Monday, April 13, 2020

COVID-19 is not the end of schools

Professor Julian Sefton-Green asks "Will mass schooling-at-home lead to the death of schools?" in EduResearch Matters (13 April 2020). I suggest not. School and university students are studying at home in numbers not see before. This is challenging for teachers and lecturers, the students, and their families. It will also introduce many to the benefits of this form of education. However, distance education is not new or unknown, at least not to some of us. School and university campuses will still be needed, at least for about 20% of the average student's education.

Most teachers and lecturers have received little format training in distance education, but may have some experience of it as a student. There is the problem of becoming familiar with the technology used, but this is minor compared to the need to make a personal connection with students over a relatively impersonal medium.

However, distance education is not new and unknown to the education discipline. There are decades of experience on the use of online learning at school and university for millions of students. There are research journals and conferences devoted to the subject, as well as courses and whole degree programs. For ten years I have been part of this subset of the education discipline, studying, teaching online, presenting papers at national and international conferences, writing books on the topic and refining the techniques though teaching students around the world. sharing the frustration with my colleagues that the rest of the world just doesn't "get it". That has now changed, but there is a risk of over-promising what distance education can deliver.

As teachers learn to teach online, materials are developed and students settle into it, governments may be tempted to see an opportunity to reduce costs. If students just need a computer to study, why have we been spending money all these years on expensive schools? The answer is that there is more to learning than what you can do through a computer, and teachers are still needed.

Professor Sefton-Green worries that we may see a move to
concentration of education, with the computer as a conduit for a national curriculum. At least in Australia, moves for national standards have been resisted due to the decentralized nature of our governments. I suggest that of more conern is a move to cost cutting.

As parents are no doubt discovering, delivering education is hard work, the more so the younger the child.  Also social skills require a social environment, with students learning to work togehter. This does not only apply to the youngest students. When studying education, as a graduate student, I was required to work in teams. I did not like it, but I had to do it. Now I help university students learn this way. It is possible to have students in disciplines, such as computing (which I teach), learn to work together online, but this is a very difficult skill to learn.

Post-COVID-19 we will still need school and university campuses. But there could be the opportunity to use them, and teachers better. University lecturers perhaps need to learn the benefits of teamwork themselves, while parents and governments could learn to value their school teachers more (and pay them more).

Most older school students and university students do not need to spend much time in a classroom listening to a teacher talk. Instead they need to be working together, with a team of teachers in support. Most of their learning can take place off campus, online. But there are valuable skills best learned interacting face to face in a team. My rules of thumb is that the average  students will need to spend about 20% of their time (one day a week) on campus, or in some other location, together with other students, and perhaps a teacher.

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