Education After COVID – Can We Future-Proof Education?

The future of education is under discussion. With many countries gearing up for students to return to school, conversations around what the “new normal” classroom could look like abound. We don’t know if we will face further lockdowns, and this uncertainty has reignited the necessity for a new model of learning to keep young people safe without having to lose out on essential teaching time. It’s time to talk about ways in which we can future-proof education. 

The importance of these conversations can’t be overstated. In our regular forums we bring different experts together to discuss pressing topics in education, especially language education. And, as we move through this pandemic, we have the opportunity to make changes that will benefit future generations. That’s worth discussing!

Expert summit

Studycat SummitWith the new school year almost upon us, we want to examine the best methods to boost learning and to give school leaders insight into operational tactics that can help them weather the storm of any future lockdowns. Our next event is our first summit, bringing experts such as neuroscientist Katarina Gospic, TEFL expert Ross Thorburn, ELT publishing specialist Carl Wantenaar and education strategist John Collick together  to address the needs of school owners, school leaders, and teachers, focusing on solutions to three critical areas: engagement, data and feedback, and operating under uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that, often, students have a great deal of resilience and more self-motivation than might have been expected. While there will always be ups-and-downs to this enthusiasm for learning, there are approaches that can build on this motivation and encourage students to become self-directed learners while also helping schools mitigate the effects of lockdown on learners. Both have been around for some time now, but the effects of the pandemic make a strong case for us really getting to grips with flipped and blended learning. 

Time to look seriously at flipping

The flipped classroom reverses the roles of teaching and homework but in effect it can boost learner autonomy by giving students interactive content to digest at home and focusing on active learning in the classroom with workshops, discussions and projects. 

While this sounds ideal, there are still many concerns around the flipped classroom model, with some critics making the point that it reduces the amount of teaching time that students will actually receive on a daily basis. While this is a valid concern, our recent experiences underscore the need for an approach that can flex and fit our needs, whether we are in a lockdown or not. That’s not to say I think technology is the silver bullet. Education without an engaged, supportive teacher will always fall short of the mark, but if we embrace a pedagogy that uses technology as a tool to encourage self-directed learning and critical thinking then remote learning becomes more effective.  

Introducing new methodologies during a crisis is never going to be easy but teachers have always excelled at helping each other navigate challenges. There are free training webinars on flipped learning, step-by-step advice from practicing teachers to help teachers flip their classrooms and there has never been a more suitable time to try. The world changed for us all this year, so why should teaching and learning stay the same?

The case for blended learning

future-learning

What does the future hold for education?

Unlike the flipped classroom, the online material used in blended learning does not replace face to face teaching. In blended learning, both online and traditional teaching methods are used. These may be educational videos, gamified content, online learning or podcasts; literally a blend of content and delivery. Like the flipped classroom, blended learning chimes well with the habits of children who have grown up immersed in technology (Generation Alpha). Yes, we all fear the effects of too much screen-time but how can we expect children to use technology sensibly (and fruitfully) for learning if this isn’t part of their education? 

Technology features heavily throughout our daily lives, from our jobs to our leisure time. While no holistic education should rely solely on technology, it makes sense to leverage the natural inclination that children have for it to boost their engagement. This is demonstrated well with gamified learning content – use a delivery method that children are inclined to enjoy (app based games), combine it with teacher-created, structured and scaffolded content and you get good results. If we don’t exploit this sort of approach we’re not only missing a trick; by sticking solely to the sage on the stage method of teaching we run the risk that schools will be seen as anachronistic. 

Done well, blended learning can provide a truly differentiated platform where a student can make use of their strengths and talents to achieve what’s required from the curriculum. It might be that one student performs well simply by critically reading the text set for them in a subject and answering questions, but another might fare better by using digital tools like apps and reference materials like video to help them to understand the topics at hand. While the eventual learning outcome can be the same, this blended model provides every student with the tools and freedom that they need to develop that knowledge, something that isn’t always possible in the physical classroom. For young learners, this autonomy can provide an excellent foundation for future self-directed learning. 

