Stuart V. Leeming, Executive Director of Qatar Foundation Schools, on why COVID-19 can create opportunities as well as challenges for global education.
Education critics delight in showing us side-by-side pictures of a classroom today and one from 50 years ago. They ask: “Why has so little changed?” Superficially, the two may seem similar, especially when the picture editor has been selective, but in practice, nothing could be further from the truth.
Interactive wall displays, collaborative seating, ubiquitous technology, online learning resources, and electronic submission of students’ work are the basic essentials of the modern classroom. Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) don’t show up on photographs, but they are everywhere in modern education. The space we do see is just the container inside which education happens, or at least the physical container. Hidden from us is the cyber-space; the virtual container of learning.
The shift away from reliance on physical artefacts for learning in favour of delocalised virtual resources has prepared us to be resilient in the face of regional or global challenges. We are all learning about COVID-19 through online media, and that same technology is allowing our children to continue learning despite COVID-19.
Teachers are teaching and students are studying; they are all working in their own homes. The systems were already in place to facilitate the transition to a different way of doing things. But just like the photographs of traditional and modern classrooms, appearances can hide fundamental differences.
‘Anytime, anywhere learning’ is the ideal we pursue, and the technical infrastructure to allow teachers and students to work at any location they choose is just one part of enabling the dream. More important is the pedagogy; the approaches to facilitating learning that capitalise on the opportunities presented by the technology.
Educators are inherently conservative. They understand what works and they are reluctant to stray too far from proven techniques. After all, what parent would be happy to know someone is experimenting with their child’s future? COVID-19 has thrown us all into a massive pedagogic experiment, though, forcing techniques to be developed, trialled and evaluated like never before. Synchronous lesson delivery (where students and teachers are required to be engaged on the same task at the same time) versus asynchronous lesson delivery (where they are not); social media versus traditional media; multimedia versus written work; home-grown versus commercial learning materials.
And alongside this explosion of pedagogic creativity comes a different way of evaluating education.
Traditionally, we have looked at how effectively teachers teach, appraising their skills in the classroom, their creative lesson planning, and their organisational abilities. But teachers are not the people who really matter; our primary responsibility is to our students. Our children must learn, and that has to be the single most important criterion when deciding if techniques are successful. It is all the more important when teachers and students are not sitting in the same space, so face-to-face, informal feedback between student and teacher doesn’t happen.
Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has stimulated a lot of innovation, but will the innovations define the future education landscape? Certainly, some innovations will persist. The focus on student outcomes when evaluating learning could be transformational, as could the embedding of asynchronous pedagogy as part of a broader offering. The MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) model has been gaining traction in the university sector, and there may well be more growth now in the secondary sector.
But schools are more than simply collections of buildings and playing fields; they are communities of people. The social benefits of coming together as a learning community cannot be underestimated and for many, that will mean attending a recognisable, physical school. Probably the majority of the world’s learners, though, do not have that privilege. What we have learnt will make it more possible for communities of learners to come together in education, without the limits of borders or timezones.
Out of adversity develops opportunity.