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The role of technology in the delivery of education has evolved significantly in the past 30 years, but never so quickly or dramatically as in response to COVID-19. The sudden and dispersed nature of the change has revealed how Australian education agencies are missing a broader strategy for keeping pace with this dynamic environment, and responding to the risks it poses for our schools, teachers and students.
Many of our readers will recollect key developments in the use of technology in the classrooms of their youth, whether it be the introduction of primitive personal computers, CD-ROM encyclopedias or long since defunct search engines. The global pandemic has been the catalyst for an even more dramatic step-change in how technology is used in Australian schools. What was once ‘nice to have’ quickly became a ‘must have’. While necessity has driven the scale and pace of this revolution, it has also forced a rethink of what is possible.
Restrictions introduced to limit the spread of COVID-19 around the world have accelerated the adoption of existing technologies across every industry sector, and education has been no different. For example, video conferencing solutions are now far more embedded in organisations than they were before the pandemic. The move to virtual classrooms during the pandemic meant that technologies previously only used to reinforce or enhance learning were now the primary medium.
In the first article in this series, we asked a number of questions, including ‘what role should technology play in the delivery of K–12 education?’ Technology has a multifaceted role, one that varies based on the age group, school setting, access and socio-demographic, and individual student needs. However, broadly speaking, it can offer the following six enablers:
Connection and collaboration – Technology allows us to connect and collaborate in ways that were previously only possible with face-to-face interactions. In addition to video conferencing and instant messaging, various platforms allow group input and real-time updates of documents, which can enable group assignments to be undertaken remotely.
An education institution’s choice of technology is largely driven by the jurisdiction or system they operate within. Some jurisdictions have mandated, centrally delivered systems that help with administration and management. Many schools will complement these centralised systems with their own deployment of various in-house, custom-built systems or commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products such as Google Classroom, SEQTA, Moodle, Edmodo, Education Perfect and Seesaw among many others. These systems facilitate a tripartite relationship between parents/carers, students and educators.
In our consultation with stakeholders from across the country from state and federal education departments, national education bodies and frontline staff, we asked interviewees how they expected the technology landscape to continue to evolve. The overwhelming view (which we also subscribe to) is that the complex and diverse needs of students make it unlikely that there will ever be a single platform or system to meet all requirements. These requirements can depend on the size of the school, the social and economic demographic of the students, the availability of internet access, the age of students and the technical proficiency of educators within the school.
The prevailing view of those we spoke with was that there would never be a single, uniform means of engaging a student in content, and therefore no single system was ever likely to be able to offer a combination of curriculum-aligned content and a user interface that works for every teacher and student every time.
Accordingly, as no single tool is likely to monopolise the market, systems integration will be an important component of any offering, as jurisdictions seek to maintain a landscape of integrated, standalone products. Simplicity of integration will become a point of difference for solutions, whether this is through the use of specific system or protocol connectors, or application programming interfaces (APIs). However, it is unlikely that many schools will have the expertise to implement and maintain such large-scale systems.
This presents an opportunity for education departments to play a role in supporting schools to identify appropriate software packages and integrate them with the systems they are already using. This is already occurring in some jurisdictions but in the absence of evidence based assessment, clearly defining and agreeing at a strategic level what the role of technology is in supporting teaching and learning both now and in the future. Where Departments have identified and sourced education applications schools still experience an enormous ‘marketplace’ of technology to navigate and assess which one is best to use and in what scenario. This relies on a level of technical knowledge that is not consistent across the sector as was highlighted during COVID19 and means students are potentially missing out on a better learning experience.
State and territory education departments, schools and teachers have all worked hard to lift the level of access to and use of technology since the scale of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent back in March. However, one notable area where the sector (like other public sector organisations) is still lagging is cyber security – a fact that has some serious implications for data protection and privacy.1 A 2019 UK National Cyber Security Centre audit also demonstrated that schools are and will continue to be a target for cyber attacks with 83% of schools audited experiencing some form of attack.2 Schools capture information about students and families which is private and sensitive. They maintain records relating to health and wellbeing, as well as financial and court-related information. The ramifications for an individual student and their family if this information is released into the public domain can be serious, whether this occurs accidentally or deliberately. The management and protection of student data is the focus of an upcoming audit by the NSW Audit Office where they will examine ‘how effectively schools ensure student data is secure – both within their own systems and when provided to third parties.’ 3
The sudden expansion of the user base for technology as COVID-19 forced schools to move to remote learning, and a general culture of ‘openness’ presents significant challenges in terms of how cyber security is managed at the ‘human’ level. In health care, the importance of this topic is well understood, and most organisations in the sector are heavily focused on maintaining the confidentiality of patient data. Even so, this still does not provide immunity from large-scale leaks and hacks.
In education, the level of maturity in this area is arguably significantly lower, and the risks are particularly pronounced when individual teachers or Principals (rather than IT specialists) are responsible for evaluating potential student learning products. Some states and territories are taking steps to increase levels of understanding and competence in this respect. A number of state education departments provide a list of third-party products that have undergone a privacy impact assessment (PIA) process to seek assurances that information is being kept and treated consistent with Australian Privacy Principles (APP). This information is then made available to educators to help inform their decision-making. Federal agencies, such as the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, also provide guidance and assistance in this space.
Just as schools are unlikely to have the in-house resources required to implement and maintain large-scale systems, they are also unlikely to have the cyber security expertise to vet and select trusted providers of services to support them. Again, schools will not land on a one-size-fits-all approach, but instead should be able to access a marketplace of vetted and secure applications and third-party service providers to support these requirements.
What the last few months has shown is that positive advances can be made more quickly through necessity. Teacher familiarity with technology tools has risen exponentially during this time. The extent of collaboration across systems and schools has also increased significantly. However, it’s also fair to say that there has been limited strategic direction or intent behind these changes.
While this lack of strategy can be attributed in part to the nature of the emergency, the absence of any coherent framework for the use of technology in schools predates the COVID-19 pandemic. This was particularly evident as some schools transitioned quite seamlessly to remote learning because they were already well advanced in the use of technology to support learning outcomes, while others really struggled.
COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to reconsider the role of technology in education and to develop a clear and comprehensive strategy for how it might be used more effectively. Education departments have a real opportunity to play a meaningful role in clarifying the connection between where technology is used and for what purpose. Using evidence based assessments of the value of where and when to apply technology depending on the schools demographic, the age of students, alignment to curriculum and access, departments can provide a valuable link between teaching and learning. This empowers educators to use the right technology to deliver the right educational outcomes and not spend their already constrained time trying to source technology. To achieve this we need to answer some fundamental questions such as:
Any strategy will need to consider how to bring educators on board so that they are confident in the use of technology to support learning. It will need to examine the role of technology providers and how they are assessed. It will also require upskilling teachers and Principals to make informed and safe choices about the use of technology, including how children's data should be stored and for what purpose. Finally, any strategy will need to consider equity of access to technology.
While these are challenging questions to answer, the need for a coherent national strategy informed by the local needs of states and territories is real. The alternative is to continue down the current path, which has led to a patchwork of systems and processes that pose a significant risk in terms of cyber security as well as creating significant inequity when it comes to access.
Partner, Sydney, PwC Australia
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Partner, Melbourne, PwC Australia
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Partner, Perth, PwC Australia
Tel: +61 400 425 021