Closing the online learning gap
Derek Devine thinks that distance learning can be personalised without adding to the pressure that teachers are already under – quite the reverse in fact.
Arguably, there has never been a more challenging time to be a teacher. Whether it is the pressure to return to the classroom despite potential health risks or attempting to educate students solely through online platforms, the whole profession is being stretched. Then, of course, there are the students. The United Nations estimates that more than 1.18 billion students worldwide have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, whether that is through school closures or exam postponements. Returning to any type of normality is going to take time, but we would be remiss not to try and capitalise on the opportunities which this enforced blank slate has given us.
Meeting individual needs
Despite these challenges, the past few months have seen exciting developments in edtech. Distance learning has helped ensure as few students as possible are left behind or suffer from a disjointed education. The next step must be to personalise this approach, ensuring that, even from a distance, students receive an education which is attuned to their own learning styles. It is a difficult ask, but the sector has proven resilient and imaginative in the last few months and I’m confident it is up to the task.
It hasn’t been easy
Though I am optimistic about this exciting future, I do fully appreciate that the switch to home schooling has certainly not been easy. In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that almost 60 per cent of the parents of primary school children, and nearly half of the parents of secondary school children, found it quite or very hard to support their children’s learning at home. This is an experience which has been repeated across the globe, from preschool and beyond. Indeed, an Axios poll in America found that 77 per cent of more than 800 college students felt distance learning is worse, or much worse, than in-person classes.
Yet it is not just a question of logistics. The issues caused by lockdown have, in many cases, exacerbated inequalities in society. The IFS also found that children from better-off homes are spending 30 per cent longer on home learning than those from poorer areas. Across the world, we are running the risk of leaving whole cohorts of students behind. In China, for instance, the New York Times has reported a widening digital divide between rich and poor, while some students in Italy will not have been in a classroom for six months come September. These obstacles will undoubtedly have had an impact on students’ intellectual development and could seriously impede future attainment.
Being left behind
These are large, structural problems, but it would be a mistake to think that absolutely everything can be remedied with a reliable internet connection. For distance learning to be truly sustainable, it needs to be flexible enough to adapt to socio-economic, language-based and behavioural factors. Just as you cannot enforce a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching when in the classroom, the same is true online. The growth of edtech means we can reach more and more students, but what then? Without the practical, in-class support of teaching assistants, or even fellow students, we risk students falling into a virtual haze if the learning is not suitably tailored.
Close the skill gap. Protect teachers. Find solutions.
At its best, virtual learning platforms allow students to thrive, not just keep up with the rest of their classmates. We must continue to drive for personalised approaches which account for this difference, provide both diagnostic assessments for each learner and clear indicators at every point in their educational journey. This will need to be achieved, of course, without placing undue strain on teachers. The result of this would be a system which is able to accelerate learning for many, thereby closing skills gaps which are in danger of growing dangerously wide.
Innovation will be key, but Edtech does not always need to be framed as a way of creating the futuristic, unobtainable classroom of tomorrow. It can instead provide tangible solutions to pressing problems. Even if schools do resume face-to-face provision as planned, things will have changed. We must be prepared for cohorts of children which could vary hugely in terms of intellectual development and be mindful of the nuanced challenges which will have been caused by six months out of the classroom. But even if there was not a pandemic, and even if a second wave was not a stark possibility, we still need to innovate with regard to distance learning. Developing systems which are personalised to specific learner needs will reduce skills gaps, ensure no students are left behind and support teachers. It may never have been harder to be a teacher, but we do have a chance to make it easier.
Derek Devine is the International Senior Business Development Manager at Edmentum