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What does COVID-19 mean for education?

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimates that some 1.3 billion learners across the world – around 91% of the global student population – have been impacted by the closure of educational establishments in an attempt to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic.

With school, college and university buildings closed around the UK, educational institutions have turned to education technology like never before. From virtual classrooms to the BBC’s star-studded online education service, learners are becoming accustomed to teaching and learning being delivered wholly online until lockdown comes to an end.

What comes next?
Colleges have spent the past weeks dealing with a tsunami of immediate and diverse issues – from staff and student wellbeing to solvency pressures, from policy changes to the delivery of teaching and learning, to name a few.

Indeed, with the doors currently closed for the summer term and – at the time of writing – no confirmed date for them to re-open, there are plenty of immediate challenges trying to keep 2 million learners at colleges engaged, motivated and supported.

However, as immediate implications and issues start to ebb, the pandemic curve starts to flatten in the UK, and the media begins to speculate as to when the lockdown might come to an end, focus is starting to shift to what might come next.

Last week, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who has been advising the government on their overall response, said of the current measures and restrictions:

“If we relax measures too much then we’ll see a resurgence of transmission. What we really need is the ability to put something in their place. If we want to open schools, let people get back to work, then we need to keep transmission down in another manner.”

“And I should say, it’s not going to be going back to normal. We will have to maintain some level of social distancing, a significant level of social distancing, probably indefinitely until we have a vaccine available.”

Whilst it’s important to leave matters of public health and scientific research to the experts – and not to speculate too much – it’s becoming clear that coronavirus (COVID-19) may be with us for longer than any of us would want.

This poses important questions for colleges, such as:

  • When will colleges re-open?
  • How will colleges re-open? Will it be for certain learners first and if so, for how long?
  • Whilst examinations for general qualifications – GCSEs and A-Levels – have been cancelled for summer 2020, what will be the way forward for technical qualifications and learner progression?
  • Are the current plans and approaches for online delivery appropriate and sustainable? Do they work and if not, how can they be improved?
  • What will the expectations of learners, employers and all stakeholders look like in September and beyond?
  • How long might ‘social distancing’ and other measures be required? How will any necessary precautions and actions evolve over time?

All of these factors will need to be worked through by college teams, and central to them will be the role of technology and edtech.

First steps on the EdTech Strategy
At the weekend it was great to see DfE announce the provision of free laptops and tablets for disadvantaged learners during the lockdown, a clear recognition that technology can only break down barriers if you have access to it in the first place. However, this announcement is just the tip of the digital infrastructure iceberg.

In the DfE’s first Edtech Strategy, published last year, it states infrastructure as the first focus, a priority well before the pandemic came about. It’s very likely that access to technology – together with all other aspects of the Edtech Strategy – will be discussed with greater urgency by the government and the education sector in the weeks ahead.

If you’ve not had the chance to review DfE’s Edtech Strategy, then you can access our work on this area over the past months on our website.

The return to balance
Whilst many questions remain unanswered, the lockdown has proved one point for certain: that we miss and need face-to-face interaction – not just from a pastoral and friendship perspective, but from a teaching and learning one as well.

Whilst online teaching and learning has many benefits and has currently been catapulted to the forefront, it can’t replace the need for spending time with teachers and with peers face-to-face. For now online is the only solution available, but it’s a case of when – not if – the blend of technology and face-to-face learning finds the right balance in the future.

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