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Life After Covid: Is it time to think about a digital future for the compulsory education sector?

Following lockdowns in 2020 due to Covid-19, schools needed to find a way to ensure the education of their pupils. In order to do this, they engaged in digital learning, to varying extents. Innovations emanated from all school staff including for example: teachers, leaders, and teaching assistants. Some were already innovating in this area and brought forward and implemented, digital strategies, whilst others engaged with digital learning for the first time. While research is emerging about the effects of the pandemic restrictions on pupils and staff in relation to key issues such as mental health and educational attainment the fact remains that the pandemic gave rise to a wave of digital innovation in compulsory education, the like of which has not been evident before. 

Spend, spend, spend 

Before Covid-19 there was already an increasing trend in the adoption of digital learning in schools, with global EdTech investments reaching 18.66 billion US dollars by November 2020, and the overall market for online education projected to reach 350 billion dollars by 2025. Since Covid-19, the uptake of online products and platforms has surged. From mid-February 2020, after the Chinese government instructed a quarter of a billion full-time students to resume their studies through online platforms, the world witnessed the greatest online movement in the history of education with approximately 730,000, or 81% of K-12 -primary and secondary education in the US students, attending classes via the Tencent K-12 Online School in Wuhan (Ibid).

Yet, although the pandemic has undoubtably provided opportunities for schools and tech companies, it has also revealed the realities of the impact of poverty and socio economic deprivation on the ability of learners to take up digital opportunities. For example, according to the OECD report (2021) on digital learning during the pandemic, in Brazil, Mexico and Panama, less than 20% of students in disadvantaged schools had access to an digital learning support platform, whilst almost 60% or more students in advantaged schools in those countries had access (OECD, 2021, p:2). 

In the UK, whilst digital integration for compulsory education has been on the policy agenda since the early 1980s, it has never quite effected the sweeping transformations that government envisaged (Kahiigi, Ekenberg, Hansson, Danielson, & Danielson, 2008). This in spite of huge financial investments in equipping schools with equipment and digital skills – the New Labour initiatives of the National Grid for Learning and the New Opportunities Fund for Learning being cases in point. 

So why are schools not taking a blended approach to learning?

The answer to that is that some schools clearly are: A UKRI funded project found that out of a sample of 60 schools, all had effected some sort of change in their approach to digital (Baxter, Floyd, & Jewitt, 2022). But the range of innovation was considerable; some had effected a truly Copernican shift in approach, with a 5 year strategy to redesign buildings to fit with a blended approach to learning, which included putting their entire curriculum online. This didn’t mean that they intended to teach remotely, but rather, to maximise the use of their buildings so that what could be taught more effectively online, would be, leaving the buildings free for the teaching of those subjects that needed them. The imagination of these leaders, almost without exception, also included digital as part of a whole school drive for more sustainable operations and staff and student wellbeing. Yet for some school leaders digital learning was not the empyreal dream embraced by some of their counterparts. In these cases headteachers saw the practical limitations of a digital future, pointing out the high cost of digital poverty, the crisis in wellbeing of both teachers and learners, and the lack of funds, rendered even more difficult by the current rate of interest and cost of living crisis. 

And the future is?

These are all very real and pressing issues, as research carried out during and since the pandemic, has illustrated. Schools are now facing a winter of crisis with some pupils lacking the most basic requirements – food and warmth, and teachers struggling with salaries that have failed to keep pace with the cost of living. The present Government’s apotheosization of the market is unlikely to yield better times, certainly within the next 2 years. 

Yet, the future has to start somewhere, and the creativity and rich argosy of ideas and innovations that arose during those most difficult of times can be harnessed to provide a future in which digital learning is embraced both critically and creatively, and employed by schools and teachers, to provide an education fit for the future. The question is, does the government have the imagination to support this, addressing the spectres of digital poverty, teacher workload and the lamentable state of school buildings? Will they continue to indulge their chimera of a future filled with desks facing front, and a one-size education to fit all except the most privileged who will in time rise up to perpetuate the inequalities that have been the leitmotif of the last 30 years? 

Jacqueline Baxter

Professor Jacqueline Baxter

Jacqueline Baxter is Professor of Public Policy and Management, Director of the Scholarship Centre for innovation in online Legal and Business Education and Principal investigator on the project: 'Strategic planning for digital learning before, during and post lockdown, in English Secondary Schools' https://www.open.ac.uk/projects/leading-online-learning/about. You can find a free course based on the project and designed for school leaders worldwide by following this link. https://www.open.edu/openlearn/education-development/strategic-planning-online-learning/content-section-overview?active-tab=description-tab

Twitter tag : @drjacquebaxter 

References 

  • Baxter, J., Floyd, A., & Jewitt, K. (2022). Covid19, a catalyst for change? Strategic planning for digital education in English Secondary Schools, before, during and post, Covid. Under review. 
  • Kahiigi, E. K., Ekenberg, L., Hansson, H., Danielson, F. T., & Danielson, M. (2008). Exploring the e‑Learning State of Art. Electronic Journal of e-learning, 6(2), pp149‑160-pp149‑160.