The post-COVID school

A truly robust system will integrate digital and face-to-face learning
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Many parents have found out the hard way: Home schooling is no picnic! Countless media reports describe the difficulties and frustrations encountered by children, parents and teachers. After the crisis, will we return to the school we knew before March 2020? Most people would say: Of course! Students and teachers desperately need to share the same physical setting!

Seeing each other on a screen is better than not seeing each other at all, obviously, but it’s by no means the same. Furthermore, although it may not be politically correct to point this out, the role schools play in caring for children while their parents are at work is crucial for a functioning economy.

But what happens next? In the future, scholars and policymakers will analyze how distance learning has succeeded, or failed, during the current pandemic. They may conclude that we need to have tools in place for distance learning so that we can respond to a crisis.

“If schools systematically combine digital and face-to-face activities, in the event of a crisis they will only have to adjust the relative amounts of in-person and distance learning, instead of having to implement radical changes.”

However, if schools and universities simply count on the reactivation of IT solutions in the next crisis, they will find that in a few years’ time these solutions will be outdated. Licenses will not have been renewed, and content will have become obsolete. We could well encounter a situation comparable to the shortage of personal protective equipment that so many countries have faced in recent weeks and months.

A different approach would make more sense: If schools systematically combine digital and face-to-face activities, in the event of a crisis they will only have to adjust the relative amounts of in-person and distance learning, instead of having to implement radical changes.

Many seem to think that learning at home is an entirely new concept. But haven’t students always done assignments at home in the evenings and on weekends? And aren’t teachers already using online activities in the classroom? Students form WhatsApp groups to share assignments, teachers post exercises on Dropbox, and so on.

“The solution is not to avoid using digital tools, but rather to find ways in which such tools can be used to reduce inequality.”

The post-COVID school will have to remain partly digital, because learning at home has always been part of a child’s schooling, and that will continue to be the case. However, research has shown that homework, whether digital or not, increases social inequalities. In the COVID-19 crisis, this problem is exacerbated by unequal access to digital technology as well as by differences in the amount of attention parents are able to devote to their children’s schoolwork.

The solution is not to avoid using digital tools, but rather to find ways in which such tools can be used to reduce inequality. For instance, parents who are not able to be physically present to oversee their children’s homework might do so online; nonprofit organizations could monitor the work of students who lack support at home; AI methods might be used to notify schools when children are at risk, and so forth.

After the crisis, the never-ending quest for an ideal digital learning and teaching platform will resume. But clearly no single platform can succeed in meeting all expectations. A school ecosystem takes advantage of multiple platforms for organizing activities (e.g. Moodle), sharing files (e.g. Google Drive), communicating (e.g. email, Zoom, Slack), and using interactive applications (e.g. for calculation exercises and scientific simulations).

A poorly designed digital platform can ruin a project – but a well-designed platform is no guarantee of success. The key to successful online learning is not the choice of tools, but the quality of the learning activities that students engage in using those tools.

“The key to successful online learning is not the choice of tools, but the quality of the learning activities that students engage in using those tools.”

It has often been pointed out that teachers are not adequately trained in the use of digital tools. But what skills are we talking about? Most teachers are in fact fully capable of using the internet for such purposes as booking flights or filing their tax returns. Educational tools are no more sophisticated, technologically, than the tools we use for online activities in our everyday lives. Aside from the inevitable bugs, the real difficulty when using digital educational tools lies not in determining ‘how do I launch this software?’ but in answering the question of ‘what can I do online with my students?’

If we embrace the idea of systematically combining digital and face-to-face activities, in the post-coronavirus world we will be able to use the same videoconferencing software for a classroom lecture as well as for a physics experiment, a biology demonstration or student presentations to their class. It’s not about the tools, but about the pedagogical methods implemented with those tools.

After the crisis, the priority will be to collect and share examples of successful online activities. This will eventually help us create a more robust system that integrates online and offline elements of teaching and can easily adjust the ratio between them as needed.

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