Trends in Education Technology for 2021

Welcome to the Texthelp Talks podcast! In this episode we hear from our CEO and Founder, Martin McKay. Each year, Martin sits down to explore what the biggest trends in education for the upcoming year will be. This year has been a year like no other. So while we’re looking ahead to 2021 and what’s to come, Martin also reflects on what the effects of the global pandemic has taught us, both in education and in Texthelp as an organization.


Shauna: If you haven’t done so already, be sure you subscribe through your preferred podcast player or streaming service so you never miss an episode. In this episode you’re hearing from, Shauna Hanna, Content Strategist at Texthelp and our CEO, Martin McKay. I think we’ll all agree that education is in a constant state of flux right now, It’s tough to know exactly what the upcoming school year will look like especially in this new tech-led, distance learning era.  

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him yet...Martin founded Texthelp in 1996 to help people with communication difficulties. His own personal goal is to help 100 million people achieve their literacy goals.

Martin has spent his work life developing education technology. In the past, he has served on the Assistive Technology Industry Association Board as well as the NIMAS board for the USA Office of Special Education Programs. In 2017, he received the Presidential Award in recognition of lifetime contribution to dyslexia and literacy from the International Dyslexia Association. He is currently serving in an advisory capacity on the Universal Design for Learning council. 

Shauna: So last year you said that we were going to continue to see an interest in learning analytics. Based on how the year has played out, and due to COVID-19, do you think that learning analytics will play an even bigger role in the incoming year? And also, why will it be so important?

Martin: Yes, I do think learning analytics is going to become more important. In fact, I think COVID has really shone a light on the importance of it. Most kids around the world last year lost a significant amount of their educational year. A lot of kids lost almost a full term. And the kids who didn't lose a full term, certainly didn't have that kind of 100% education experience. And we know that time away from school creates learning loss. That's been shown in a number of studies. And this year kids had more time off school than ever before. And it's absolutely going to set those kids back.

I think learning analytics can measure the impact of that. And help educators and administrators track how far off normal educational progress kids are. And what needs to be done to get them back on track again.

We've already seen this year in the UK, for example, in a study that was done, that young kids, younger kids in particular, have taken a step backwards. And need to be retaught, for example, in some cases how to use a knife and fork. And kids who are a little bit older and who are reading and writing, who aren't getting enough practice at reading and writing. They're going to lose that stamina and their writing is not going to be as good as it would have been had they been in school all year. So I think learning analytics, super important to keep track of that and track our progress back towards normality again.

Shauna: So student motivation and engagement are topics that you've discussed a lot this year and that have been in the wider arena over this past sort of eight/nine months. And we also talked about this time last year. However, you kind of touched on it a little bit there, I don't think anybody ever anticipated the drop in engagement that has occurred because of COVID-19. Can you explain in a few ways how you think we'll see educators and the ed tech companies try to improve engagement as we move through this new learning landscape?

Martin: Yeah, that's a good question, Shauna. Last year I had been talking about nudge theory and how we can use nudges to motivate kids, to get more involved in their education. And think about writing as a kind of fun activity that they can improve at by giving them a number that they can really easily move with just some additional discretionary effort. And in hindsight that's a really useful thing. Because this year, whenever kids were sent home and had to be taught using distance learning, the engagement is very often not there.

And also the social pressure, when kids are all in a room together, there's social pressure to sit up straight and pay attention to the teacher. But if you're at home, there's no one really there, unless your parents are being very supportive and encouraging to make the kids sit down in front of the computer and join the Zoom call or join the Google Meet or the Teams meeting to participate in class. And that motivation to participate is something that has been missing. And loads of kids won't be motivated to participate and so teachers need to learn to be more engaging in a webinar setting, whenever they're teaching remotely. That's something that we really need to see.

At Texthelp, we've been recognizing this and trying to find ways to motivate kids by gamification. So try and get ... like turning their writing into a number. How many words they've written this week or what's their best writing burst this week or what's their ... how mature is their writing. And kids can keep a track of that number. And just by writing a little bit more, practicing a little bit more, they can improve their writing. And it feels like a game, not like a chore. And so those are some of the things that we're trying to do around motivation. But it is a thing, it's a serious thing. Teachers need to be taught how to keep people engaged when they're not all in the room together, when they're distributed.

Shauna: So we've definitely seen an increase in the use of technology in 2020. In some cases an increase of 150% to 190% because of the pandemic. And it’s been forcing many students and educators to conduct their learning from home, learning and teaching from home. Do you think schools and educators will adopt more technology into their teaching practices overall? Or do you think the level of adoption will stay similar to what's happening now?

