There has been much talk this year about remote working for employees stuck at home during the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, in the first lockdown, there was also a lot of remote schooling taking place as students were at home. As far as I can tell, this was not a resoundingly successful endeavour to continue with education unaffected by the lockdown. The primary method by which schooling was supposed to continue was through Zoom calls between the teacher and the class.1
This seems like a misstep in the inevitable transition towards a more personalised system of education that is enabled through technology. Sending everyone home and expecting them to call in like a staff meeting is a remarkably uninspired use of the opportunity for teaching progress that the lockdown presents. For example, look at how workers can communicate and work remotely. Numerous SaaS packages offer ways to organise, share and work together. Software engineers have been doing this for some time now, but the pandemic has made many more people realise they don’t need to be physically close to their co-workers to do their jobs.
Schools are obviously not in quite the same boat as businesses in this lockdown. They often cannot just make changes to how they do things the way a business can when faced with new challenges. They have school management, boards of governors, local authorities and national standards to consider. That being said, I think there have been many missed opportunities for making the most of this lockdown and using technology to move towards a more personalised and self-directed learning style in schools.
First, the use of zoom calls for teaching. This is not the same as teaching face to face. It is not as engaging for students, it is not as natural for teachers, and it throws up technical challenges for everybody. Not to mention for students, it requires they now sit in front of a screen all day in their own homes. According to some news reports, some are still required to adhere to school rules like uniforms or ask permission to use the bathroom in their own home. This is ridiculous. Students can’t be expected to get the most out of education through a screen desperately trying to maintain the pretence that everything is fine.
The purpose of technology is to make life better. It should provide opportunities to do things we never could before, to help us do things we already do but better, and where possible to stop us from having to do things we no longer need to. We could make so much use of technology in education. For years the trend has been steadily moving this way, but now during a global pandemic, the time has come to take it further.
Being stuck at home for school is clearly not ideal, but it could offer some opportunities that regular school might shy away from. If students are forced to be at home and learn by themselves, why not try and turn that into a lesson and set personal projects that encourage self-directed learning? Furthermore, if students feel like they have more freedom to figure things out for themselves, that might help with motivation. Everyone loves the feeling of solving a problem for themselves, so why not lean into it and take some of the stress away from a full day of zoom calls at the same time.
Why not provide every student with an account to freely access only educational resources to supplement their schooling. Lighten the burden on teachers, who must now figure out teaching via zoom call on top of their other responsibilities. Could we not streamline some of their lessons with some directed self-learning for the students? Particularly the older students, who should already be capable of learning by themselves and would undoubtedly benefit from the skill if they plan to go to university or have a job one day.
Khan Academy is a fantastic resource for studying almost any subject, especially STEM. There are educational Youtubers available for practically any subject. Why not for one lesson per week, set students to work through particular courses. There are plenty of online studying resources that allow teachers to track student progress, and if the department of education came calling, I suspect more might consider adding those features. Duolingo, for example, allows teachers to set lessons and track progress. These services enable students to learn as fast as they’re capable of by dictating their own pace. Allow the more advanced students to move ahead and set them extra challenges suitable to their level while identifying the weaker students who need additional support. This personalised work feels like something that is sorely lacking in regular schooling and is ideal for home learning and takes advantage of technology rather than conforming it to routine school procedures.
Why not offer money to veterans who have advanced skills in engineering and medicine to provide help to students in related subjects. Surely a system can be put together whereby a student with a problem can access an expert who can help, similar to how telemedicine connects doctors with patients separated geographically. Moreover, the system doesn’t need symmetric communication, the student could ask a question with text or a short video, and then when they have time, the expert can respond accordingly. In short, why are we not building a stack overflow type system for education support?
And the system doesn’t just have to be veterans, although they’re a known group who possess relevant and valuable skills that could be taught. Many people could help teach school students a particular skill they already have. Thousands of university students across the country are more than capable of spending ten minutes to help explain a science or maths problem. We have a vast resource of educated people who could, without significant trouble, be tapped to provide help and guidance to millions of school children across the country.
Look at the overwhelming success of the app released to help people volunteer in their local area to collect shopping or drive an elderly person to a doctor’s appointment.2 There were hundreds of thousands of people who signed up just to help others with something small. To me, this was one of the most incredible demonstrations of the human spirit during the past year. But it was more than that; it was a proof of concept that if we ask people to help each other, they will, and if we use technology to enable the process, they will do so in staggering numbers.
Many elderly people could help primary school students practice their reading and writing, helping children learn and helping cure loneliness or boredom that many elderly people may be suffering from right now. That’s the real magic of technology. It can help open up new opportunities while solving real problems simultaneously, but only if used intelligently.
A possible side effect of this process may be to promote some increased civic involvement in the education system. How might we as a society come to view education if people from all around the country regularly helped out in simple ways? I think it might have a more profound effect than simply helping out with some learning. In theory, the right to vote makes us more likely to engage with democracy. Maybe if we had more involvement with educating the next generation, we might think differently about what kind of society we’re leaving for them after we’re gone.
Getting back to schooling, another benefit of this would be that students could be more likely to get one-to-one time with the person they’re learning from. It may not be for as long as a typical lesson; that would certainly depend upon the subject and how precisely they’re studying. However, we know that one of the most effective ways of learning something is through a mentor/tutor type relationship, enabling the student to get most of the teacher’s attention. Could we find that perhaps a student may not need an hour in class being lectured by a maths teacher to learn something if they instead have a single person explain it and then answer their questions directly? How might our education system change if we can effectively pair students with a personal tutor, even if only for a short time?
Secondly, another benefit of these suggestions is they can be easily monitored and tracked by teachers to keep an eye on student progress. This can be an excellent opportunity to gather data on how each student is learning and their struggles.
There are many challenges with these suggestions for sure. Not every child has access to the internet or a device to use but compared with Covid-19, this is a simple problem. Undoubtedly the cost of some tablets with a camera and internet connections can be found somewhere, and if they cannot, could the schools not lend their own computer equipment out that they don’t need while closed? The government has managed to throw money at every other problem caused by lockdown; why should this be different.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for implementing ideas like these into education is changing our culture around schools. For many, a school is a place where children sit before a whiteboard while a teacher tells them things. That is no longer good enough, and in the age of Covid-19 lockdowns, it is not even possible anymore. Clearly, we need to change the way we handle education, and if we must now finally embrace the role of technology in schools, we should do so fully and seize the opportunity with both hands.
We no longer live in a world where simply knowing things is enough to get by. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that people need to adapt and learn on the job to be successful. We should embrace that and encourage the same in our schools.
What the hell happened to Skype this year? We’ve all been using Skype (or maybe Facetime) for years as a verb to refer to video calling, and now at what should be their greatest moment, they altogether drop the ball? How did Zoom become the one that everybody uses? ↩
In the UK. I assume similar things happened elsewhere, but this is from a UK perspective. ↩