With recent findings predicting maths to be the subject most affected by school closures, it’s time to harness the power of tech to address the maths attainment gap once and for all, argues Joy Deep Nath, co-founder of SplashLearn – a game-based maths programme for primary aged children that is free for all UK schools.
The impact of Covid-19 on a generation of school children and their families has been well documented, as school closures around the world triggered an almost overnight shift to home learning. Despite the tireless efforts of both teachers and parents to facilitate remote lessons, many children struggled to focus during this time of high stress, whilst others lacked essential digital devices and internet connections to effectively complete their work. Without the support of a traditional school environment, each pupil faced their own individual challenges and unfortunately, the obstacles of 2020 are now evident in recent estimates – with the Education Endowment Foundation recently warning that maths skills in children will be disproportionately affected by the lockdown.
Covid-19 has highlighted existing structural inequalities across society, from healthcare to employment stability, and education is no exception. School closures have exacerbated existing weaknesses in the curriculum, like maths, which require high levels of engagement, confidence and personal attention to succeed. Technological solutions like tracing apps, mathematical models to chart future outbreaks and assembling ventilators and PPE, have played a key role in our response to Covid-19. So how can technology be similarly applied to education to help solve one of the teachers’ most pressing concerns during the pandemic?
If educational technology is to play even a minor role in closing the attainment gap, it is vital that we first begin to bridge the ‘digital divide’. Edtech enabled many schools to create a virtual classroom and support pupils remotely during the lockdown, with recent figures estimating a 400 per cent global increase in the implementation of edtech solutions since March 2020. Yet with a high proportion of children from low-income families lacking hardware or a high-speed broadband connection, schools and edtech providers must ensure that no child misses out on an education due to their socio-economic background. It is vital that now, more than ever, edtech companies design their products with all kinds of different devices and systems in mind to provide as equitable access as possible.
One example is something we built into SplashLearn which is an offline synchronisation functionality that allows the program to work seamlessly without the internet, and syncs with its cloud server when the connection is re-established enabling cross-platform usage. This means the programme is not dependent on an internet connection at all, let alone a high-speed one.
Organisations can also help children from disadvantaged backgrounds sustain their learning by offering printable worksheets. Encyclopaedia Britannica, for instance, has recently partnered with HP to provide content for print resources which are distributed to students without reliable internet access at home.
Many edtech providers have also temporarily offered their services free of charge to teachers and schools, in order to help pupils catch up on lost learning during the lockdown and ensure school budgets are spent on procuring digital devices to enable continued learning in the event of pupils shielding or local lockdowns.
Game-based learning and engagement
Another consideration is the importance of engaging students in their learning at a time when they may not be getting the 1:1 focus they need. Although research into the outcomes of game-based learning continues to progress, studies have consistently found that video games can improve problem-solving skills, knowledge acquisition, motivation and engagement. Furthermore, gamified learning can be easily integrated into the classroom or home to provide a balance of fun and learning. For Generation Z, who grew up with the Internet, screen time and digital devices, game-based programmes allow students to interact and engage with educational material in a way more commonly associated with video gaming.
The most compelling game-based learning resources offer a wide range of pictures and graphics to represent problems and demonstrate concepts. This visual provision helps children master mathematical concepts and skills through visual representations. The learning experience itself is the reward as pupils can blend fun with learning through creating profiles, choosing customised avatars and exploring the new digital environment.
Changing perceptions and boosting confidence levels
Despite being a core curriculum subject, a combination of poor parental experiences, societal attitudes and anxiety has left many people with a negative perception of maths. It is hard to fathom a world where children proudly declare they are bad at reading or “not a reading person” – so why have these attitudes been allowed to set in with maths?
Many edtech programmes offer high levels of autonomy for children to set their own pace, with inbuilt AI tracking their progress to gradually suggest more challenging exercises. This allows pupils space to safely make mistakes without the fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their peers or stressing about answering a question in time. Moreover, the information collected on a child’s progress provides parents with a valuable opportunity to engage with their child’s progression and learning journey. This can all take place in a safe, risk-free environment – ideal for children whose schools are in local lockdowns or are self-isolating/shielding.
Ultimately, maths is a crucial tool rather than just an academic subject we need in order to fully understand the world around us. Although 2020 has been a year of upset and uncertainty, it has also offered us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rip up the rule book and reshape education for the better. As children around the world continue to return to reopened schools, educational technology is playing a core role in shaping educators’ response to the widened attainment gap.