Martin: So I certainly don't think it's going to drop back. I don't think there's any kind of going back from the point where we're at now. I think most teachers who have adopted some kind of digital learning, digital kind of homework, I think once they've done that a few times and they've realized the convenience of it, they're not going to go back from that. In fact, even in the short term, even with a vaccine on the horizon, it's still going to be quite some time before everyone is vaccinated. It's probably going to be certainly late spring. And even in an in-class setting, teachers don't want to be handling physical materials, because that could be a vector for the virus to be transmitted. So even though kids aren't actually back in school face to face, certainly in the school that my kids go to, they're still doing their homework digitally. So they're handing in, they're turning in digital work now. And so the teacher doesn't actually have to take paper from them. And carry paper home from school until they're home, and potentially be an infection risk.

So yeah, the digitisation thing, I don't see any going back. Once teachers experience the convenience of digital instruction and they get kind of pushed over that initial learning hump, to learn to do something new, once they get the convenience of it, I don't think there's any going back.

Shauna:What would you say to the skeptics that are out there and that are just dying for a return to just purely in class instruction, face-to-face, no technology at all?

Martin: When we get together as human beings in person, the learning experience is richer. Absolutely. I get that. But you can have an enthusiastic and inspirational teacher at the front of the room and still participate in digital learning. And when you participate in digital learning, there's certainly less work for the teacher because you don't have to do the work on paper and then transcribe it into your student information system. So I think there's a difference between schools getting back to normal and having everyone in the same room and having a kind of more human, real physical interaction. But I still think that once teachers have really experienced the efficiency benefits of digital learning and people handing in digital homeworks, and having access to analytics around digital learning, I don't see a return to the old kind of mass return to paper and pencil. I don't see that happening.

Shauna: So we've heard many different narratives about how education will change because of the pandemic. What do you think will be the most significant transformation?

Martin: Personally, I think math or math, depending on what side of the Atlantic you're on. The teaching of mathematics and the homework has been a very paper-based exercise. Lots of people have been writing their math on paper and getting their homework on worksheets and filling in worksheets and sending worksheets back to teachers. And now that has to be done digitally. And I think that one of the real benefits behind doing your math digitally is accessibility for people who need accessible instructional materials. Because pencil and paper is not accessible. If you use a pencil and paper, or you give someone even a scanned pencil and paper worksheet, a visually impaired student can't read that. And a student who has got learning difficulties who needs the math to be read aloud, that's a challenging thing. So whenever teachers start to create math resources digitally using modern math and with tools like EquatIO, then the sooner we have an accessible instructional environment for all kids. And then when kids got that, it doesn't matter if they're on an iPad or a Chromebook or a Windows PC or a Mac, they can listen to the math and they can respond to the math in a universally designed way. They can respond with, they can type their math or dictate their math or hand write their math. And whatever they do, it'll get turned into a nice clean type set, accessible math. Which is going to be useful and readable by everyone. So I think, yeah, math for me is the biggest transformation area.

Shauna: So in terms of product innovations in education technology in general, what do you think will be the next big things to look out for in the coming year?

Martin: So I think a couple of things, I think kind of passive analytics. And by passive analytics, I mean teachers not having to do anything, not having to even score writing or assess writing, but to be able to see learning behavioral analytics of their classroom. I think that's going to give teachers a good deal of additional insight into a kid's learning behaviors. And I think that's going to be a very interesting thing. I also think that there's going to be a bit of an uptake in social and emotional technology to help kids now as they, I mean, they've been through a really tough time. There's a lot more kind of angst and stress and mental health issues than there have been in prior years. And I think that technology around social and emotional support is going to be of increasing importance over the coming years.

Shauna: Over the last number of years, we've talked about robotics and coding and stuff and all of that kind of fun stuff has almost been pushed to the side because of COVID in a way. And I guess the importance obviously to assess the learning loss that has taken place because of it. And to get kids back on track. But do you see the likes of coding and robotics and such things as something that might come back into play as being important later on this year?

Martin: I was talking to a teacher about this the other day and the making of stuff, the physical making of stuff, and the physical playing with Lego and robotics and Mindstorms kits and so on, that can't happen at the minute because of the infection risk in the classroom. So a lot of that stuff has been pushed to the side. And kids are playing around with virtual ... You can still program in a COVID environment and be socially distanced. But that physical kind of building things, that robotics, that has had to take a little bit of a back seat. And it's going to be a while before that becomes normal again. And particularly, kids collaborating and working together on a little physical robotics project. Those sorts of things are ... they've just been pushed to the side. So it'll be really good when we are vaccinated and get back to normal. And hopefully in the summer term or in the spring term this year, we'll see a return to normality from that regard.

Shauna:I see, Erin, because she's just dying to get back to that kind of stuff at the minute. And there's only so much that the likes of Minecraft can offer.

Martin: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Shauna: So are there any interesting technologies that you're excited to see you in 2021? 

