Collaboration is key to accessing full benefits of edtech

The need for collaboration in digital education development is recognised at the level of the European Commission. The Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027 is an example of EU-wide collaboration and acts as a handbook for the development of a high-quality digital education ecosystem.

The action plan identifies two elements to be developed:

• A digital education ecosystem (embracing infrastructure, teachers’ skills and learning materials and tools); and

• Digital skills and literacy among all age groups and genders (from basic skills to advanced skills as well as increasing the share of girls in technology-oriented careers).

A high emphasis is put on co-creation, linking actors in the European Union and its member states, including teachers, citizens, businesses and various sectors of society.

Digivision 2030

Finland has an opportunity to be a pioneer in constructing a well-functioning digital learning infrastructure as part of a Finnish government initiative to create a digital learning platform.

The ‘action plan’ for that is Digivision 2030. This is a joint project of all the Finnish higher education institutions aimed at constructing a digital learning platform for the needs of young people and lifelong learners. The learners can select courses offered by the higher education institutions and study those online.

This provides plenty of advantages: a wide selection of courses, accessibility, flexibility etc. There are benefits to education institutions as well: more visibility and students on their courses and positive pressure to develop courses with a high quality of digital pedagogy and edtech solutions to support that learning.

The work is backed by strong links with the edtech industry. By working together and co-creating, universities and edtech providers can ensure the possibilities of education technology are widely utilised.

Also, by working together they can make sure the adaptation of edtech is built on a sustainable foundation. There are aspects of, for example, quality assurance, data protection and a code of conduct that need to be considered jointly. These are issues of high priority for the creation of sustainable and ethically solid long-term solutions.

By keeping this in mind, we can create solutions to meet the needs of all stakeholders based on shared European values.

Lessons learned during the pandemic

Due to the pandemic, educators were forced to move rapidly to digital education. There were enormous differences in digital skills between different universities and even among teachers at the same university. There are several lessons to be learned from this.

Universities – like other organisations – should have developed good business continuity and disaster recovery plans to address potential threats like this. If they don’t have these, they need to come up with them now.

Training opportunities and career paths at universities must support the development of digital teaching skills. These training opportunities should include other educational staff. Mentoring, peer learning, learning labs, help desks, etc, offer a useful adjunct to teachers’ learning, especially in situations when there is a need for urgent help.

In the longer term, university career paths should be built so that they motivate teachers to take part in the development of future-oriented skills, including the use of digital tools and digital pedagogy.

Universities should have a strategic debate about the role of campuses post-pandemic. What is the role of these and what facilities are needed after COVID? Will universities adopt different strategies when it comes to the purpose of their campuses or even the non-existence of their physical campus?

The role of edtech and different types of collaboration is visible in all the lessons learned. More intensive and future-oriented collaboration could have helped when higher education faced the initial shock of the pandemic.

Still, it is great to see that collaboration has increased over the last months. Universities are sharing their best practices with others, governments are supporting the development of digital education and edtech providers are offering their expertise to assist with this development.

All this gives us an opportunity to take a huge leap forward.

Technology is an assistant, not a leader

When the pandemic started, there was no time for the introduction of modern digital pedagogy solutions when moving classroom courses to an online mode. The most important thing was to make sure that education could be continued. Now, however, it is time to harness the opportunities presented by edtech and digital pedagogy.

How can edtech and pedagogy be used to best support teaching and learning?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Based on our experience, digital solutions are able to bring a lot of interactivity and real-life simulation opportunities to teaching. Examples of tools that have proven to be useful include break-out rooms, quizzes, polls, visualisations and scenario construction tools.

The teacher can enrich the teaching by using these tools. This enhances the constructivism theory of learning which promotes the idea that students construct knowledge and learning within social contexts with each other. Thus, digital solutions enable collaborative learning guided by the teacher.

We are convinced that learners’ active participation and involvement in their learning process will be the new normal in teaching and learning after the pandemic. Edtech has a significant role to play in that.

Another example of the strengths of digital technology is the possibility to embed the digital content of external actors in course materials. In our university, we embed, for example, materials from the IBM Academic Initiative, HSTalks and Bloomberg, which offer teaching and learning materials, case studies, videos, data and simulation tools.

By using the materials of external actors, we can connect real-life situations more closely with teaching and learning.

Driver of social welfare

Modern technology has been a key driver in increasing social welfare in all nations. Its opportunities need to be utilised in education development too. However, it should be remembered in all cases that technology is an assistant, rather than a leader. The best solutions can be created by connecting the opportunities of technology with human knowledge.

Let us connect the strengths of edtech and humans to lead education to a new digital era. The various COVID-19 recovery funding opportunities which are now available can help us to do the development work needed.

Annukka Jokipii is a vice rector for education and professor in accounting at the University of Vaasa, Finland. She has been a member of the national Digivision 2030 steering group, which will develop common procedures for higher education institutions and create a shared digital service platform. Dr Helinä Saarela is a former dean in business studies at the University of Vaasa. Today she is working as a senior advisor on education development. Before joining academia, she contributed to competence development and digitalisation in the financial sector.