The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has thrown digital technology and education into the spotlight. At the moment, it difficult to think about anything other than how to cope with the immediate difficulties thrown up school closures and the pivot to online teaching and learning. However, some people are beginning to start thinking beyond the current upheavals, and consider the post-pandemic implications for education. Here are five initial guesses at how our approaches to education and technology might change …
[n.b. these are excerpts from a larger Monash ‘Education Futures’ report outlining 21 different issues]
#1. Boosting teachers’ capacities to teach online
Mike Phillips – @thinkingmike
COVID-19 has seen many schools quickly shut down campuses and switch over to online teaching. The scale and speed of this move online has caught many teachers and schools off-guard. People have coped the best they can, but the quality of what can be done online has often been compromised. The pandemic has certainly highlighted a big gap in teacher education and professional development.
So what can we do next? Countries like Australia clearly need a new generation of school teachers who will be comfortable with any future rapid, large scale shifts to online teaching and learning. In this sense, universities now need to pay serious attention to having educational technology subjects front-and-centre of all teaching degrees. The more tricky challenge will be to boost the knowledge, skills and confidence of the teachers who are alreadyworking in schools. This will require governments to commit to sustained programs of professional development. Teaching online is definitely a skill that takes time to perfect!
#2. Heightened awareness of the limits of digital ‘solutions’
Neil Selwyn – @neil_selwyn
I hope that one of the educational legacies of COVID-19 is a more realistic conversation about the limits of digital technology and education. The past few years have seen growing enthusiasms for online education, personalised learning systems and virtual classrooms. These technologies definitely have their place. But, now that everyone has first-hand experience of a mass shift-over to online learning, we should all be well-aware of the many practical problems that lie behind this hype. COVID-19 has demonstrated that there is something irreplaceable about students and teachers coming together to learn in person. Online videos, digital content and discussion forums are very different (and often inferior) forms of schooling.
In particular, I hope that educators will have a heightened awareness of the many ‘digital inequalities’ that persist in society. Rather than presuming that all students (and educators) have perfect ‘always-on’ connectivity and powerful devices, it is clear that significant ‘digital divides’ persist – with large numbers of people lacking the basic technology access to work outside of school and university. If we are serious about moving to forms of ‘digital education’, then governments, ISPs and telcos need to provide free access to devices and the internet for those households without the technology.
#3. A time to ask critical questions about digital learning
Carlo Perrotta – @carloper
The close-down of schools and rapid switch over to online tuition has illustrated how flexible our education systems can be. Social media has been full of families celebrating the new-found freedoms of this enforced screen-time – a chance to learn new skills and explore different subjects together through the internet. However, elsewhere the EdTech industry has celebrated what they see as an unexpected business opportunity – a tipping-point after which schools and universities will finally adopt digital education as a mainstream mode of teaching and learning. Then again, civil liberties groups and activists have increasingly raised concerns over the privacy and surveillance implications of hundreds of millions of students being forced onto commercial software that has not been properly tested and vetted for educational uses
These diverse reactions highlight the fact that technology use in education is never a neutral ‘tool’ or easy ‘fix’. There are always wider connotations and unintended consequences of any adoption of technology in education. So, in the aftermath of COVID-19, all schools and universities need to take a good look at the haphazard technological arrangements that got them through the lockdown crisis. Who stands to profit from the use of this technology in education? What forms of control are being established? Which students stand to benefit most from learning online. In short, what is lost (as well as gained) when education goes digital?
#4. Designing virtual education with a sense of place
Bronwyn Cumbo – @broncumbo
The COVID-19 school shut-downs have pushed many teachers and students unexpectedly into fully-online modes of learning. This is proving a disorientating experience for many reasons – including the sudden loss of everyone’s shared ‘sense of place’. Face-to-face campuses and classrooms are a brilliant way of giving students a common lens through which they experience and make sense of teaching and learning. For all its faults, face-to-face schooling is an effective means of supporting what experts term ‘situated learning’, a common sense of identity, and shared understandings of the world in which we are all part.
These qualities are proving much harder to replicate in the virtual learning spaces that many schools have been thrown onto during the pandemic. Poorly-designed online education can quickly become sterile and desensitizing – leaving students and teachers feeling ‘uprooted’ and disembodied from the learning material. It is my hope that people’s experiences of online learning during COVID-19 will lead to more careful future planning and designing of virtual schooling. Online learning does not have to involve countless video-meetings, online assignments and quizzes. More creative and engaging forms of virtual schooling are possible that support place-based teaching and learning practices. This will require school-specific platforms being designed for and by teachers and students. Once schools have moved past the current online struggles, it will be high-time to discuss how virtual education could be better.
#5. Learning to lead schools online
Amanda Heffernan – @chalkhands
The shut-down of school campuses and switch over to online tuition has necessitated a significant shift in practices and mindsets for school leaders. There is already evidence from around the world that some schools have struggled to maintain the same ways of working. This has led to increased over-work, stress and monitoring of teacher practice. One of the big lessons that must be learned from the COVID-19 shutdowns is that school principals need to be better prepared for future disruptions when online alternatives will again be called into action. This suggests a range of competencies that should now be developed in current and future school leaders.
For example, leading an online version of school requires principals to rethink expectations and understand that the status quo has shifted. The pandemic has shown us how pre-existing school visions and goals need to be put on hold in favour of building up students’ and staff members’ sense of safety and support. School leaders need to reimagine modes of curriculum planning, assessment and reporting. A lot of this can be achieved by trusting teachers’ professional autonomy and judgment; and ensuring clear and compassionate communication with all members of their school community. Perhaps most importantly, there is also a need for leaders to think differently about their own work, and to work with their colleagues and support networks to ensure their own health and wellbeing during a deeply challenging time.