The coronavirus pandemic has forced governments all over the world to close schools, colleges and universities requiring students to go online to continue their studies. This means that in many cases, in just over a week, education institutions had to accelerate their digital transition to deliver classes, seminars, workshops and lectures online for their newly remote audience.

Despite the time pressure, many managed to do so, providing excellent examples of distance learning. In fact, many continue to innovate, exploring brand-new learning methods and platforms, capitalising on the digital opportunities this unprecedented event offered.

The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) enabled many digital technologies to emerge, facilitating the ability to connect objects or devices to networks in order to facilitate production, conversation or data.

Whilst this new paradigm enabled significant efficiencies throughout industry and the global economy, the coronavirus has elevated the importance of this connectivity, allowing families, communities and businesses to speak, and interact whenever they want. For educators, the ability to utilise the digital world to continue to teach their students is proving vital, as while exams have been cancelled or postponed, teachers are able to do everything they can to minimise disruption to their students’ education.

These learning resources include; UK social enterprise CENTURY Tech an AI-powered teaching and learning platform that enables a flexible, tailored education, from anywhere, and the game-based learning platform Kahoot!  – which lets teachers host gamified learning sessions via video conferencing and assign self-paced games for homework. Kahoot! Is also able to send educators advanced reports on each student’s progress that can be used for formative assessment purposes. It provides a facility for teachers to collaborate to compile a catalogue of school-wide academic games to promote community.

Discovery Education has also risen to the challenge of providing online resources for parents searching for home school materials. The digital content creators for primary and secondary schools have added hundreds of brand-new assets to its award-winning portfolio such as the Discovery Education Experience and the Science and Social Studies Techbooks. These materials help teach students about the virus itself or provide a way of understanding and engaging with the USA’s 2020 election process or history associated with celebrating Women’s History Month.

These learning platforms, and the many more that are out there, are fighting to keep up with the demand from students, parents and teachers – to help plug the gap that school closures left. Websites such as MathsWatch, that allows schools to provide distance learning to students remotely has seen a surge of new customers over the past few weeks. As Director Ken Smith says: “We have been contacted by more than 100 schools looking to join in the last few days and we have four times the traffic we normally have as there are so many teachers on the site creating homework”.

Whilst there are many forms of educational support out there, as the world’s children settle into a new schedule of school at home, the question of what the purpose of distance learning should be is being widely contested.

In normal circumstances, student progress is assessed based on report grades, standardised tests, and internal benchmarks. However, without these mechanisms in place, schools must now find new ways to track the progress of each child. For some educators, this situation provides the opportunity to redefine global education systems.

As Colin Seale, author of ‘A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students’ explains: “As part of my work with educators, I have regularly asked what they would do if they had a magic wand to reimagine education. Their most popular answer aligns closely with what success would look like in today’s digital context: giving every child their own independent learning goals and equipping them with the tools and resources they need to meet these goals.”

Digital learning allows this flexibility as it removes the need to limit success to the metrics derived from standardised exams. It allows for collaboration that helps measure the extent to which students are learning to communicate, to listen to understand, to speak to be understood, and disagree in a constructive way. This means that the digital distance learning the coronavirus has enforced upon children around the world could end up creating entirely new ways of learning and thinking. In turn, it could therefore create the opportunity for students to become the change they’ve been waiting for – giving them the power to create solutions to real-world challenges.

However, many of the digital platforms available rely on students having sufficient access to the internet and devices to allow them to continue their education online. Yet for many, this is not the case. Countless working families have been economically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and many are prioritising financial survival through working which means education becomes a secondary priority. In addition, just because these learning platforms and online lessons compiled by teachers exist, it doesn’t mean all have access to them. For some, this is due to being in a rural location, for others, there is a financial barrier.

For instance, a survey of more than 6,000 teachers by charity Teacher Tapp found the vast majority in the most disadvantaged communities doubt their pupils have access to the right devices to access the internet. Consequently, if the global lockdown continues for many months, as is expected, many children will be left behind in their education.

Russell Hobby, Teach First’s chief executive, said: “Home schooling is difficult for any family, but for children with limited access to a laptop or the internet the barriers to studying are much greater. These figures by Teacher Tapp show we need to stand behind disadvantaged young people now, or else the gap in achievement and opportunity between the rich and poor will rapidly widen.”

To address part of this issue, Teacher Tapp has issued a plea for internet providers to offer free access to WiFi hotspots, lift data caps and install broadband in homes without it. Seb Chapleau, a former primary school headteacher and now director of the Big Education Conversation, is also calling for internet providers to offer free vouchers to schools for devices, highlighting a scheme in New York, where Apple and T-Mobile have joined forces to provide discounted tablets to thousands of children.

In some instances, governments are also stepping in to support disadvantaged students. For example, Amsterdam is making 3,250 laptops and 450 WiFi hotspots available to pupils who do not have the proper equipment at home to follow distance education while the schools are closed during the coronavirus crisis. In addition, last week, the EU called on streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube to limit their services to prevent broadband networks from crashing as tens of thousands of people work and study from home.

During this time of unprecedented uncertainty, education can provide a semblance of normality that other circumstances prevent. It can allow students to learn and progress, digitally, providing escapism whilst teaching them skills that will help them in later life. Whether it is exploring a museum on a virtual tour, or reading World Book Online’s collection of 3,000 free ebooks and audiobooks, doing the homework set by a teacher sent via email or participating in a virtual meeting with friends and classmates online – today’s technology is helping students stay in school, despite social distancing measures.

Humans have always used technology to address challenges and in the 4IR era, educators are able to provide holistic, flexible digital learning options that allow students to continue to thrive, despite their isolation.


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