The findings of this large survey of teachers from across the world present practitioners and policy-makers in education with a paradox. While most children continued to learn during the pandemic, their experiences varied to an unacceptable degree. The pattern and degree of learning loss experienced among millions of children from when schools closed or their education was disrupted is real and urgent. And yet, the upskilling of the teaching profession worldwide offers an immense opportunity, as does the rekindling of commitment and enthusiasm for their craft that so many teachers described. Teachers, particularly those with the longest experience in the classroom, learned new digital skills, adapted their pedagogies and invested hugely in their professional development by engaging in significantly above-trend amounts of training during the year 2020-21, spanning the pandemic. Almost a quarter paid from their own salaries or drew on their families’ resources to do so.
The answer to this paradox is equally apparent. Nothing can replace the synergy, the spark, the special relationships forged by face-to-face teaching in the classroom. And yet, technology holds the potential to be a great leveller in education when systemic considerations around equity, access and inclusion are forefronted. Technology can supplement and enhance in-person teaching with interactive lessons, personalised learning and assessment for children with specific needs, from the most disadvantaged to the most able. It offers fast and efficient sharing of classroom craft among teachers worldwide. And it can connect teachers and children in remote or marginalised locations and communities. Children who are absent from school need not miss their lessons. It is just as likely, perhaps much more so, that the digital divide that has been exacerbated during the experience of remote learning during the Covid-19 global emergency, and is chronicled by this survey, could widen educational inequality still further. More than one third (37%) of teachers want governments to provide digital access and devices to children from low socio-economic status groups, children with special educational needs and other groups with higher needs; their call should be heeded. Rapid action is needed, by the international community, governments, education authorities and schools, to narrow and if possible close this digital divide and harness the goodwill and new-found skills of teachers.
Taking technology more seriously
The importance to children’s learning of equitable access to the internet and to digital devices must be taken far more seriously by the international community. Connectivity is not a silver bullet. Nor is technology hardware. Ensuring that educational content is accessible online or offline is crucial. Blended modes of learning are key, given the huge amount of investment in infrastructure required to enhance internet connectivity, particularly in LMICs and rural and remote areas within these. This means developing educational resources that can be accessed through multiple modalities, channels and means (online or offline, through low-tech and high-tech options). That said, equitable access to the internet is a key building block in narrowing educational inequalities. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals make only passing reference to this: SDG 4.1 (to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes by 2030) defines basic school infrastructure as access to drinking water, handwashing facilities and electricity. Its most recent progress report to the Secretary General (July 2021) made a single reference to ‘availability of internet and computers for pedagogical purposes in schools’ being low. This issue must be given higher priority.
It is very clear that teachers and their students need better access to technology. That means both internet access of high enough quality to facilitate the streaming of live online lessons when required and more digital devices: laptops, tablets, even smartphones. It is simply unsustainable for 42% of teachers across the world to bring their own devices to school to support their students’ learning because so few children would otherwise not be able to watch educational videos, access learning resources or develop technology skills that will be ever-more important in the economy of the future. While the circumstances of the pandemic were an extreme event, technology in schools is no longer a ‘nice to have’ element but is integral to a high-standard, rounded education. This means substantial new investment in technology at all levels: in connectivity, in devices and in software. It is time to investigate bold ideas such as free internet access for schools and a credible plan to connect tens of thousands more schools to the internet every year. Technology companies and mobile network providers should step up here, alongside international bodies and governments.
Change within schools
Reversing the digital divide also means changes to the way in which schools and teachers operate. There are, for instance, questions to ask about why computer-based assessments were not routinely used more widely by teachers during the pandemic. Regular assessment is integral to effective learning and digital resources can facilitate this well. Training, supervision and support for newly qualified and less experienced teachers should be examined to find out why teachers with less classroom experience were significantly less likely to teach lessons online especially using video conferencing tools, school virtual learning environments, or to engage in technology-related training. Teachers of mathematics, and the mathematics community at large, should be asking why their subject appears to be out of step with other curriculum areas in engaging with online learning, digital education tools and training in technology.
Schools and education authorities should urgently be reviewing and enhancing safeguarding rules and online safety training for ways in which teachers use technology to communicate with children using direct messaging channels such as SMS and WhatsApp, given the clear risks of their misuse or of false allegations. The wide use of such communication tools may have been a byproduct of a lack of basic IT infrastructure that allows for teacher to student/parent communication in a more controlled environment (i.e. email within a productivity suite such as Office 365/GSuite or a messaging via a dedicated learning platform). The specific nature of the pandemic probably resulted in teachers seeking to communicate with students by whatever means was available, but school leaders and education authorities should be reviewing all factors to ensure a more suitable communications infrastructure is in place moving forward.
Schools and education systems should also invest in their teachers. From their answers to the survey, teachers with less experience clearly needed better-designed support and designed training to help them engage with more sophisticated digital resources for teaching and learning. Most of all, however, school systems should value teaching experience. The survey evidence of how teachers who were more advanced in their careers dealt best with the pivot to online learning reinforces the fact that there really is no substitute for a workforce of experienced, confident, committed teachers skilled in classroom management. This is a core asset to any school system and approaches to professional development, career advancement, pay and retention should reflect this.
Among the most troublesome data to emerge from the survey relates to the poor availability and use of technology in low-cost private schools. The evidence base for their impact is inconclusive. Some previous studies have suggested that low-cost private schools perform at least as well as government-funded schools in some low and middle-income countries while operating on significantly smaller budgets. Several such reports, however, relied on self-reporting. Other analyses have suggested the opposite, although again the data is inconclusive. More research is therefore needed to understand the dynamics of low-cost private schools and how they can be supported to enhance teaching and learning for all.
If we accept that technology has an integral role to play in enhancing children’s education and, when used well, in broadening their opportunities, we must consider how schools, and education systems more broadly, will meet certain unavoidable baseline costs associated with its infrastructure. In this survey low-cost private schools repeatedly ranked lowest on most items in relation to access, deployment, training and safeguarding children and teachers. This is a worrying picture and raises the question of what added value, if any, such schools offer in comparison to government schools. A high number must improve the modes of instruction they offer and have often neglected the contexts in which they work. The survey shows that a high proportion of charity/NGO schools are addressing the challenges they face much more effectively. There is a case for an independent evaluation of the quality of education offered by low-cost private schools in low and middle-income countries, with a focus on how they use technology for learning. This should be conducted by a credible, non-partisan organisation. Such an exercise should consider whether the trade-off between these schools’ model of driving down costs to achieve ultra-low fees is, or is not, producing an acceptable standard of education.
If the pandemic has taught us one thing about education, it is the immense opportunity offered by technology to guarantee and enhance the uninterrupted learning of school children across the world, even during a prolonged period of global crisis. This opportunity to supplement and enrich education will only grow as more sophisticated digital tools for learning are developed and teachers become more confident and skilled at using them. This opportunity must be seized. The pandemic has also taught us that access to and use of technology for education has the potential to widen social divides and further marginalise disadvantaged groups of children. It is fundamental that any decision-making process around technology in education is rooted in enhancing equitable outcomes. The potential technology offers must be spread as widely and equitably as possible among children and young people, whoever they are and wherever they are.
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