The COVID-19 pandemic presented a learning moment for the global education system like no other. Now, as we return to something akin to a pre-pandemic world, we need to ask what lessons have we really learned?
There is no doubt the pandemic and lockdowns took their toll on the mental and physical health of students and teaching staff and the loss of learning for some students. But amidst all the chaos and drama, some amazing outcomes were achieved.
Prominent amongst these outcomes was the realisation that when faced with unprecedented adversity, educators could move figurative mountains to ensure students retained access to quality education. We also saw many students prove remarkably adaptable and succeed despite the barriers put in front of them.
These two outcomes warrant greater study, to ensure the education sector is better equipped for future disruptions, and to determine their potential for strengthening the system at all times.
Digital learning tools became entrenched in the educator’s daily lessons, providing the ability for students to continue their learning uninterrupted during the disruption of lockdowns and school closures over the past two years.
Imagine for a moment what the educational outcomes of the pandemic might have looked like in a world where investments had not been made in digital infrastructure such as the NBN.
Imagine the opportunities that await if we look at how to close the digital divide gap between the have’s and the have not’s.
Digital technology was not a new concept within education before the pandemic, but the technology and education sectors have not always enjoyed strong levels of mutual understanding. This is due in part to a lack of knowledge amongst some educators about what digital technologies can deliver, which also flows from parts of the technology sector having too shallow an understanding of the role and needs of educators.
These barriers fell away quickly in the pandemic, as necessity trumped all other considerations. However, as we exit the pandemic, it has quickly become clear that many educators are defaulting back to pre-pandemic education modes, with the positive outcomes of innovative digital engagement set aside in favour of the comfort of familiar classroom-based scenarios.
These may in many instances be superior to remote learning, but that does not mean that everything achieved during the pandemic should be abandoned.
There is still much work to be done to bridge the divide that exists between technology providers and educators.
The reality of a digital childhood
One conclusion which would be inescapable even without the pandemic is the prominent role that digital technology plays in a child’s life today. The first smartphone with only a glass screen was released 14 years ago, followed not long after by tablets. Most children, enrolled in primary school, do not know a life without a hand-held device that is connected to the internet with the ability to access on-demand videos and other entertaining tools that can provide entertainment and responses to curious questions.
As a child progresses along their education pathway the ability to use digital tools becomes fundamental to their ability to participate, and as they move into higher levels of education, their digital literacy lays out pathways to career opportunities.
Digital literacy is not universal, however – there are many factors that determine a child’s comfort with technology beyond simply the era in which they were born. Ensuring equitable access to technology is and should always remain a key goal for society.
It is not just students who find themselves on the far side of the digital divide, however. Educators also face pressure to keep up with the technological sophistication demanded by the curriculum. Digital literacy amongst educators is also essential for reasons that extend beyond just the practical needs of the modern classroom. An appreciation of modern apps and services can lead to the exploration of new engagement models – something proven previously through the integration of tools such as Minecraft and Roblox into education. Educators who embraced digital tools during the pandemic exposed themselves to a world of teaching resources, including greater use of video content, and this is something that should be encouraged.
Furthermore, digital literacy amongst educators serves to improve their sensibilities regarding the reality and rules of the digital world in which children live, enabling them to better understand digital social conventions, and especially those with negative consequences, where bullying has moved from the classroom or playground into the online world through cyberbullying and how the role of educator in this context is evolving.
The future of the classroom
For certain periods during the past two years, the classroom as a physical construct ceased to exist. Just months later, however, anyone stepping into a classroom might not realise the pandemic had ever taken place.
But does remote learning create skills that might be beneficial in the long term? Home-based schooling forced many students to adopt agency over their own learning journey when completing tasks. Isolated from the people whom they would normally ask for help, they were forced to use digital tools to find answers to queries. Similarly, cut off from the social interaction of a classroom environment, many turned to online collaboration and chat tools, or even met up in gaming environments to socialise.
These behaviours and skills might well become requirements for children’s emergence into a working world where remote working is the norm. At the very least, these behaviours should be studied in more detail as part of an overall consideration of the skills students will need as they transition to the working world.
