For over a year, the world has faced what can be described as “a tsunami of suffering”, but there is now some hope that the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines represents some light at the end of the tunnel. With such optimism now in mind, and many now hopeful of a return to some sort of normality, we can begin to question what is next for education? Given the magnitude of change that has occurred during the previous years, is a return to normality even possible let alone desirable? I would suggest that we should use this crisis driven opportunity to push for positive change and reimagine an education system that works for everyone.
The move from classroom to computer screen has impacted our daily routines, systems and human interactions. It has tested our basic ideas about instruction, attendance, assessment and the role of technology. Yet, in spite of these challenges, what has been achieved during the last couple of years is nothing short of phenomenal. Almost over night the education sector globally was forced to adapt and innovate creating an environment in which we have developed new skills, re-evaluated our systems and routines and ultimately have had to think of new ways of doing things. “We should seize the opportunity to reimagine education and accelerate change in teaching and learning, finding new ways to address the learning crisis and bring about a set of solutions previously considered difficult or impossible to implement” (United Nations, 2020).
Many of the changes may be considered short term as a way of dealing with the immediate problems of the pandemic but I would argue that there have also been many positives that have long term potential to improve education. There has been more flexibility added to our schedules offering both teachers and students the ability to work at their own pace without the confines of timetables, providing greater agency and choice. Opportunities have been given to demonstrate better time management and self motivation. We have improved virtual communication and collaboration and through a collective world experience, developed a broader global perspective. Although working parents have certainly taken the strain during these times, they have been given an opportunity to observe, explore and understand their child’s education like never before. Hopefully developing a greater appreciation as they gain an awareness of what life is like without teachers, day-care workers, after school clubs, bus drivers, and other essential staffers who keep our schools running.
Like many, I have found aspects of the past couple of years challenging, but given the time to reflect on my own experiences I can honestly say that it has not all been bad. In fact, there have been many positives to come out of this situation both on a personal and academic level. There was certainly some level of anxiety as I gave up the comfort of my classroom and moved into the unknown, but there was also a certain level of excitement. I quickly discovered a renewed sense of enthusiasm as I explored new ways to create content, make connection with fellow educators and parents, and make the online environment as engaging as possible for my young learners. In the process I developed new technical skills and approaches to learning that I may never have considered had it not been for the situation I found myself in. I have enjoyed the added flexibility to my working day giving me the opportunity to spend more time with my family, personal pursuits and more importantly to work at a pace and time that is suitable to me. These are times that I will think fondly about and many of the skills and practices learned I will take back to the classroom.
Although the pandemic has certainly shown that most students learn best in person, in my own experience I have observed a range of responses to the online environment. There have been students that have struggled but there are also those that have flourished. For some of our students the online environment has created a space in which they feel less anxious and provided them a platform in which they are more willing to share their voice. Those that were less confident in the classroom have found new ways to express themselves.
The pandemic has also challenged the idea that students must be in one location for education to take place. Equally important is that their learning time does not have to be synchronous with each other or with that of the teacher. Some of my students have relished this flexibility, allowing them to work at their own pace and even to follow their passions and strengths without the restrictions of a traditional timetable. As always in education one size does not fit all, but I believe that it is possible to create a learning environment that capitalises on the strengths of both synchronous and asynchronous learning, whether that be online or face to face. I believe that this hybrid approach would provide greater flexibility to both the teacher and students schedules providing the perfect environment for agency and personalised learning to occur. Through these conditions, we can empower students to have a genuine voice, choice and ownership in their learning. A well-designed mixed mode delivery of online and face-to-face education could be a more effective approach to teaching and learning.
As educators, we must always consider the future work place that we are preparing our learners to enter. The pandemic has prompted many companies to change the way they work, with some employees having no choice but to work from home. Leaders suggest these changes could remain in place once the global health crisis is at an end without being detrimental to the workforce. Most notably, some governments have proposed a four day working week, instead of the usual five, with other suggestions including flexible working hours, remote working and growing interconnectedness, which are all posed to be beneficial to employees. In fact the world’s largest ever trial of a four-day working week has been claimed to be an “overwhelming success” with evidence of boosted productivity and wellbeing. I would suggest a similar approach would work with our schooling. This would again provide greater flexibility to our timetables. When students are not learning in school they can interact with others through technologies. This can have significant impact on learning activities. If allowed or enabled by a teacher, students could be learning from online resources and experts anywhere in the world. Thus, the where of learning changes from the classroom to the world.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic has also highlighted glaring inequalities of race, disability and income. For many families, accessing educational content through technology is not easy. The issue of digital divide remains a significant dilemma around the globe. It is important, therefore, that we reimagine a better education with technology and find creative ways to make education more equitable with the hope that a new, more equal educational system can emerge out of the crisis. “We cannot accept the levels of inequality that have been permitted to emerge on our shared planet. It is particularly important that the world supports developing countries with investment in 21st century education infrastructures; this will require the mobilization of resources and support from developed countries, in particular with debt cancellation, restructuring, and new financing” (UNESCO, 2021). In the words of UNICEF’s chief of education Robert Jenkins, “build back equal,” after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold devastation across the world, yet it’s also revealed some interesting truths about education. It’s taught us that teachers, learners, and caregivers are incredibly resilient, but not indefatigable. It’s taught us that technology can be wonderful, but it will never replace the value of people in safe but rigorous learning spaces talking, playing, and working together. It’s taught us that a 20th-century model of schooling must be updated to prioritize the human aspects of education—not the mechanical ones—and push education to be simultaneously individualized and of common purpose. It’s taught us that we ignore opportunity inequities at our own cost and at the expense of the most vulnerable. It’s taught us that teachers should not be taken for granted. It’s taught us that not everything in the curriculum matters and not everything that matters fits into the curriculum”(Olsen, 2021).