A version of this post was originally published on August 3, 2020, in Right Strat Online.
After many weeks of lockdown, schools around the world are now caught up in what feels like endless discussions regarding their reopening. Statistics, best practices, and opinions vary considerably across the world.
There are a few questions that nobody seems to have clear answers to:
Will the schools reopen? Or will they not?
The University of Cambridge was the first to chose the latter. There will be no face-to-face lectures over the course of the next academic year. Perhaps other educational institutions will follow suit. But is this a valid option for all of them?
Most probably, it is not. The younger the students, the higher their need for educational structure (which can be very rarely achieved at home). Secondary schools and high schools face their own conundrums regarding final exams. Most schools need to reopen.
And this raises another question:
If schools reopen how exactly will things work?
Because “going back to normal” is not an option.
First of all, all sorts of physical measures need to be taken: larger space between desks, smaller groups of interacting pupils, staggered schedules, smaller weeks, stricter hygiene rules, more testing of teachers and school staff, the option of remaining at home based on health issues.
Then, there is the curriculum to sort out. Will everyone move on with half a curriculum or should a recovery curriculum be put into place? The sudden move to online education during a crisis that has affected everyone they know has not been easy on students and many fell behind. Re-teaching some of the materials may make a world of difference for them.
Regardless of the chosen type of curriculum, how much edtech and distance learning will remain in use? Face-to-face classes might not be enough for students (or they may remain out of bounds to many) but teachers are already in the smaller numbers and they can't possibly be in two places at the same time (both in-class and online) and do their job properly.
Last but not least, how can the mental well-being of students, teachers, and everyone else in the education communities be addressed? This may be hard to quantify, but its impact on the livelihoods and learning of students is unquestionable.
Walking on a tightrope
One question leads to more questions and clear answers are nowhere to be seen. Governments’ guidance on how exactly schools should reopen is sometimes vague or contradictory and almost always subject to change.
One thing remains unchanged though: students of all ages suffer. Access to education — digital or otherwise — and opportunity gaps that existed before are widening. Missing instruction now can lead to negative outcomes well into adulthood and vulnerable students are especially at risk.
And beside them, the entire education community suffers: teachers, schools, parents, everyone. Schools provide not just learning and social support for students, but also meals and childcare. Reopening schools will restore some normalcy by allowing parents to go back to work and do their share in supporting the economy.
However, the invisible threat that has put the world on pause is not yet under control. Ministries of education are walking on a tightrope:
Too early and the public health is in danger, longer than necessary and the learning loss will continue to aggravate, especially for the most vulnerable - Mr. Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO
How edtech helps with finding answers
From Government level to the individual school level, all educational establishments need to anticipate and prepare for all scenarios:
- remain closed until the public health threat disappears
- reopen and then close again if a second wave of the virus becomes real
- reopen and strive for normalcy
In all these scenarios, the use of educational technologies will be paramount in ensuring schools reopening is smooth and aligned for all. No matter how things evolve — both in the near future and in the more distant one — edtech is here to support us. We just have to make the most of it.
Scenario 1: Fully embracing distance learning
The University of Cambridge has already set a precedent for moving all academic activities online. Other higher education institutions can do the same if they already have in place a robust digital learning strategy. HE students are already self-directed learners and, given the right kind of support, can actually thrive in an online learning environment. A learning management system (LMS) that supports asynchronous self-based courses, as well as synchronous online meetings or group discussions, can play a huge role in making all this happen.
Read more: Adopting the asynchronous mindset for better online learning
Scenario 2: Ping-pong between in-class and online
Until a vaccine is largely available, a viral resurgence is always a possibility. Going back to distance learning seems like a very sound Plan B for any school, on any continent. Again, falling on a solid edtech strategy based on responsible goals, targeted support for teachers, and the most useful technologies will make it possible for schools to ensure a smooth transition between in-class instruction and the online learning environment, as many times as necessary.
Read more: 6 Building blocks for a successful edtech strategy
Scenario 3: Building a new normal
Schools have to be prepared to close again when or if infections arise, but eventually the threat will be over. My guess is, by the time that happens, online education will stop being seen just as an emergency Plan B and instead will be an integrated part of education. The idea of long-term distance learning was unthinkable just a few months ago, when most schools closed their gates. That may well change.
Read more: On challenges and opportunities: Emergency remote teaching
Online education, in all its forms, is supposed to support student learning and academic success, not compete against in-class activities. The pandemic has made it clear that learning doesn't have to be placed-based. We all have the chance to create a new and better normal, using edtech as a foundational stone.
Future-proofing education with edtech
The ultimate role of schools is to prepare students for jobs that maybe don't exist yet, where they will have to use new technologies, in order to solve problems we can't even envision now. Back when this school year started, nobody would have imagined just how different the world would become by the end of it. We can never know what the future holds, nor how close it actually is. But integrating edtech into the daily lives of students, teachers, parents, and everyone in the entire education community could prove key to future-proofing education.