Shifting away from the use of digital tools means shifting away from the future that children are growing into, and also means abandoning those scenarios where they brought benefits during the pandemic. This includes the greater engagement achieved with students who find it difficult to interact in a classroom environment, or who find it hard to attend class in person. Digital tools also provide opportunities for access to specialist education in ways that cannot be easily accommodated physically.
All of these factors and outcomes need to be studied in depth if we are to create an education system that prepares today’s children not just for the world as it is, but for what it will be in the future as they enter the workforce and progress through their careers.
What are we preparing students for?
These factors highlight the importance of technology and education working together in close partnership, to translate the positive learnings from the pandemic into permanent outcomes.
The issues of digital literacy and access are just a foretaste of what many students will face in their post-school lives. But when equipping a child with the skills to operate in a digital society, a broader question remains – what are we equipping children for?
Our rapidly changing world demands workers who are similarly adaptable. This means the traditional model of a student turning their back on education the moment they get a job is no longer appropriate.
Thanks to emerging technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence, many of the jobs that exist today may not exist in five or ten years’ time, while the jobs from that time do not yet exist today. It is critical for today’s school leavers to be both equipped with suitable education and also with the ability to continue that education as lifelong learners, including through informal or self-paced scenarios where they earn micro-credentials.
The tradition of education in Australia is to spend many years preparing a student to excel at a single moment in time – their final school-leaving examinations. But this one score is becoming less reliable as a marker of a student’s future potential, and preparation of this nature may be backing students into corners from which they might find it difficult to escape.
What role can digital technology play?
Unlike the shift from the abacus to the calculator or the chalkboard to the whiteboard, the relationship between technology and education has always held a degree of trepidation, with the two worlds often failing to fully understand and complement each other. What we do know for certain however is that no single solution will suit every student – or every teacher.
What is needed is an approach to digital technology that avoids putting technology front and centre, and instead focuses on the two participants who matter most – the students and the educators.
And this is precisely where today’s digital technology excels. The technology industry has undergone a revolution in the past decade, moving from creating rigid and monolithic systems in favour of cloud-based agile implementations that better suit the needs of large-scale education systems, to smaller cohorts, all the way down to individuals.
The forces of digital transformation that have swept across the commercial world can also be harnessed in education. One example is the emphasis that many software makers place on building solutions that support the customer experience. This can be easily refocused to supporting student experience, and we already see this idea being embraced in higher education. This can be taken one step further through co-designing innovative digital tools to help enable students to reach their full learning potential, regardless of their background or geographical location.
Additionally, the sophisticated tools and processes that are now used to measure customer or employee experience can be employed to paint a more complete picture of a student’s needs and accomplishments against current and future capabilities and skills.
This dedication to providing exceptional experiences can also apply to educators, by providing them with tools and resources that enhance education, and by enabling them to gain stronger indications of their own performance and success within the classroom and outside of the classroom. The use of automation and AI/ML technology also offers the promise of significantly streamlining many of the administrative processes associated with teaching, whether that be the discovery of highly effective learning resources or the consumption and analysis of large quantities of data to identify and support students who may atypically fall through the gaps, so teachers can work with the student and their parent/carer to ensure the appropriate support mechanisms are in place to support their success and enable them to become lifelong learners through positive experiences in their K12 journey.
This enables teachers to focus on what matters most – their students – who are also most often the reasons why they enjoy their profession in the first place.
The flexibility of modern digital systems means they can be used in co-design activities where students, educators, and other stakeholders can have direct input into their design and operation, including their evolution. This ensures digital tools are not only fit for purpose at creation but remain so through their working lives.
Most critically, however, the cloud-based approach to technology development and deployment, including learnings in user-centred design, can create technology solutions that truly solve the needs of educators and students. This cuts down the learning curve for their adoption and ensures they better serve their intended purpose.
While technology was front and centre in the education experience during the pandemic, it never should be again.
If there is one lesson to be learned above all others from that experience, it is that while technology plays a vital supporting role in education, and is a key part of the education experience, it is also subservient to the task at hand – educating students.
The growing implementation of digital technologies continues to support the outcomes of educators, students and communities across Australia and New Zealand. Learn more about how A/NZ public sector organisations are using Amazon Web Services (AWS) to deliver innovative services & continue to meeting citizens’ evolving needs.