Rethinking Education Post Covid

I had the opportunity to reflect on using technology in teaching and learning post lock down at the International Conference on ‘ICT as a Tool for Digitalization of Education (ICTTDE) 2023’. Here is a summary of my talk for those at the conference and may be for those not. 

What we can learn about digital technology from the recent lockdowns

In this presentation I want to reflect on what we have learnt from lockdown. At the outset I acknowledge that there are those suffering from long Covid and in some parts of the world the pandemic is on-going. But lockdown seems a long time ago now for many of us in UK, I cannot talk about India with any authority, but as the world gets back to where it was, it seems important not to forget something which affected us all so profoundly. 

Experiences will differ according to who you are, where you are. Some will remember the lockdowns and experiences around Covid with great sadness and loss, others as an inconvenience, others in some ways an opportunity. I would highlight how we came to value public service more, how we realised the value of community and family, and how we wanted it to be different afterwards.  In many countries people came out into the street, or on balconies, to clap for health workers.  This, for example, is a picture of a family in Spain [1] coming out on to their balcony, the same things happened in many countries. I remember clapping for the NHS in England.

A family applauds from their balcony to thank Spanish medical staff fighting against coronavirus. March 14, 2020. Source: REUTERS/Jon Nazca? – RC2XJF93R33S

Of course, we learnt many different things about society and our role in it. Sometimes what we learnt seemed almost mundane but has turned out to have  unexpected consequences. For example, some learn that they could work from home and wanted to continue to do so, while  others could not wait to get back into a shared workspace. Many organisations are now working through the tensions that have resulted from these preferences.   Focusing on technology and education – the theme of this conference, I am not sure that there is much of a consensus about where we should be heading. A great deal was written by practitioners and academics during and after  Covid, and I think this showed a research community that was alive and well and wanting to make a difference [2]. What struck me was the wealth of ideas offered to fill the gaps left by school and college lockdowns along with the optimism of some of the accounts. However, this was tempered by the realism in more official publications, such as inspection services, government reporting, World Bank, and so on. This leads me to discuss the lessons from lockdown in terms of: 

  • Optimistic stories of technology
  • Pessimistic stories of technology
  • Realistic stories: blended learning
  • Realistic stories: joining it up

Optimistic stories about digital tools during lockdowns

The underlying theme here is that because of lockdown we saw the value of technology more clearly, i.e. it allowed teaching and learning to go on. And what really struck home was the way teachers were using tools they had never used before, or wanted to use before, or felt they would never be able to use, and how they simply got on with it. Live classes were an example here. I had supervised several projects looking at learning platforms over the years and live classes were always a niche interest, considered too difficult and the gains too marginal, to bother with. Yet very quickly teachers were using live classes because they had to. Using the technology turned out to be not as difficult as many had thought. Further, there were many reported cases in which teachers and learners had developed their live classes with imagination and creativity, for example using digital sticky notes or online voting, break out groups and so on. 

Contribution of technology

Throughout the lockdowns technology allowed: 

  • Access to resources
  • Access to communication 
  • Repeated practice and feedback 
  • Niche activities
  • Support for online CPD

Access to resources. Dealing with the first of these we can look at access to curriculum aligned materials – presentations, past papers and so on – plus more hybrid cases of public broadcasting and learning platforms. In UK the most significant resource was the BBC (which had always designed educational materials (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize ) and ‘edutainment’ programmes for children (https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies ) and young people which were highly used and praised by many for accessibility. 

For those seeking a more didactic approach Khan academy became a useful resource.  In some countries online libraries, often provided to consortia of institutions, played an important role too. Strategies adapted to circumstances – in Nepal, for example, radio was used, given that in remote areas there were problems with internet, electricity supply and indeed reception when it came to television and the internet.   In some countries learning platforms were set up. Swayam in India is one example, hosting a mix of complete courses, even weekly assignments and exams aimed at both school and higher education (undergraduate and postgraduate) levels.  MOOCs were an interesting further example as they were not designed with younger users in mind or perhaps for people in education already but these two groups of learners certainly used them. 

