Return to school: how a pandemic could force education innovation, but doesn’t seem to
A guest blog post for The Edtech Podcast written by Carla Aerts | Twitter: @underthebanyan.
Carla is an EdTech and Learning Science versatilist and EdTech thought leader. She is also the founder of Refracted!, the mighty networks community that strives for inter- and transdisciplinary dialogue and knowledge share in learning and education. Carla is a former Director of the Tmrw Institute, an EdTech catalyst and think tank, former Director of Futures – UCL, Institute of Education and Global Digital Director Education at Cambridge University Press, and a start-up advisor and mentor and speaker.
Significant confusion and uncertainty appear to be the meagre constants during the Covid-19 pandemic. It certainly applies to education in most countries around the world; from early learning to further and higher education. Continuity of learning and teaching has been disrupted as never before, hampered by a lack of readiness and often know-how, as remote learning provision enabled and enhanced by learning technologies so often has proven to be an afterthought, not to mention ignored altogether. The ensuing disarray of education had resulted in profound, and life-altering impact on children and young adolescents, their parents or guardians ánd their teachers. Twenty-first-century education has not embraced the digital world in which we live. Whilst deployment of scaleable AI-powered tutoring EdTech in China may have found its way to the classroom, this is not the case for the whole of China. Other regions have struggled, and the provision of education has been fragmented and patchy, with children’s development and learning needs – more important than any curriculum needs – ignored. Many children did not enjoy any education at all during lockdown as the digital divide really reared its ugly head.
Lockdown highlighted that integrating learning technologies and EdTech has not evolved much over the past 15 years. Too often considered to belong to the realms of IT, rather than teaching and learning, the adoption of digital technologies in the classroom has remained elusive and ineffective. Rather than augment pedagogies and enable learning science-informed scaffolding of learning interventions, a digital retrofit has often impeded successful EdTech adoption. Combined with the continued lack of focus on developing digital pedagogies and learning science-informed interventions in teacher education or professional development, teachers have been left in the cold. Needless to say that this impacted significantly on the readiness for remote teaching and learning, affecting teachers, learners and their families.
Covid-19 amplification and fragmentation
This pandemic has amplified the digital divide as well as the EdTech retrofit, rather than sown the seed for a meaningful and successful accelerated transformation. As a result, the lack of careful adoption of enabling technologies, equitable access, appropriate pedagogies and scaffolded interventions has only become too apparent.
Instead, the scrambling for the provision of online instruction, using tools such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, Google Classroom or Zoom, with their origin in corporate life, has prevailed. Schools that were able to resort to online contact with their learners often did so relentlessly and shared continued supplies of worksheets. This not only overwhelmed the learners and their parents but equally impacted significantly on the teachers. Where access or lack of online tools was lacking, the tremendous goodwill and dedication of many committed teachers, proved a lifeline for the most vulnerable. Recognising the need for access, as computers and wifi provision are still proving a problem, programmes for computer and broadband provision have sprung to life. However, these are still fragmented and often lack the contextualisation and support the learners and their families need at home. The lack of readiness and digital acumen in the delivery of education has only become too apparent and reinforced. Rather than resulting in an education fit for a digital age, education appears to have spiralled back to the front-of-class instructional Prussian models, unfit for our world.
The picture hasn’t always been bleak and encouraging trends are definitely emerging, thanks to teacher initiative and commitment to the learners. Many teachers took it upon themselves to ensure their most deprived pupils got some support checking in with them at the doorstep, whilst starting to develop meaningful online interventions for a return to the ‘remote’ classroom. They designed lessons that support teaching in rotation and small groups. They explored the most optimal interventions that wouldn’t force learners to listen to them for the duration of a classroom lesson. They engaged in online discussions, set collaborative tasks and activities, and are getting learners to work together, recognising the needs for individual support.
At the same time, governments’ attention has shifted.
Return to school….
The return to school has proven a difficult and complex undertaking. With physical presence in the classroom the focus of the way forward, very little thinking seems to go into ‘hybrid’ school scenarios. The development of such scenarios would not only enable learners in class to engage with their peers at home, lead to new and creative collaborative learning scenarios and teaching that can effectively address learner variability. These new school initiatives would also be able to support a rapid transition to lockdown, should new Covid-19 spikes make this a necessity.
The approach for social-distanced bubbles and year-groups has already led to further isolation from one’s friends, even at school and sharing the class. The images of social-distanced classrooms, a few children sitting at their desk facing the whiteboard or the social-distanced front-of-class teacher, have only become too familiar. Introducing the ‘bubble’ concept to school, in the UK at least, has resulted in ‘year-groups’ coming to school in rotation. In a number of large schools, these learners are being taught by the year-teacher from an office or an empty classroom using Google Classroom or other tools, projecting the remote teacher onto the whiteboard. The front-of-class familiar classroom in which learners stare at the teacher and the blackboard has made a come-back. The one difference, the empty spaces between the desks. The question begs whether this is the retrofit to ‘what school has been’, is the answer to education in a Covid-19 world or beyond?
Does school have to…
Does school have to continue to deliver education on these established and front-of-class outdated, instructional models that are increasingly proving to be ineffective? Are the current approaches to the social-distanced classrooms and return to school amplifying their ineffectiveness, reinforced by ineffective use of technology?
Are 50-minute lessons the last on which education needs to continue? Whether remote or within the school, will this really support catching up and benefit learners and teachers? Or, isn’t this likely to result in significant fatigue, disenchantment, mental health issues and decrease in learning impact?
Should school really remain the focus of preparing learners to pass their exams? Should the return to school be moulded on ambition for catch-up driven by league tables, rather than the creation of meaningful and restorative social and learning experiences?
Wouldn’t teachers and teaching assistants be best served by having time to reflect and discuss their teaching and exchange ideas and resources with their peers, augmented by enabling technologies and platforms to complement the staffroom or engage in peer activity in and outside of school?
Instead could it not be…
A collaborative and smart technology augmented environment – whether physical or remote – would allow for more individualised and shorter teacher interventions. EdTech would not only support teacher agency but would allow for more targeted addressing of learner needs, the development of competencies and relevant knowledge acquisition. This may sound outlandish… yet it is entirely achievable (and not even revolutionary), albeit not without considerable disruption. But carefully considered collaboration and dedicated thinking as well as agency, courage and commitment to straddling the silos in education can make this possible.
Recognising the social foundations and fabric of education, based on equity and variability, will be key. Putting wellbeing for teaching and learning at the centre, rather than forcing the need for catch-up and progress reports as a central tenet, may prove a prerequisite.
Too idealistic? Without a doubt. But, entirely possible.