Martin: Well, I mean, there are a few things, obviously COVID has just accelerated a lot of things that I have been a fan of anyway. Being able to teach by Zoom or by Google Meet and have breakout rooms and have interesting online voting and commenting and hand raising tools, all that stuff has just been accelerated. And while I absolutely can't wait for schools to get back to normal and be in a physical building again, for much of the world, it's just become a very normal thing to hop onto a video conference and participate. And I think now kids are going to be able to collaborate with other kids around the world. In a way that would have probably been a little bit dramatic before. "Oh my goodness, how are we going to connect to this school on another continent?" And now it's just going to be very normal. So I think from that perspective, I think that's very good. I do think that some of that stuff around digital math I think has just been transformative. And it's almost like the problem that has been solved, because we have solved a problem for accessibility, and thought about math from the physical and cognitive difficulty perspective, and we've made it really, really easy for people who struggle with cognitive load for example, to enter math. And for that math to be made accessible. I think it's just been a real game changer.

It's kind of like when you put the ramp in for a hotel. And the ramp is there designed for people with wheelchairs, but it ends up getting used by the FedEx person or parents with strollers or prams or buggies or people with suitcases. And when you solve it for ... you try to solve it for one group, but you end up solving it for everyone and making life much easier. And I think that has happened in a few areas, particularly in math. That overlap of innovation and accessibility, and although it was designed for accessibility, it's really made math much, much easier for a much bigger group. So, that's exciting. I think.

Shauna: Are there any global markets where ed tech adoption has gone particularly well? Or have been effective government policies implemented to standardize the tools that are being used?

Martin: So, that's a big question. And I would say yes. And it varies. Even within a market like the USA, there have been some places where there's been a fantastic amount of funding and policy which has really enabled, for example, I think in the state of Maine, every single kid in the state of Maine has got access to advice and connectivity. Which is absolutely incredible when you think about it. But unfortunately the state of Maine is one of the few states where that has happened. It's not kind of uniform. But also there have been really inspirational stories of school districts who have turned their school busses into mobile wifi hotspots and put a 5G hotspot in the bus. And driven the bus out to a neighborhood where kids can get around the bus. And get together and get connected and participate in digital education. I think that's really good.

I also think though, again, it's been uneven. In many areas, disadvantaged kids don't have access to technology or there may only be one device in a household with quite a few kids. Or they may not have access to good wifi. So it has been uneven. But certainly I do think this is going to accelerate the adoption of technology. And we're going to see the computer-to-student ratio getting closer to one-to-one. And I do think that this pandemic having occurred, it's going to be in people's thinking and planning. What happens if this happens again? We need to be able to teach. We need education to be able to continue. And I think that is probably going to continue to drive education policy and planning so that we have more connectivity and devices. And train teachers so that we know that should this crop up again, that we're able to respond to it and educate remotely.

Shauna: Looking specifically at the UK for a moment, where it's not regionalized in the way that it is in the US, do you feel that the government should be taking action? Is there a case for bringing back the likes of BECTA or something similar to help with the regulation piece?

Martin: So I know that in the UK there is some active work going on at the moment in the Department of Education, there is quite a bit of planning around access to technology. And funding is I believe being made available to facilitate the distribution of devices, particularly to disadvantaged areas. But you're right, the UK education market used to be a little bit more structured when local education authorities set policy and procurement for a large group of schools. And it's less structured now. And that's probably to the disadvantage of the schools in the UK. And I think some more organizational structure at the regional level would probably help. There'd be better value procurement, for example, as well as kind of more consistent deployment and access to technology.

Shauna: What are the biggest lessons the school sector has learned from rapid adoption of ed tech tools? And which features will prove most effective or useful?

Martin: So the biggest lessons the school sector has learned, I would say, is that, first of all, it can be done remotely. It is possible to turn in homework digitally. It is possible to teach online. I would also say that we have definitely learned that there are challenges. And the challenges lie around teacher training and access to technology and access to connectivity. And I think that it would have been nice to have connectivity and train teachers in place before this occurred. So there's been a bit of a scramble to get training and access to technology. But I also do think that it will be transformative in the longer term. Because I don't see teachers, having got used to homework being turned in digitally, I can't see it all going back to paper. For the stuff that belongs on paper like art, I don't see people kind of painting with charcoal going away or painting with paint for that matter or Lego or robotics going away. But for the things that can be done digitally, where they can be done better digitally, I think it's a no brainer that those things will continue. And we can just, I mean, it's horrible at the moment, but we'll be able to look back at COVID as an accelerant that kind of pushed us towards a more digital education.


Thanks so much to Martin for joining us for this special episode and thanks to you all for listening...I think you’ll agree that education and education technology are evolving at a faster pace than any other period in recent history. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to understand how and where it’s changing and to keep our eye on the future so that educators and schools can properly support students.

That’s it for this episode, thanks for joining us and we look forward to the next time. Stay safe.