The big idea about being connected was not just being able to access course materials but to access wider resources and engage in (or self-organise) one’s own informal learning. Here the role of traditional and new media channels was important. For example, if learning a language, you could access online dictionaries, tests and resources from cultural organisations as well as tools such as Duolingo and Italki (an online tutoring service as well as stream films and a range of television programmes irrespective of any formal curriculum. [3]

Less structured were the vlogs and blogs and similar material which provided, amongst other resources, tutorials on almost anything that you wanted. For example, I was listening to young musicians the other day talking about how they learnt a play a new piece of music and they nearly always started with hearing someone they trusted talk through the process on a YouTube channel.  This obviously began before lockdown but was accentuated during and I guess afterwards. [4]

Communication. The big thing about the web is that it provides both communication and information. During lock down we had more sharing going on in both formal, closed forums within learning platforms as well as informal sites on, say, YouTube set up by learners themselves. There was sharing of digital products within and beyond the class, for example within the Scratch programming  learning community. There were international citizenship groups set up in some countries and more formal tandem learning for example linking teams across sites to discuss issues such as global warming, dealing with lockdown, the nature of global society. 

Feedback and assessment. This was always put to the bottom of the list at least by some digital tools enthusiasts but being online made summative assessment just about possible and formative assessment normal in that learners could take part in quizzes and structured learning quickly. DuoLingo for example is full of online testing with automated feedback.

Niche activities. There were a variety of more niche activities including Second Life, which is less fashionable now but contains a great many islands for learning and informal investigation.  Programming attracted and media production, for example posting to social networks sites. 

Online CPD. The same tools available to students were available to teachers and they could find resources for their own CPD offered via Professional Associations and journals – and engage in more formal learning for example throughMOOCs. Indeed, there are some very good examples of practical CPD programmes with small action projects that predated lockdown. Those already undertaking f2f CPD found the courses shifting online and use online forums to compensate for lack of physical interaction. 

We can stand back and marvel at how so much happened so quickly, and while a lot of it was supported by institution leaders and policy makers much of it happened bottom up. A key part of the optimistic narrative was to see a step change in teachers’ skills and understanding of digital tools and notice a belief that we would not go back to how things were.

Pessimistic / realist discourses

I am not sure where pessimism ends and realism takes over but let us agree that there were more realistic perspectives of digital tools during look down. World Bank for example was saying that learning gains previously achieved by students would be partly lost. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds suffered more and were at a higher risk of dropping out of education entirely. In my own country, the inspection service found that the quality and quantity of learning students undertook declined as a result of the pandemic and identified a widening differentiation based on class (also on age and other categories) and a steep decline in opportunities for vocational learning.  [5]

As lockdown finished, teachers and students wanted to get back to f2f teaching.  There was to be no paradigm shift. In fact, what lockdown showed (from the realist perspective) was that there were limits on online and learning and limits on self-organised learning. Teachers were needed to mediate activities. This flies in the face of some of the more optimistic scenarios of learning with technology. Here, I don’t doubt the value of initiatives predating lock down such as the computer or hole in the wall work by Mitra and others promoting the use of self-organised learning in villages and hard to reach young people in India [6]. But, I don’t doubt either the skills and expertise of the teacher and that the routines so much a feature of skilful teaching were very difficult for many teachers to establish online. Teachers are needed for many things: identifying resources; triggering interest; explaining content; managing groups and whole classes; providing feedback; mediating discussion; explain assessment practices…and so on. They can do this online but it was not trivial to transfer from one mode to another. For example, something as basic as questioning from f2f to online live class caused problems.  I reflected on waiting times (how long it was before the teacher spoke if no-one replied to a question)  and found I was waiting much less time for answers. I am not sure why this was and even over weeks I found it difficult to adjust. I know I was not alone. 

It appears too that teachers are needed in particular by those most disadvantaged. In fact, a key reflection for me was that online learning was not ‘anytime, anywhere’ but always ‘some time, somewhere’.  Contexts for learning were not easy and some learners who experienced a triple disadvantage: 

  • Economic constraints.  For example, families might not be able to afford to be online, might not have access to the internet in the first place and learners might be using mobile phones rather than laptops. Some had first claim on resources. 
  • Social, who is there to help?  What seems particularly important is family and wider family and friends of the family for explaining, provoking conversations, sharing interests and knowledge. Connections seem to have become more and more important. 
  • Cultural capital.  Simply some do not get the perceived importance of aspects of the curriculum, for example, if you grew up in a world in which going to theatre or museums is the norm you have a head start when it comes to aspects of the curriculum. Some managed to continue to access cultural resources online and others did not. 