The teacher is, and will always be, vital

In terms of the face-to-face teaching time, this can, and should continue. Certainly when the schools go back in September, this will once again become a strong element of the day. However, two-metre distancing and smaller class sizes mean that classrooms will be very different and the blended learning pedagogical model takes on a new importance, as teachers won’t be able to read over shoulders when help is needed, or exchange books with students on a regular basis.

The main difference that many foresee is that teachers will be encouraged to use more digital teaching tools to set work and give feedback on responses. There are a great many apps out there for different subjects that teachers can use to set classwork, receive homework, and even deliver lessons entirely when necessary. This will, of course, require additional training and support for teachers. Making the shift from a fully face to face, more traditional model of teaching to a blended or flipped approach requires a different skill-set, but we have seen so many teachers already rise to the challenge. 

We host a series of free teacher training webinars and, when the crisis began, we opened up access to our schools product and library of content. Attendance at our webinars has demonstrated that appetite for knowledge of these forms of teaching and learning has been on the rise. We’ve had teachers from across Europe, the US, Latam and Asia tuning in; teachers teach, and when they can’t teach like they usually do, they switch to learning how best they can help their students. We are teachers, and it’s what we would do in a crisis. Or outside of one. Collaborating and sharing knowledge is in our DNA. 

Priority for policy makers – address the technological divide 

Children at school

Primary school children in a contemporary classroom

Whenever we discuss ways to future-proof education against potential lockdowns or other interruptions, a topic that pulls us all up short is the digital divide. We need to tackle it. Teacher training and support for new pedagogies or technologies aside, to fully exploit the potential that flipped and blended learning offer, or to simply ensure that children can access educational content at home, there needs to be more equal access to technology. Digital poverty has been on the governmental agenda of many nations for a long time now. Whether it is the ability to access high-speed internet, or lack thereof, or having access to a reliable device (tablet, laptop or desktop) for accessing content – this is a problem that has been amplified not only in the education sector, but also for those working remotely.

In some families, having a dedicated laptop or tablet each has not been too much of an issue, but for others, remote-working parents have had to share their devices with one or more children, disrupting both work and learning simultaneously. The situation of these families will make a huge difference, and as we move forward, it will be imperative to address this, not only for emergency planning purposes, but to make sure that all students have access to all content at all times.

This challenge needs to be addressed by education departments and policy makers, not just the teachers and parents themselves. There are a few charitable schemes popping up where people can donate unused laptops or tablets to other families, and in some places, edtech companies are stepping up to the plate to offer software and hardware for free, but this is by no means universal. Real change will need to come from funding and changes in policy to make sure that each and every child has an equitable situation for learning.

We need to rethink assessment

Again, this is not a new conversation. For students who missed out on critical exams this year, the case for a future-proof education couldn’t be stronger. Even aside from the pandemic, there have been multiple changes to the assessment model for young people,  but we often return to the traditional end-point assessment and testing model. The term “exam conditions” essentially means being placed in a distraction-free environment with a time limit and a paper to complete. But this simply can’t be replicated in the home environment. And it is looking increasingly outdated. 

The summer assessment period this year has been completely wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, raising some serious questions, such as: How can we manage high stakes assessment remotely? How do we reflect the work that a student does informally at home in the way that we assess them going forward? Essentially, how do we future-proof it?

Realistically, the way in which we have come to test simply does not work anymore. Often, this model has been maintained for the sake of political expediency, rather than measuring the actual performance of an individual student, or their improvement throughout the year. Of course, we still need to know that students are learning something, but now more than ever, these outcomes need to be authentic and demonstrate context, understanding, and ability, not just rehearsed knowledge and facts.

This holistic approach may develop into something of a grey area when it comes to the results of assessment, but this simply means that we also need to rethink the structures for which these assessments are designed, whether that’s further education or employment. Again, this should be a priority for governments worldwide. The questions we really need to ask are: Can we decide what the really most important moments in learning are? What do we value enough to merit a “rubber stamp” as a student moves through their educational journey?

Standardisation in learning and assessment should be a thing of the past. The world has changed, jobs have changed and the way we consume and share information has changed. Why then should our education and assessment systems remain the same?

While it is true that we’ve had these discussions before, the urgency is now building. We simply can’t now let ourselves fall back into old habits once the classrooms are back in session. The post-COVID-19 classroom must be different, and we should embrace that.