Students and teachers the world over faced unprecedented challenges as the pandemic raged through its first and second waves. Staff and children were sent home (and back to school) on multiple occasions in many cases, and teaching methodologies had to undergo a massive revamp out of the sheer necessity to adapt to the immediate situation schools were (and, in some cases, still are) faced with. This ‘jolt’ of circumstance has changed education forever.
In today’s blog post I will explore the main ways in which I believe teaching and learning have changed, and what the implications are for students and teachers today. Readers should bear in-mind that this is an opinion piece, albeit based on my experience in the field as a high-school science teacher (at an international school) and my own research.
#1: Students have realized that traditional university education offers little return-on-investment
Coronavirus had a double-whammy effect on universities and colleges:
- Students were sent home and had to learn online, raising questions about the effectiveness of instruction delivered at traditional lecture halls crammed with hundreds of students.
- Overseas students stopped applying for courses in the UK and the United States in large numbers, and sought local alternatives.
These issues have been further compounded by the fact that a university degree no longer prepares a person for a lifelong career.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), for example, surveyed about 400 employers and 613 college students about how prepared those students were to enter the professional world in 2015. Some key findings were:
- 65 percent of the students surveyed felt their writing skills were strong enough for the professional world, but only 27 percent of employers felt the same way.
- 55 percent of students felt they were well prepared to work with people in which they had little in-common, but only 18 percent of employers agreed.
You can download the AACU’s research paper as a pdf for free here.
The merits of a university-level education have been questioned for decades, and now that the pandemic has forced so-many to ‘learn from home’ we are experiencing a new realization that education needs to be modern and delivered in real-time. As a result, online courses are booming, and students are now quickly realizing that there are affordable, higher-quality alternatives to a traditional university degree.
#2: Practical skills training has gained in popularity
There are many skills that students can’t fully acquire via remote-learning:
- Dangerous/specialized science experiments (e.g. dissections and chemical reactions)
- Woodwork, metalwork, carpentry, plumbing and other vocational skills
- Mechanical and electronic engineering and robotics
- Specialized cookery
As a result, many schools focused heavily on practical-skills training when students returned to school after the first-wave subsided (in large part due to fear of losing this opportunity in the event of a second-wave, which many schools did actually experience later on). In my opinion, this has caused a renewed interest in the practical skills enrichment activities that are often non-compulsory, yet very useful, components of school courses. I believe that we will see schools incorporating more hands-on tasks and activities in the years to come as a product of this realization.
#3: High-quality online courses are booming
Remote-learning is all-the-rage right now, and the numbers are staggering:
- According to a recent survey by China Youth Daily, more than 87 percent of Chinese parents have signed their children up for online tutoring sessions to enrich their education
- Financing for education technology start-ups has more than doubled, rising to $12.58 billion worldwide in 2020 – up from $4.81 billion in 2019, according to a report from CB Insights
Students are becoming increasingly aware that short-certificate courses from high-quality providers like EdX and Udemy are not-only affordable, but will provide the very latest industry-leading, accredited information. This poses a big challenge for traditional schools that are somewhat stuck-in-the-past following syllabuses and curricula that are at least several years old. In my opinion, schools will need to adopt fluid schemes of work and modernize fast, so that students can learn relevant, current, topical information in a traditional classroom setting.
#4: EdTech used for remote-teaching is now being used in traditional classrooms
Video-conferencing skyrocketed during the pandemic:
- Zoom’s sales in the last three months of 2020 were up 370% compared to the same period in 2019, hitting $882.5 million.
- During the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, Google Meets was adding around 3 million users per day.
Schools are now using video-conferencing within the school buildings themselves for assemblies, staff-meetings, whole-school quizzes and even screen-share tasks (a newly realized application for many teachers).
Video-conferencing’s adoption will make teachers more accountable, in my opinion, as illness may not be accepted as a reason to miss meetings which can be accessed remotely from home (even if only audio is activated). Schools will also adopt new ways to allow students to showcase work in real-time, as the screen-share features offered by video-conferencing systems facilitate this process quickly and easily (especially as student-work becomes more and more digitized).
#5: Schools are appreciating the need for kids to catch-up
Gaps in knowledge and misconceptions acquired during the remote-learning phase are surfacing quickly as students return to classrooms. This is generating a renewed interest in traditional pedagogical techniques such as accelerated learning and differentiation. Another positive is that many teachers are realizing further the importance of pace, and how students often have to have information presented in a number of ways, multiple times, before it is truly embedded. These discoveries will challenge schools to adopt the very-best instructional techniques and offer catch-up camps and classes for students who fall behind, long after the pandemic is over. This may provide school teachers with extra sources of income, as well as offering students the enrichment they need to succeed.
The problems presented by students needing to catch-up are not easy to solve, however. The British government’s recent programme to help pupils who missed school to catch up may not be reaching the most disadvantaged children, according to a recent report by the National Audit Office. The issues here seem to relate to tutoring not being provided in the first place to disadvantaged children, as opposed to any flaws in the methodologies being used [BBC News]. Schools will therefore need to ensure that attendance for catch-up courses is being monitored, along with the methodologies being executed.
#6: Terminal examinations have lost some of their credibility
Many exam-boards have cancelled examinations for the 2020/2021 academic year, as was the case last year. Grades have been assigned on the basis of teacher-predictions and coursework, and I believe that this has caused many students to question the validity of terminal examinations as an effective assessment tool. This shift in thought has also rippled into the online-learning market, which is gaining in popularity due to the very fact that terminal examinations are often absent from key course assessment components. Qualifications and certificates that are awarded on the basis of a student’s portfolio of achievements (such as course assignments) are gaining respect and kudos, and I foresee this trend continuing well-into the future.
#7: Students and teachers have become more tech-savvy
Classwork, homework, coursework and exams are being assigned, completed and assessed by evermore creative means. Students have had to learn to how to use specific learning apps out of necessity, and teachers have benefitted from automated assessment systems such as Google Forms, Educake, MyMaths, Lexia Learning and others. If the pandemic has had only one positive effect on education, then it is this: computer literacy has improved across the board.
This emergence of teaching and learning software and disruptive EdTech systems is not all sunshine and rainbows, however. It threatens to destroy the very fabric of conventional teaching. It is not inconceivable, for example, to foresee human teachers being fully replaced with software, droids and surveillance systems within a decade from now (easily). The main takeaway for teachers, in my opinion, is this: skill-up in EdTech, coding and computer science fast – we may be out of a job if we don’t.
This gradual erosion of a teacher’s role from ‘sage on a stage’ to ‘guide on the side’, and perhaps even one day to ‘chieftaincy to see with infrequency’, is something I’ve written about before. I’ve also made a video about this very subject matter which I’ve embedded below.
#8: More support is being made available for staff and student mental-health and wellbeing
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on staff and student mental health. Reuters, for example, surveyed school districts across America in February 2021 to assess the mental health impacts of school shutdowns. These districts serve more than 2.2 million students. Of the 74 districts that responded, 74% reported multiple indicators of increased mental health stresses among students. More than 50% reported rises in mental health referrals and counseling. [Yahoo News].
One positive of this is that school leaders are recognizing that staff and student well-being matters, and that can only be a good thing. Schools would do well to recruit counselors to assist with student referrals. and staff workload should be monitored closely. Happy teachers make happy students, and downtime gives teachers time to plan better lessons.
#9: The dangers of excessive screen-time and gaming addiction have been highlighted
- On-screen behavior is often compulsive, with young people typically spending no longer than one-minute looking at any particular page of content before swiping to something else
- Social media takes up hours and hours of teenagers’ free time
- Children from ‘low-income’ households seem more prone to compulsive use of social media than others
- Many children in the study admitted to falling asleep at night whilst on their phones
- Many children admitted that they felt that their compulsions were “mindless” and “pointless”, but felt compelled to use their smartphones on a near-constant basis anyway because there’s a feeling of incompleteness or ‘losing out’ when the phone is not being checked.
- Some children in the study felt the need to check their phones whilst actually being interviewed by the research panel
The supervision of students whilst using EdTech is going to become a bigger and bigger issue as we move forward as educators. How many times, for example, have you walked around the classroom during some student-centered online activity to find students abruptly switching/closing some gaming/chat screens? I know I have, on much more than one occasion.
The solution may be a technological one – allow students to connect only through LAN or school WIFI and filter/monitor usage. Another solution may be surveillance systems inside classrooms, or perhaps even mandating that screens be always visible to the teacher (e.g. by having students sit in rows with their screens facing the teacher’s desk). There are obvious pros and cons to each of these proposals, and the decisions made will depend strongly on school culture and individual course/student aims.
#10: The pandemic pointed anew to blatant inequalities of income
Students in low-income areas have had to contend with less access to school counselors, technology and the training needed to access said technology. Some school districts in various countries around the world have responded by shipping laptops to schools and individual students.
As teaching continues to digitize, the needs of low-income students will continue to grow. Schools will need to address these issues, and that may put financial strain on districts and education authorities. Eventually, we may even see technology investment being pitted against the salaries of human teachers, and this will make our need to compete more immediate. As teachers, we are no longer fighting for jobs with each other – we’re contending with educational technology that threatens to completely replace us.