So where do we go now?

  • Forget about technology?
  • Get back to ‘normal’?
  • Go fully online?

I do not think many teachers, institutions want to go fully online and many just want to forget about that experience of live classes in particular. However, there was a lot I learnt about digital tools that I don’t want to forget.

Most importantly, I believe that using online learning during lockdown  really showed that we really can enhance learning with digital tools, many of the examples I have talked about have done this. The big idea with digital tools is that it is not all about the text book; learning can take place beyond the four walls of the classroom. Yet classroom learning is important and schools and other institutions really do make a difference. This leads I believe to new blended learning solutions, in which classroom learning in all its many forms takes place but discussions can extend beyond the classrooms and perhaps different people can come to the fore when online. Online we can exchange ideas with those we study with but cross distance to work with others we are removed from. There are different models of blended learning [7]

  • May be rota e.g. online then f2f course 
  • May be an enrichment of f2f or online  
  • May be flexible as and when
  • May be flipped or not 

We need to make it fit and this will be different depending on where we are. One of my favourite stories about Covid support was community blackboards in Jamaica. [8] Here, a teacher began by writing out lessons for her children on a wall outside which children could come as see – it was in the open air and did not infringe regulations. The idea spread and she introduced support for parents teaching their children using WhatsApp groups and Zoom meetings . Not a model that will work for everyone of course, but we can take from it the need to fit with our learners and our communities, what can they access and what will help them.  We need to give it a go and find out.

However, initiatives cannot only be bottom-up. For blended learning to happen the use of tools needs to be routinised. This is pretty much the message of World Bank report earlier but I would stress the importance of three levels of activity, beyond the institution, the institution itself and those within the institutions [9].  Initiatives at these different levels need to join up, so often they have appeared out of kilter in the past. 

So what are the key lessons about lockdown

  • Technology provides us with resources, communication and the trigger for imaginative teaching
  • Remote learning needs mediating
  • Classroom learning is valued
  • Blended approaches help  
  • We need a joined-up system
  • Recurring importance of balance, focus, incremental change
  • Ecological fit

Further reading

[1] Taylor, A. (2020) Music and Encouragement from Balconies Around the World, (27 Photos) The Atlantic, 24 March. [online] https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/03/music-and-encouragement-from-balconies-around-world/608668/

The picture I have included is credited to Jon Nazca / Reuters

[2] There is so much to look at this are the tip of the iceberg:

Abu Talib, M., Bettayeb, A. and Omer, R. (2021) Analytical study on the impact of technology in higher education during the age of COVID-19: Systematic literature review. Education and Information Technologies26(6), 6719-6746. Useful for citing a range of studies.

Breslin, T. (2021) Lessons From Lockdown: The educational legacy of COVID-19. Routledge. This is much more a UK perspective 

Flynn, W., Kumar, N., Donovan, R., Jones, M. and Vickerton, P. (2021) Delivering online alternatives to the anatomy laboratory: Early experience during the COVID‐19 pandemic. Clinical Anatomy 34, (5), 757-765. Interesting as practical lab work became very problematic and this discusses what can be done about it.

Hammond, M. (Ed) Supporting Remote Teaching and Learning in Developing Countries: from the global to the local (2022) British Council: Kathmandu, Nepal [online] https://www.britishcouncil.org.np/sites/default/files/teaching_learning_book.pdf

Leask, M. and S. Younie, S. (eds), Ensuring Schooling for All in Times of Crisis – Lessons From Covid-19. London: Routledge. 

Mishra, L., Gupta, T. and Shree, A. (2020) Online teaching-learning in higher education during lockdown period of COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Educational Research Open1, p.100012.  A perspective from India with a useful introduction to teaching and learning during lockdown.

