Schools and universities have embraced online learning systems over the last year to keep their students engaged as they were forced to work from home. Many have extolled the benefits of these systems over the last decade as a way for people to access high quality education no matter where they’re located. Others, however, fear the impact on disadvantaged children and privatisation of education by stealth.

By last April 2020, almost 1.6 billion children and students around the world could no longer attend classes in person and schools, universities, teachers and professors had a steep learning curve to bring education online. Many educational institutions were already using some “edtech” tools, but the pandemic made remote learning was suddenly a priority and everyone had to embrace learning management systems (LMS) and online platforms like Google Classroom, which rapidly grew to surpass 100 million global users last year.

Google and Microsoft both offer a wealth of free or subsidised digital tools to schools and universities, but their new dominance in education has been viewed by some as a landgrab for future influence in the multi-billion pound education industry. There is already a “digital divide” that further widens existing attainment gaps and inequalities faced by disadvantaged children, and once tech profits are brought into the education sector the situation may deteriorate further. Once a certain number of state schools are dependent on complex digital systems from the likes of Google or Microsoft for teaching and communication with their students, state education could become dependent on private companies, putting the tech giants in a very powerful position.

Despite these concerns from campaigners, investors continue to see the potential in edtech and the pandemic pushed these investments skyward from $7bn in 2019 to a record $16.1bn in 2020. And it is hard to see how the shift online will not be at least partially permanent – now schools have adopted various digital technologies that give both improved flexibility and oversight, few will want to put the genie back in the bottle. Instead, it is likely the future will be a blended model, where students still attend classes and discussions in person, but where digital tools will reduce the workloads of teachers.

These blended systems are already used in practice in a variety of businesses in the private sector, where companies onboard new employees or upskill existing workforces on new products through a combination of in-person training and online learning using tools like iSpring Learn, Thinkific, or LearnDash. For the business, these digital platforms offer an effective way to train their workforce and track their progress through online tests and advanced analytics, standardising their processes and reducing costs.

Educational institutions hope that they will benefit from similar cost-saving measures now they have shifted much of their learning online, and will be able to reduce workloads on teachers by automating much of the marking for simple tests. However, how well students will react to these new methods and where schools and colleges should draw the line between what needs to happen in person remains up for debate.

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