Teaching and technology in 2021 - Where are we now?

by Andrew Field, 11 March 2021
young student smiling wearing a headset and looking at laptop

Not many teachers enter their profession with an ambition to deliver lessons online. It isn’t about technology, it is about learning. The desire to make a difference, to support children, and to inspire are far more quotable reasons for becoming a teacher.

At the start of 2020, few educators in the world were planning to teach their lessons remotely, confidently using an array of digital tools and techniques, with an imperative to support their learners in hugely challenging times and situations.

As of March 2021, there is a global collection of teachers who have delivered.

They have experienced the use of technology more than they could have imagined. This includes many who may have lacked confidence to explore such approaches yet were forced to adapt, at times overnight, to changes to schooling.

In extremely challenging times and life changing situations, it is yet again testament to the resilience, perseverance, and dedication of teachers to adapt and continue.

Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development Tim Oates CBE recently summarised his thoughts about effective recovery learning in a blog on the Cambridge Assessment website.

"By not just doing 'more of the same, but faster' but by doing something different, and informed by research, truly equity and high attainment can be achieved hand in hand"

This exact approach set out by Tim – who chaired the review of the National Curriculum in England - is how the most effective teachers have also made the most impact with technology during the pandemic.

Online guidance and support

Cambridge Assessment published an extensive range of support and guidance resources during the pandemic.

Fundamentally, all these materials were focused on helping teachers be more confident and to be aware that they were already equipped with what they required: empathy, compassion, and a desire to focus on wellbeing rather than technology. As we stated at the time: “all the tools still require the skill, experience and expertise of a teacher”.

There was a need to make technology work for both teachers and learners – but as a tool of support rather than being an additional pressure.

Where are we now?

The global pandemic forced teachers to focus very tightly on effective use of technology for teaching and learning. Initial responses were understandably based on emergency remote instruction, finding ways to ensure learning could continue.

With so many different contexts around the world, with such challenging situations, there were also so many creative educators adapting and developing their approaches.

Some of the most impactful uses of technology have been asynchronous collaborative tasks and project-based learning. This is supporting learning activities in different ways, outside of the constraints of a traditional classroom. 

Dr Julia Yu, Cambridge International’s Regional Professional Development Manager for East Asia, shared with me the experiences of teachers in Cambridge schools in China. Teachers had to develop rapid expertise with their school technology platform. The support from colleagues was so important – encouraging and guiding confidence.

As Julia identifies, remote instruction was not about trying to replicate face to face teaching in a virtual environment. It was and is another model of teaching, requiring adaptation of class activities and approaches based on available technology and learner needs.

Julia highlights that remote instruction “cannot be comparable to face to face teaching in many ways, but it can still be effective, so teachers should have confidence in it.” Some of the most impactful uses of technology have been asynchronous collaborative tasks and project-based learning. This is supporting learning activities in different ways, outside of the constraints of a traditional classroom. 

Out of some of the terrible consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, teachers have striven to support their learners in every way possible. Cambridge International’s series of webinars including Jessica Minaeian’s “Supporting learners with Special Educational Needs” are fantastic examples of teachers sharing their efforts. Notable is how all of this has been supported by technology, but as teachers have become ever more proficient, the conversation about technology isn’t even needed. The focus is on the wellbeing and learning, exactly as it should be.

Where can we go next?

The impact of teachers’ efforts during the pandemic will not only be in the short term. There is a great opportunity to question technology – where has learning been transformed and how might such activities be empowered by technology in the future? Where do we now have significantly more evidence for where technology does not add value? And we’ve already kicked off this conversation. ‘SHAPE Live’ from Cambridge Assessment’s SHAPE initiative is a new series of bite-sized events to an unlimited global audience, spotlighting key challenges within education. The first event took place earlier this week, with SHAPE asking the question: How can we create real learning with technology?

When considering such potential to transform education, teachers’ pandemic experiences need to inspire significant future developments.

The experience over the last year should inspire all involved in education to reflect on their efforts and consider the real impact. Teachers now know what works and have a right to demand even more. They have the experience to judge and make even more confident decisions about technology. The experiences need to inspire us to ask even greater ‘what if?’ questions and to challenge the real impact of investment in technology.

When considering such potential to transform education, teachers’ pandemic experiences need to inspire significant future developments. Technology, and in particular the technology created  before the pandemic, mustn’t complicate, confuse or get in the way of educators. How might we support learners to be more resilient, successful, and prepared young citizens of the world as we progress towards the 2030s? Technology doesn’t have all the solutions, but our learners do.

Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press have developed a set of outline principles to help all those that are interested to continue the debate around the future of teaching, learning and assessment.

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Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Group Director of Assessment and Research