Will the COVID-19 pandemic revolutionize education? (1)
5 April 2020
While in many countries the COVID-19 pandemic is wildly gaming around – at the time of writing for most countries the worst is still to come –, its impact on societies, institutions and ways of life is beyond any historical precedent. Without any doubt, one of the most affected social institutions and practices is education. Social containment and isolation measures prevent schools, places where communities and generations meet and mingle, from operating. School closures are drastically disturbing the established way through which our societies are qualifying and socializing children, youngsters and adults for work and citizenship. The immediate consequence is the deprivation of school-based learning opportunities for hundreds of millions of learners. With examinations being cancelled and graduation procedures disturbed, normal progression in the schooling trajectory of young people and their entry into the qualified labour force are also jeopardized. Disadvantaged children and youngsters will be disproportionally hit, as several of the mechanisms through which schooling is mitigating poverty and inequality are waning.
A quick survey by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills of the policy responses in countries shows that many countries still haven’t been able to reconcile educational delivery with physical distancing and to provide adequate guidance to schools and teachers to sustain learning in the new environment. Yet, others have enthusiastically and energetically embraced e-learning and have significantly stepped up their efforts to provide education through various kinds of synchronous and asynchronous digital delivery modes. Even broadcasting content through educational television is experiencing a revival. In several countries, a huge experiment is taking place – often without much preparation or planning and often in a rather chaotic manner – to turn schooling into a multimodal delivery model combining home schooling, self-directed learning, e-learning platforms and direct instruction by teachers via the internet. All these changes are putting teachers, often not well prepared to online teaching, to a severe stress-test. The efforts made by teachers around the world to sustain teaching and learning are admirable. Only second to medical doctors and nurses, teachers are in the frontline of the war. It is encouraging to see that in the survey, both ensuring the continuity of learning for students and supporting teachers professionally and in their well-being are listed as top priority policy concerns.
It is inevitable that in this unprecedented, large-scale educational experiment, many mistakes are being made. Results from the latest PISA indicate that in their modus operandi school systems are ill-prepared for such a drastic change, especially with regard to hardware and connectivity, the availability and access to high-quality learning resources, or the training and professional development of teachers. On the side of parents and families, critical challenges seem to be the access to sufficient computers for all children and teleworking members of the family, installing the discipline and motivation equivalent to what is required in schools, and finding a well-balanced time-management for all members of the household. Some parents report to be overwhelmed by their new roles, complain to be bombarded by all kinds of well-intentioned advice and find it hard to strike the balance between overzealously ‘schooling’ their children and the need for leisure and normal family time. Parents have difficulties in mixing and combining their different roles in families restricted in space and confined to isolation. Challenges are exponentially more difficult for disadvantaged families who not only lack the financial resources or the housing conditions to enable children to take benfit from the new learning environment, but also the skills, attitudes and values to offer a truly supportive environment to their children. The conditions are clearly not met to turn this huge educational experiment into a enormous success for learning for all.
Yet, it is immensily important to evaluate what is happening now and for education to draw the lessons once we have surmounted the pandemic. Conflicting visions for the post-pandemic world of education are already emerging. At one end of the continuum, one finds the evangelists of educational technology, who believe the pandemic yields the perfect storm to force education into the 21st century. They predict a future for education where the industrial-era educational model, characterised by one eminent evangelist, Prof. Chris Dede from Harvard University in a recent blog, as “one-size-fits-all teaching by telling and learning by listening” will be transformed into “a ‘new normal’ of universal, blended, personalized, lifelong learning”. This transformation will require the ‘unlearning’ of classic forms of educational knowledge and identities and institutional ‘deschooling’, in favour of completely new models and media of teaching and learning. The current crisis could provide the necessity to break with the past of educational delivery and to prepare for the ‘new normal’. This view is shared by many education evangelists, including some edtech companies which foresee a huge market for technology-supported self-directed learning.
Still, the prevailing approach today is to restore the conventional educational fabric as soon as possible and to return to the old ‘normal’ of schooling. This is certainly the dominant view among education ministers and policy makers. They don’t want to put another layer of uncertainty on top of all the changes that people are already experiencing and have to accommodate with. There is also a very powerful economic argument: if the post-crisis economy needs to be restored, schools have to resume their function of keeping children safely looked after while parents go to work. Even if teleworking will remain an important practice and people will be able to spend more time at home, the margins for parents to provide sufficient time and space for large-scale home-schooling and e-learning will be very small.
There are also powerful educational arguments against seeing the educational response during the pandemic as foreshadowing an educational revolution. In a recent piece, a group of Flemish, Dutch and UK-based educational scientists have argued that “this is not the time for large-scale educational experiments”. Drawing heavily on cognitive load theory, they point to the risk that technological tools and media get all of the attention, instead of a well-balanced view on what really matters, i.e. coherence of learning goals, curriculum, teaching strategies and assessment/feedback loops. Some of the authors have extensive experience in distance education and e-learning, and precisely because of their knowledge of the pitfalls and risks, they value the importance of well-structured and rigorously designed teaching and learning activities with efficient feedback loops. Students should not be left on their own, but require guidance, steering and support. They need to choose the most effective learning strategies or plan their learning time efficiently, which in turn requires well-developed meta-cognitive dispositions. In short, in order to make e-learning successful, it has to incorporate the best of what we know about effective schooling and instructional design. Even if we imagine a different educational world than the one we know from the pre-pandemic time, it will have to be carefully designed. It will definitely not be a revolution.
To be continued