Since early 2020, the emphasis has been on how the education system can adapt to COVID-19. Now, the question is — how is the education sector transforming?
Remote teaching has been the focus of many schools, colleges and universities across the UK. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed most aspects of life, with the education sector avoiding none of the impacts COVID-19 has levied against us.
Right now, 25% of teachers are ‘quite unconfident’ that their remote teaching is sustainable for delivering high-quality education in the future. While 36% of teachers found aligning their curriculums with remote learning ‘quite difficult’. Unfortunately, the preparation for digital learning wasn't a focus for many schools, with 40% stating that investment in digital education wasn't prioritised over the last five years.
So how are schools adapting to the changes? How are they utilising digital solutions to provide quality education?
- Optimising IT Infrastructure & Levelling the Playing Field
- Online Schooling Opportunities
- A More Evolved Virtual Learning Environment
Optimising IT Infrastructure & Levelling the Playing Field
The COVID-19 pandemic truly exposed the harsh realities of IT infrastructure across the UK’s education system. In particular, it laid bare how disadvantaged some students are when it comes to IT accessibility, providing shocking insight into the inequality present within the student populace.
There were hardware and software issues to contend with and UK schools felt the digital divide the most, who found that some students had neither the devices nor the WiFi needed to access online learning resources. A 2020 Ofcom report estimated between 1 and 1.8 million children didn't have access to a WiFi-enabled device, such as a laptop or tablet.
Face-to-face learning will always be considered superior. If a student is in attendance, they receive the same learning experience as everybody else, regardless of their home access to technology. However, pandemics and other school-disrupting incidents are likely to occur in the future, meaning face-to-face learning isn't the silver bullet for dealing with inequality.
What's needed is an emphasis on accessibility within the home and the school, where those less advantaged pupils can access the same assets, software, efficient WiFi connections — all that's required for delivering online education.
In light of this, several questions will influence the future of remote working:
- Is our current technology good enough to accommodate flexible learning strategies?
- What software needs to be developed to capture a proactive approach to blended learning?
- How can teachers and students get on board to inform the creation of this software?
- Will the government back the move towards ensuring accessibility, providing IT assets to those who need them?
Alongside the answers to these questions potentially becoming actualised, there’s a chance we'll also see more education support to supplement online learning. Individuals such as instructional designers and course trainers will need to be in place to teach students and teachers how to use technological solutions.
Online Schooling Opportunities
This move towards remote learning is most apparent in the phenomenon of online schools (not to be confused with virtual schools). Online schools provide virtual classes pupils take in the comfort of their own homes. These are becoming popular because of their accessibility when learning from home and usefulness for children with disabilities, safety or mental health concerns.
Differing from the traditional ‘brick and mortar’ schools, online schooling offers the opportunity for either fully online education or a blended mode of learning. There are several advantages to online schools, including:
- During circumstances such as COVID-19 where schools have to close, the learning can continue.
- Online learning is ideal for students that have flexible learning requirements.
- There’s the potential for huge libraries of online content.
- There’s more potential for learning about subjects not traditionally included in school curriculums.
However, there are also issues of decreased levels of socialisation, questions regarding whether online learning is truly accessible and how credible online learning solutions actually are.
Another essential question to answer is: Can the conventional barriers of pastoral care, safeguarding and mental health still be overcome in digital environments?
A More Evolved Virtual Learning Environment
The move to virtual learning, be it permanent or blended, is more than just delivering the education. It’s also ensuring all of the other parts of a school’s commitment to its pupils, such as mental health, pastoral care and ensuring effective safeguarding.
So what might these look like in the future of virtual learning?
Pastoral care is a critical part of a school’s commitments, but detecting an issue pertinent to pastoral care is challenging when done remotely. As virtual learning has been used and is still being considered as a more permanent part of education delivery, there are several avenues school leaders can take.
A virtual learning environment, such as a learning platform combined with video conferencing, is the first port of call for teachers. It isn't necessarily about having a specific application for pastoral care at first, but rather emphasising teachers to use what they have to deliver pastoral care as they would in person
In the future, virtual pastoral care must evolve from this. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was provided through regular check-ins with pupils, with Dave Stephenson, a Head of Year Nine at a UK secondary school, stating in an interview with SecEd:
“At first, we did not have access to a live online learning platform, and so it was decided that form tutors and heads of year would check in with pupils and their parents over the phone on a fortnightly basis. This was a workable but imperfect way of keeping in contact.”
Through video conferencing, form time can be given, providing pupils with a chance to air their feelings regarding the pandemic. In future, this can be continued alongside the collating and analysis of engagement data.
This data will include metrics such as online attendance and how often pupils are returning assigned work. This data can be analysed and shared with parents, especially when engagement is low for particular students.
These instances of low engagement may result from particular issues students face — which could be either remedied or supported within the pastoral care remit. This kind of visibility and communication through virtual means is vital, as parents are often left unaware of any issues due to a communication breakdown.
Overall, virtual learning technology may be used to foster a greater sense of community within schools, ensuring pupils are connected to both their peers and support networks.
Safeguarding is another aspect of schooling that may appear to be more difficult to deliver virtually. However, the answer lies in open, regularly-used communication channels that pupils know are there to help them. There are multiple software-based avenues for this, such as video meetings and even anonymous reporting software available.
Developing regular communication for safeguarding purposes will lead to a greater ability to identify emotional or home issues that are being faced and adequately and sensitively deal with them.
This kind of setup can be made regular for students with pre-existing issues, with an assigned key worker providing support and logging detailed records in accurate reporting software.
Teaching solutions that track engagement data will also be used to raise concerns and identify potential safeguarding issues, allowing teachers and safeguarding leads to quickly follow up on any concerns raised. If the proper accessibility can be maintained, contact can be made with either the pupil or parents in a manner deemed appropriate.
In a study carried out by Mind, it was discovered that:
- During the 2020 UK lockdowns, people aged 18-24 experienced worse mental health and wellbeing.
- 73% of students said their mental health got worse during the subsequent lockdowns.
A solution for dealing with mental health is resorting to the strength and flexibility offered by modern communication platforms. Online peer support is crucial and schools and other educational institutions should mobilise themselves towards implementing a platform for support.