Digitalising education is a necessity in the new normal

Pandemic lockdowns and school closures have highlighted just how far we have to go in delivering good digital education. Let's not fail the next generation.

An education crisis is bubbling. You only have to glance at the UK’s chaos around exam results to see that. It shouldn’t really be a surprise. In many countries, children have been out of school for the longest period of time in a century. That must have an impact

So, yes, an unprecedented disruption in something that’s been slowly evolving for centuries means a crisis. Education, be it school or university, has been largely predicated on gathering people together in one place. Then you deliver information and skills to them as a group. All of a sudden, that has been exploded, and children have ended up learning in atomised family groups.

In fact, we’ve just run an unplanned experiment on a generation of children — and the sooner we acknowledge that is what we’ve done, the more we can learn from the process. And, hopefully, we can minimise the harm and maximise the gains for the children in question.

Digital Divides in Education

Perhaps the most obvious shortfall has been in access to digital equipment and expertise. There are some serious digital divides to be bridged here. The first is the one that arises from income inequality. Not every household has access to a digital device large enough to make education from home easy.

While the figures vary from country to country, this data from the US is illustrative;

Among the 20% of American households who make US$25,000 or less a year, just 63% of schoolchildren have access to a computer and the internet. In comparison, essentially all students from the most affluent families — those whose parents make $150,000 annually or more — do.

A single parent with a single smartphone and multiple children will have struggled to access any online learning. Meanwhile, wealthier households with multiple devices will have been able to use whatever resources they were offered.

The digital skills gap

All of which, sadly, highlights the second digital divide. Not every teacher has the knowledge, confidence and skills to deliver learning digitally. There’s been precious little time to provide them with training in them, too. And so, even if your children have all the devices and bandwidth they need, if their teachers aren’t up to scratch, not much is going to be learnt.

Just as some companies were better placed to transition to online working, so, too, were some schools. And that, in turn, makes clear that the process of digitalisation is still happening too slowly in many schools. The fundamental dynamics of school haven’t changed much in decades, even as the world of information has transformed beyond all recognition.

So, those teachers in lockdown countries have been left trying to replicate a presence-based process, rather than building on a blended physical and digital offering. Just delivering classes or lectures online just isn’t going to work. People’s attention levels are different when you are working online:

For example, one study found that students tend to stop watching lecture videos after six minutes, regardless of how long the overall video is. In contrast, research suggests that during in-person lectures, the challenge is brief attention declines, with the first one occurring after 10 to 18 minutes.

Teach, not Talk

Ironically, primary education is probably better suited to adapting to this than higher education. Those wrangling the under-10s know that it’s hard to hold their attention for long periods. That’s why their education is already designed around bursts of information and then bursts of creative outpost.

This is something the rest of the education world could stand to learn from. Educator, educate thyself.

So, once again, we confront a choice. Do we revert to the education system we had in pre-pandemic times, or do we adapt for a new normal? As further waves of the pandemic loom on the horizon,

The youngest children are the ones most likely to push back against a return to the way things were before. Like information workers who have discovered they can do their jobs perfectly well without a commute, many primary children have explored a new way of learning — and like it.

Self-guided digital learning

My eldest daughter — a newly minted 8-year-old — simply loved the lessons on the UK’s Oak Academy, an online “school” funded by the government. She could self-guide through the lessons on her iPad and sometime campaigned to do more of them. This sense of leaning autonomy is not something that many young children have experienced, other than in their play. Can we facilitate more of it?

Certainly, some people believe so. As Charles Thornburgh, a veteran education technology CEO, told Business Insider:

He also said he anticipates the concept of a “flipped classroom” in which students self-navigate learning content — first consuming the content on their own and then asking questions afterward. It would be a step toward more independent learning in the classroom that enables students to learn at the pace that works best for them.

It makes sense to look around at what has worked during lockdown, and the enforced school closures, and try to bring the best examples back into the physical classroom. Have we really reinvented education for the information-rich digital age yet? No. We’re still working on a modified model of a school model built for the industrial age.

Education isn’t just education

One harsh reality, as many of us discovered, is that school is childcare, too. Many parents struggle to keep their jobs while also acting as unpaid and unskilled tutors to their offspring. At a social level, a future that involved greater remote teaching will need to take that into account. And if there are future waves of COVID-19, and we need to lockdown again, we’ll need that in place.

It’s time to change the way we educate people. And, frankly, not weaving more digital into the curriculum is an embarrassment in the 2020s. After all, we would have judged previous generations harshly for not including things like, say, mass market books and even video in the curriculum. (During my time in primary school, back in the 1970s, the wheeling of the large TV into the classroom was a time for celebration…).

For many countries, the priority has to be getting their education systems functioning again, lest the price on children be too high. But all of us should be looking at how we can take advantage of digital to build an education system robust enough to handle a pandemic, and effective enough to prepare our young people for life in the 21st century.

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash