Beyond COVID-19: employing open, distance and e-learning methods to open schooling for all
3 April 2020

On 19 March 2020, The Economist carried an article titled “Mid-term Break: How COVID-19 is interrupting children’s education.”

The first part of the title resonates with Seamus Heaney’s poem Mid-Term Break which seems sadly apposite at this time, but of course we need to remember that even without the challenge of the current pandemic there are around 300 million children worldwide whose schooling is not just interrupted: the opportunity for meaningful and sustained schooling for these learners simply does not exist.

To reach these unreached children, while also providing potential complementary support for children who are in school but not learning effectively, COL continues to promote open schooling using distance and e-learning strategies

The article correctly identifies legitimate concerns with Internet access, consequences for parents unable to work from home while supervising their children, and provision of school meals for children from low-income families. The problems cited about delays in exams and SATs, however, speak to the rigidity of the system rather than to any weakness inherent in blended and online learning. As the article says “universities [and we may add accreditation agencies and others] may have to be more accommodating.”

The article also correctly points out that, despite the growth in the use of digital resources, there are few instances of systemic support processes for teachers and learners, and “most states are not prepared.” This is a key area in which COL provides advice and support to Commonwealth countries.

I am a little concerned with the following assertion, however: “Even done properly, online learning is a poor substitute for the kind that happens in a classroom. On average, students fare worse working online, especially those with less strong academic backgrounds,” Susanna Loeb of Brown University is quoted as saying. The article goes on to say: “Online courses can be an asset when students cannot be in school, but she reckons that they are ‘suboptimal for most’ and argues that long periods of time spent away from actual schools will probably lead to children’s education suffering.”

While it is probably true that a lot of current online provision does not make the best use of the medium to foster constructive engagement, it seems clear that much current classroom-based practice probably also falls into this category, partly explaining high numbers of school drop outs and school graduates with low levels of literacy, numeracy and like skills attainment who are unable to progress into employment or further education and training (often referred to as NEETs).

The current short-term challenge provides us with an opportunity to rethink how we offer schooling more generally to maximise meaningful learning so that all children can access schooling and all children can enjoy some measure of success, and not only those privileged to attend the best of schools. Given the acknowledged global ‘learning crisis’ emanating from an industrial model of schooling provision that has not kept pace with the changing nature and needs of societies and workplaces, we should probably not be holding out any one model of provision as being inherently better than another but rather drawing from the full range of contact, blended, online and distance options to respond flexibly to different educational needs and contexts.

If we believe in universal access to education for all and recognise the need for lifelong learning in a rapidly changing world, then we probably need to look at more appropriate funding and more appropriate blends of offerings, such as blended learning, flipped classrooms and use of appropriate technology in order to reach more children. We can also learn from examples of fully online learning, such as the Khan Academy which enables greater personalisation of the learning journey, more immediate feedback and more ongoing recognition of progress (through visual progress charts and digital badges) than is possible in most face-to-face classroom settings.

Making appropriate choices would then mean exploring issues such as what can be done online/offline independently; how we can best enable interaction and engagement to foster more sophisticated and nuanced understandings; and to what extent we can use universal design for learning principles and appropriate assistive technologies to help us reach all learners. In COL’s experience, there are ways in which we can facilitate quality learning for all kinds of learners without necessarily requiring teachers and learners to be in the same place at the same time in ideal conditions.

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