.”

“We need to make better assess technology for learning purposes; who and what values lies behind it? Let’s not look at adopting product for products’ sake.”

“We’ve seen this summer how algorithms and automated decision are already having an important role. Our human rights need to be championed in that environment.”

Persson also highlighted the importance of data security in education, calling for there to be assigned a ‘Digital Champion’ for the education sector in England.

Jo Hutchinson, Director for Social Mobility and Vulnerable Learners at the Education Policy Institute, highlighted the inequalities seen within the education sector long before COVID-19, saying there are “myriad ways in how access to education is limited or unequal.”

She went on to highlight how completely shifting focus towards digital learning will lead to some students being left behind, saying: “There’s no doubt that online education has advanced this year, but access too must be advanced. We also have not solved the problems of poverty, many of which are best solved by increasing welfare support.”

“A quiet desk space at home connected with internet is becoming increasingly important, yet there are still hundreds of thousands of young people without access to devices and internet.”

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