Moss, G., Allen, R., Bradbury, A., Duncan, S., Harmey, S. and Levy, R. (2020). Primary Teachers’ Experience of the COVID-19 lockdown – Eight key messages for policymakers. This is much more about understanding the duty of care that teachers felt (another UK based study).

Shrestha, P. and Lal, J. (2021) When School Stops, Learning Should Not, London: VSO. [Online] https://www.vsointernational.org/ sites/default/files/2020-10/vso-when-school- stops-learning-must-not-v4.pdf 

[3] Some examples:

Carelli, P. and Sfardini, A. (2022) Educational television goes digital. children’s television and italian public service broadcasting during the covid-19 pandemic.  Journal of European Television History and Culture, 11 (20), 95-103.

You can find Swayam at [online] https://swayam.gov.in and Khan academy here https://www.khanacademy.org. A directory of massive online courses (MOOCs) here https://www.mooc-list.com. An example of a library initiative can be found here. You can find Duolingo here https://www.duolingo.com and Italki here https://www.italki.com – other platforms are of course available. 

UNESCO (2021b) UNESCO Launches Digital Library Initiative in South Sudan. [Online] https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/unesco-launches-two-digital-library-initiatives-south-sudan

[4] Serdaroglu, E. (2020) Exploring the use of YouTube by symphonic orchestras as an educational platform during the pandemic of COVID-19. European Journal of Social Science Education and Research7(3), 59-66. This looks more at the use symphony orchestras made of social media to connect with their audiences. 

[5] Realist / pessimist views

Ofsted (2021) Learning during the pandemic: review of research from England, London: Ofsted. [online] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/learning-during-the-pandemic/learning-during-the-pandemic-review-of-research-from-england

O’Hagan, C. (2020) Startling Digital Divides in Distance Learning Emerge. UNESCO.
https://en.unesco.org/news/startling-digital-divides-distance-learning-emerge

Okebukola, P., Bugoma S., Adekunle O., Ramadhani N., Ibukun, A., Okorie, H. and Awaah, F. (2020) Delivering high school Chemistry during COVID-19 lockdown: Voices from Africa. Journal of Chemical Education, 97 (9), 3285-3289. A realist perspective on secondary education during Covid in five African countries

Patrinos, H., Vegas, S. and Carter-Rau, R. (2022) COVID-19 school closures fueled big learning losses, especially for the disadvantaged [Online] 

https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/covid-19-school-closures-fueled-big-learning-losses-especially-disadvantagedthis is one of several contributions from World Bank drawing attention to losses in learning during the Covid pandemic.

[6] Mitra, S., Stanfield, J. (2016). Learning at the edge of chaos: Self-organising systems in education. In H. Lees & N. Noddings (Eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan    

[7] Blended learning

Brown M, Skerritt C, Shevlin P, McNamara G, O’Hara J. (2022) Deconstructing the challenges and opportunities for blended learning in the post emergency learning era. Irish Educational Studies. 41(1), 71-84. This suggests that move to blended learning is going to be more difficult than many think. The authors suggest that online learning got a bad press from many during lockdown and actually increased resistance to some digital tools. Interesting to compare this with accounts from HE as it suggests experiences were very different.

Cronje J. (2022) From face-to-face to distance: Towards flexibility in five dimensions of blended learning: lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic. Electronic Journal of e-Learning. 20 (4), 436-50. This is an interesting personal reflection on a change of perspective about online learning.

Sharadgah, T. and Sa’di, R. (2022) Priorities for reorienting traditional institutions of higher education toward online teaching and learning: Thinking beyond the COVID-19 experience. E-Learning and Digital Media, 19(2),.209-224. This is one of many concluding that we need to focus on blended approaches in the future. 

Staddon R. (2022) A supported flipped learning model for mathematics gives safety nets for online and blended learning. Computers and Education, 3:100106. This is one account of flipped learning and introduces some key terms.

[8] Phipps, M. (2020) Community blackboards keep children learning. 9 May 2020. UNICEF Blogpost. [Online] https://blogs.unicef.org/ jamaica/community-blackboards-keep- children-learning/

[9] I argue this in more detail:

Hammond, M. (2020). What is an ecological approach and how can it assist in understanding ICT take‐up?. British Journal of Educational Technology51(3), 853-866.

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