Virtual Learning: How Coronavirus Transformed Education
With many pupils still not back at school, the Coronavirus pandemic has continued to cause chaos – especially for the teachers and staff whose responsibility it is (and has been since March last year) to continue to deliver a high quality of education during incredibly challenging circumstances. As well as the existing pressures already facing them, educators are now faced with having to adapt to a world where their students and colleagues may not even be in the same room as them. Virtual learning as a method of teaching is not a new phenomenon, but never has it been used on such a large scale across schools before, nor as the primary teaching method. The landscape has drastically shifted in an incredibly short amount of time, so education as a sector has had to flex and adapt to the changes already taking place around us.
Education is more than subject-matter
The best kind of education, the kind that is enjoyable, inspires and challenges the mind, is delivered in an interactive, inclusive and consistent way. It relies on effective storytelling to form the basis of learning. In-person, this is clearly more straightforward, but if this storytelling is done online, schools need to be able to rise to the challenge of replicating these experiences in a digital way. Whether it’s using more video, using learning tools such as Google Classroom or Docebo, or simply playing short online games, there are many ways in which schools can continue to improve the overall experiences of virtual learning.
It is also important to appreciate that the education experience doesn’t just consist of subjects and exams – it’s conversations with friends and teachers, it’s forming and maintaining relationships, learning about yourself as a person and accruing invaluable life skills. All of which are far harder to master without the traditional, physical school experience. So, schools must look to the tools on offer to enable a free flow of knowledge and conversation, taking advantage of video conferencing ‘breakout rooms’, encouraging private communication between pupils and offering ways for them to connect and interact with their peers.
We have come to expect consistency across the services and products we use. As one industry accelerates its innovation and sets new expectations, other industries are forced to keep pace. This impacts every sector, education included. A recent study from Childwise found that the vast majority of children now own a mobile phone by the age of 7, meaning we have a growing, highly tech-literate generation who have come to expect far more from the technology and services they use. If a student can socialise, shop and entertain themselves using their phones, why can’t they access learning the same way? Brands no longer compete only with those in their own market anymore, but with the apps their audiences are switching between and the tabs they have open on their browsers. This doesn’t mean every school needs their own app or platform, but they need to consider their remote learning experience in their students’ contexts. There are also new opportunities to tie methods of teaching to students’ lives outside of the traditional school setting using existing channels such as Instagram and TikTok. By meeting students where they are, learning can utilise existing digital experiences that stack up to students’ expectations. A great digital experience can help remote learning feel like an integrated and easily accessible part of daily life.
There is also a generational divide between educators and their students, meaning students who’ve grown up with computers and smartphones are sometimes far more comfortable using technology compared to their teachers. This gap in literacy means that it is naturally harder for some teachers to deliver education remotely (even if they possess the right technological tools) in the way that students need. To counter this, training and assistance must go hand in hand with any roll out of technology, helping those who are not as familiar to feel confident when using them in a real-world setting.
There are of course barriers to making virtual learning possible (and successful), which will vary from school to school. Here are three key hurdles that have emerged over the past year:
- Training: it’s easy to think that everyone is tech-literate, and that they can just be given a digital tool and be expected to use it. But this isn’t the case, as we saw throughout lockdown. It is vital that training and help is offered to teachers, parents and pupils, in order for them to feel confident with the tools and software they are using. Training is vital in communicating the benefits of virtual learning and winning over those who may feel sceptical or worried about it.
- School Finances: schools have notoriously tight budgets, which make much needed investments almost impossible to fund. Firstly, schools need far better and more consistent funding from central government than they are now. Secondly, schools need to take advantage of existing platforms to find cost effective ways to be flexible. If lockdown has taught us anything, it should be that we must be prepared to have hybrid learning as an integral part of the future.
- Family Circumstances: work commitments and family finances mean that some parents have struggled to support their children’s remote learning, or have been without the resources needed to purchase the basic tools required. This means some of the most disadvantaged children have struggled to participate in their education, or have had it severely restricted. Despite some government support being offered to schools and families to help with access to technology, it is unclear how many have taken advantage of this support or how much of an impact it has made. Increased support from central government, as well as guidance and clarity around how to access this support is vital in helping as many families as possible to participate in hybrid and remote learning effectively.
The last year has been an intense test run for virtual and hybrid learning. There have been huge strides made and many see this year as the start of an ongoing focus on digital technology within education. Following research by London & Partners and Dealroom, it’s clear there is increasing appetite from both the sector and investors for EdTech startups and innovations to use technology to improve teaching and learning. The UK government has pledged £350 million for catch up tuition programmes, aimed at the poorest and most disadvantaged children across the UK. Although it now appears unlikely the full amount pledged will materialise, it shows some government consensus that virtual learning has challenges and doesn’t work for everyone in its current state.
There are clearly many hurdles that need to be overcome, but being aware of these issues is the first step toward addressing them and finding innovative solutions. Situations will continue to change pretty drastically for the foreseeable future, and educational establishments will need support from government and the tech industry to rise to meet the new, constantly-morphing normal we find ourselves in.