For the past 20 years I have worked in education. But nothing prepared me – or any of my colleagues – for what happened since Covid arrived last year. How could it?
Thousands of teaching hours, in front of a classroom or university lecture hall or guiding students in online learning – none had been tried or tested during a global pandemic.
So, what have I learnt during this time? Mainly that despite the overwhelming challenges and demands on us as teachers and on our students, it is possible – with a combination of resilience and innovation – to make the most of whatever is thrown your way. To succeed and to look forward however serious the circumstances.
With one and a half billion learners across more than 170 countries leaving their school buildings at the height of the pandemic, most teachers had to transform their lessons from face-to-face to distance teaching in a very short timeframe. Most did it without training, without sufficient pedagogical and technological knowledge and resources, and of course without proper preparation. The same applied to our students.
I am fortunate to be part of the ORT global education network, where research and testing had already taken place around online learning, especially among my eastern European colleagues. Even so, my peers and I recognize now that we learned more about distance education in only the first few months of the pandemic than we learned in the previous decade.
In the past, educationalists and their faculties, departments and schools were reluctant to embrace online offerings. There was fear of change, concern about the reliability of the technology, the ever-present workload demands, and of course how it would all affect our students. Even though this form of education is less expensive – eliminating the costs of transportation, accommodation and institution-based learning associated with higher education especially.
The flexibility also means that both educators and learners can plan their time better and have more accessible course options. They can learn anywhere, any time – which is crucial to developing new life-long learning skills. Perhaps we had failed to appreciate how our students’ increasing use of fast-paced media and technology had already changed their expectations of what a course could and should be like.
Nonetheless, the day-to-day challenges of the online experience were huge. The absence of face-to-face interaction is a significant factor – very little can replace or replicate the power of connection and togetherness.
While mishaps like not having a camera were overcome, barriers such as low internet led to frustration and at times more severe emotional distress. Even with everything working perfectly, staring at a screen all day does little to improve your attention span. If adults in professional environments struggle, what chance for a 14-year-old distracted by the entire internet at their fingertips?
Other issues that became evident as the months went by included the drop in motivation – primarily for students, but staff were affected too. As a result, participation and appearances on camera decreased, leaving teachers feeling as though they were talking to themselves. Online learning raises so many questions: how do you foster good group interaction virtually? How does a teacher or lecturer assist each student effectively? What if one student dominates? Are students embarrassed by their home environment? Dealing with these uncomfortable situations led to exhaustion and inevitably a loss of learning.
On a positive note, I must admit that this period was the most effective deep dive imaginable. We have taken greater steps in one academic year than in the past ten. Our schools, students and teachers have learnt new skills in specific programs and tools and now have the experience to give them the confidence to drive forward with online opportunities.
The importance of this professional development for teachers, who have gained greater ability to be agile and flexible in their teaching methods, cannot be overstated. We will go on to enjoy more effective online learning in the next decade than we had ever anticipated would be possible.
Across the 30-plus countries in the ORT network we are now asking each other what will happen when online learning possibilities are explored by choice, rather than necessity.
Will we be able to take advantage of the technology and the progress that has been made? Are international teacher exchanges online a realistic possibility? Can we make the most of hybrid options and put value in continuing online learning? Are we about to embark on a new age of education?
It is vital for us to address the different needs of students – the limitations and difficulties faced depending on age, background and accessibility. There is much talk of ‘personalized teaching’, but will the resources be available to make that a reality?
Just as in every walk of life, education and teaching will face the post-pandemic future with many questions and certainly not all the answers. But we have embraced this opportunity and must continue to do so to help us face the future.