Learning Again: Why Investing in the Digital Classroom is EssentialBy Industry Contributor 25 May 2021 | Categories: feature articles
By Chris Buchanan, Client Solutions Director, Dell Technologies South Africa
With many children’s lives ‘digital by default’ following a year of accelerated and unprecedented change, the reality of distance and remote learning is now a central pillar of global education.
Even as many locations see the return of children to physical classrooms, tech is now firmly established as a foundational facet of educational learning, and when it comes to the role of digital in the classroom, we are beyond the point of no return.
As we reflect on the scale of digital migrations in global education in the last twelve months, with 94 per cent of institutions developing policies for at least one form of remote learning; building on the lessons learned is essential to enhancing learning experiences, teaching capabilities, and student achievement. However, key to realising and maximising the art of what is possible are the principles of connectivity, accessibility, and harnessing a global culture of digital inclusion. Only when these levers are addressed effectively can we truly build a global, equitable, and future-proof learning environment for all of society.
Educational inequities were brought sharply into focus in the first quarter of 2020, with 191 locations around the world closing schools, affecting over 1 billion children, with an immense amount of learning hours lost.
Around the world, different age groups and communities have been affected to varying degrees by adoption of digital learning. According to UNESCO, while South African schools are considered “partially open”, over the past year 14,612,456 learners have been affected by closures. Added to this is the digital divide which in Sub-Saharan Africa is startling with 89 per cent of learners not having access to household computers and 82% without internet access, according to UNESCO.
While over 80% of children have access to the internet in North America and Europe, these figures fall considerably lower to 70% in the Middle East and Latin America, 55% in Asia, and 40% in Africa.
Now, as we look towards a global recovery, it must be fair, equitable and connected, and through effectively leveraging new and innovative tools at our disposal, we can build back better, and meaningfully support and encourage digital inclusion.
Digital Culture: Building better on strong foundations
Technology is already reimaging the education sector on a global scale, from preschool through to higher education.
In recent years, students at all levels have been taking advantage of technology on demand to meet their own learning needs and chart their path to workforce readiness.
We have seen this evidenced first-hand, having partnered with Stanford University’s Rural Education Access Program (REAP) to bring computer-assisted learning (CAL) to students in rural schools across China, with children gaining an extra semester’s worth of learning when using CAL software. 
In schools, EdTech solutions in the form of virtual collaboration and data synchronisation tools have created opportunities to transform the learning experience and prepare students for a digital-first world. This is allowing teachers and students to connect via live-streamed sessions, avail of app-fuelled experiences, and even participate in virtual field trips.
We are just at the beginning of this exciting journey, which requires the evolution of processes of collaboration, upskilling of educators, and mapping out a concrete digital strategy.
This pathway is about much more than just devices and connectivity. People are the centre of every successful education experience and to truly grasp all the benefits that new tech-based education models can offer, we need to ensure that access to tech and the learning culture evolves too. For example, wheeling out computers in schools is not enough on its own – teaching methods must be redesigned around data-driven technologies. Future-facing digital cultures must be fostered to garner and maximise optimum learning outcomes. And a long-term strategic approach should be embedded in all aspects of enhanced digitalisation to truly support students for the long-term.
So, what does digital transformation in the education sector actually look like?
Firstly, the provision of devices with broad mobile carrier support which enable all students to access the digital classroom and learning materials, irrespective of broadband internet access is imperative.
A globally connected virtual classroom can bring learning to every student regardless of language, comprehension style or geography. Improved connectivity and agile hybrid cloud management will mean steady workflows when using demanding software applications – whether that’s for Science, Design or Engineering.
Hybrid-cloud infrastructure can enable in-school and off-site access to resources, as well as classes online. It also means the provision of robust devices and video collaboration tools, so all students have the basic necessities for modern and accessible education. But this is only the foundation of digitally driven learning resources, which must be supplemented with determined efforts to enhance digital literacy skills for both children and parents to ensure those without experience in this sphere are not disadvantaged. This goes above and beyond on-site teaching methods and resources, it’s about ensuring all students can benefit from digital learning when they take the technology out of the classroom.
Front seats in the future classroom
Once 5G is widely adopted, new technologies will come online, creating exciting education opportunities not previously imagined – exponentially enhancing the scope of possibility for educators and students.
Think about the possibilities of introducing VR into the digital classroom, transforming the realm of educational content and entertainment, and making lessons more engaging and immersive. Imagine AI augmenting the teacher’s role, while assisting and supporting on both administrative and interactive tasks. When it comes to higher education, High Performance Computing (HPC) and AI are already turbocharging university research, resulting in a data deluge, underscoring a real need for speed when it comes to analysis. Incubating an ecosystem that manages and processes this data more quickly will be critical to enabling future breakthrough discoveries – whether that’s combatting the next pandemic at a lightening pace or transforming outcomes for cancer patients.
The Khulisa Academy is a High-Performance Computing (HPC) training academy launched by Dell Technologies’ Dell Development Fund, that is designed to enable previously disadvantaged students to further enhance their IT capabilities. Khulisa Academy takes an innovative approach to HPC and empowers students by taking them through an intense two-year training program designed to challenge and stretch their capabilities.
By harnessing new innovative technologies, leaders in education can do more than simply sustain education – they can transform how students learn and teachers are supported. What’s more, the impact of education can be better assessed in real-time with data-driven technologies, making it possible to measure the impact and gauge fresh insights. The digital foundations must first be in place before seizing the next generation of opportunities and preparing robustly for the future of work. But it must be grasped with care – as the successful application of a digital strategy for education requires nuance, vision and collaboration as educators prepare for what is coming next in terms of hybrid/blended learning models.
Getting the digital classroom right
McKinsey analysis on the impact of technology on educational outcomes calls for a thoughtful approach, rather than box-ticking exercise. It highlights the need for the correct use of technology in classrooms, emphasising the benefits of augmenting teacher’s instructions and integrating with full lesson plans, rather than as an add-on. It also underscores the careful pairing of technology with instructional environment and context as a key factor to successful outcomes for students and teachers. The sweet spot for EdTech occurs when the technology is fit for purpose and students and teachers are well versed in using the tech, in order to get the most out of it. Much of this evolution is inevitable, but when it comes to the digital classroom, getting it right is crucial, requiring an ecosystem of stakeholders – from educational institutions, to content providers, third-party tech partners, and NGOs.
We are standing at a unique crossroads, with a clear vision and the tools to achieve it. Bridging the digital divide has never been so crucial as we look to close gaps in access to education and support an innovative, community focused, and future-proof economic recovery that delivers on ambitious and long-term skills needs. Rethinking education can help us to build a more resilient world – and we all know that starts with putting students first. The opportunity for technology to solve society’s biggest challenges is more pronounced than ever.
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