There’s a famous quote by Zhou Enlai, who was asked in conversation with Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, what he thought of the French Revolution: “Too soon to say,” was his reply.
That’s the case with Covid-19 too. We are only just beginning to understand how it may have affected us in a multitude of ways – and most particularly in education. The only way to find out is to talk to people on the front lines. One of those is Ji Li, the likeable and articulate CEO of Plum Innovations, which has been busy throughout the pandemic enhancing its tech offer to its primary school clients.
In conversation, Li is knowledgeable and relaxed, and I can see immediately why schools would find him a helpful support in their busy lives. So what trends is he seeing? Li explains the shift towards flipped learning. “Flipped learning isn’t a new concept,” he says, “it began back in the 1990s. It’s to be contrasted with traditional learning where you go to classrooms; teachers tell you what you need to know, and you memorise that input. Flipped learning makes for a more collegiate approach”
Li’s own education back in China followed this approach: “When I was studying secondary school in China we were writing notes, and memorising everything,” he recalls.
With the increasing prominence of flipped learning, we’ve begun to alter the role of the teacher: the solitary sage at the front of the class has now become a kind of trouble-shooter.
Is there a danger of going too far and having teachers with too little influence? Li is philosophical: “I think there’s a sweet spot. There’s a role for the teacher to lead and to guide – but each pupil should have their own freedom to find the right way too. There are two extremes and we need to be in the middle.”
That might be said to echo Aristotle’s famous notion of the ‘golden mean’ where wisdom is found somewhere in the centre. This common sense approach turns out to be crucial to Li’s philosophy of how technology should be approached in the school setting. “Technology shouldn’t dictate to teachers; instead technology must evolve according to user experience,” he explains. “As a sector, we can’t define how teachers should teach; we need teachers to come up with that. Once that happens, then the tech sector needs to facilitate their approach and make life easier for teachers.”
One leitmotif of our conversation is Ji Li’s love of the sector he works in – and he clearly instinctively understands teachers, and is extremely eager to help.
“We make sure software and technology are being used, and working for teachers,” he says, passionately. “In my role, I see first hand how technology stops working, and how sometimes it works really well.” So how do you introduce new technology to a school and effect change? “A new system will often engender different workflow and have a different user interface. The school staff might find that difficult to get used to – or perhaps they’ll be too busy to obtain the right familiarity with it. If they struggle, they’re perhaps more likely to fall back on how things were before, because they know how to use it,” he adds.
That, of course, is where Plum comes in. Li explains that his work has become more complex since the pandemic with the shift to remote-working. “Before the pandemic everything took place within the building where the school was located. Since the pandemic, with teachers not fully back to school, and with the continued relevance of flexible working, that’s shifted the landscape of IT support –and of edtech in general. So we’re no longer looking at hundreds of computers inside one building, but at diverse settings. That’s a challenge for the sector, and it’s a challenge for Plum.”
Traditionally, of course, flipped learning has been used in higher education and doesn’t apply so much to the primary schools which form the majority of Li’s clients. However, there’s an interesting development at the primary level too. “With the lockdown, we’ve definitely seen an increased involvement from parents,” he tells me. “Teachers want to teach most of the contents of their classes, but at home parents can be very helpful to reinforce learning, and help with certain projects – especially with DT and science projects.”
Home-working means that the sector now needs to deal directly with third parties on behalf of schools. Li explains how this plays out: “You use your home connectivity for work now, and that includes teachers. So far we don’t need to contact the home broadband services not yet, but if there’s an issue with one of our clients we’ll always help them to troubleshoot it if it’s a wifi issue. If they say at home, “Nothing’s working” then that usually tells us it’s a fundamental issue, but we want the best for our clients so we’ll talk to third party vendors – we know the technical terms and so we’re happy to do that.”
There’s another area in which Li is prepared to go the extra mile – in talking to parents on behalf of schools. That issue arose, he says, time again during the pandemic: “We never say, ‘That’s not our issue’. We talked to parents a lot when we implemented Google classrooms. The parents had their accounts; the schools had theirs, and so we helped schools to train parents, in order to smooth that transition.”
Talking to Li, I have sense that he’s good at his job precisely because he respects his clients. He also takes a lively interest in education techniques. He tells me also of the parallel shift towards blended learning – a mix of online and offline – which is also set to have a big impact on the sector. “Before the pandemic, schools did almost everything offline. When lockdown came, we entered the most extreme version of online learning. Blended learning seeks a return to balance. The technologies of the future will evolve based on user requirements. Schools will adjust to what pupils need and we’re able to create a balance.”
Of course, the most important aspect of Li’s work is communicating. Without listening in the first place he wouldn’t be so well-placed to implement relevant technologies, and if he weren’t able to communicate, he wouldn’t be able to fix problems. “Communication is a massive part of it,” he agrees. “We are lucky to work in the education sector, where staff and teachers are eager to learn. In terms of technical language, some staff are tech-savvy and others are less confident are less confident in technology.”
Again, Li reverts naturally to his love of the sector. But beyond his natural empathy with teachers and other education staff, I also detect a passion for education. He takes a keen interest in educational trends, and speaks with real knowledge and insight about them. Further, his knowledge takes on an international dimension, which stems to some extent from his Chinese upbringing.
“The UK is always at the forefront of education technologies,” he says. “The UK has a history of leading the way.”
The transition has also been propelled by the increase in multi-academy trusts these past years, which has created a necessity for cloud-based learning platforms. “When everybody was working at one school that was one thing,” Li recalls. “Now, with many teachers working across many sites, that introduces the importance of the cloud, as it’s the most effective way to work.”
So flipped learning and blended learning turn out to be profoundly interlinked. As Li puts it: “In the future students will have paperwork to complete – handwriting and artworks and so forth. That’s important. But certain work they can produce online, as part of flipped learning. They can use online platforms to do research and then in class the teachers continue the learning journey with them.”
We’re full of buzzwords for the future: AI, drones, all manner of tech. But the future often happens more subtly than that. Talking to Li, you realise that the future is made not by big headlines, but quietly, almost imperceptibly by intelligent, thoughtful people – people, in fact, just like him.
Christopher Jackson is News Director of Finito World