[Guest Blog] Reflections on Technology in Schools in the time of Covid: Part 1
It’s a cliché to say that we can predict anything except the future, but like most clichés, it happens to be true! Therefore, regard these articles as a kind of thinking aloud, ruminations on technology to be aware of and ready for, with one or two suggestions thrown in.
A major thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has done is to give us all a huge kick up the backside. We’ve had the technology to enable working from home for years, but there was not much incentive to implement it very widely. It’s a testament to the commitment and flexibility of companies and educational institutions that the educational system didn’t simply collapse. On the contrary, teaching and learning have moved online to a greater or lesser extent, with varying degrees of success. So what has this meant, and what might it mean?
One of the benefits of conducting lessons through technologies such as Zoom is that it’s made recording lessons much easier. In theory, a teacher could take a lesson online, record it, and then make it available to the class afterwards for the benefit of students who were absent for the lesson, or for those who wish to use it as revision.
I say “in theory” because of GDPR. Bear in mind that when you record a Zoom session, you are also going to record the interactions of the people who took part. The data protection aspect and ways of addressing it are a matter for individual schools.
As far as the time and technology are concerned though, the act of making a recording is costless, because the teacher was going to take the lesson anyway. They didn’t have to set aside time they don’t really have to make videos in order to implement flipped learning.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that, having tried it out for myself, recording a presentation through Zoom and making it available as a video file could hardly be easier.
AR and VR
One wonders whether this new-found need for online lessons will finally cause the prediction of widespread Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) to materialise. (The difference between the two is that VR is a fully immersive experience while AR, according to Adam Greenfield in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life,
“blends its cues and overlays with the real world as we perceive it, and doesn’t require any particular specialised gear.”
These have been predicted as the next big thing for years, but as far as I can ascertain they are hardly ubiquitous. As the reason cannot entirely be due to cost (think Google cardboard VR) or availability of curriculum-relevant material (think of the multiplicity of AR apps available), it’s quite likely that it boils down to a lack of perceived need. Why, for example, go to all the trouble and expense of enabling students to walk around inside a set of molecules when all you have to do is show them a physical model? True, the immersive experience may be more eye-opening, but would the potential benefits justify the costs?
Now, however, regardless of the promise of vaccination, showing all students such a model at the same time is not necessarily a viable option. Perhaps in addition to recorded videos schools might wish to explore the use of VR and AR to enhance remote learning.
Of course, one fly in the ointment is the so-called digital divide. A recent report by Microsoft reveals that there is a huge disparity between students’ access to technology at home. Now, you might retort that being Microsoft, they would say that. However, they commissioned Teacher Tapp to undertake the research, so there is some degree of objectivity (though beware terms like “teachers believe…”).
In any case, even the most hardened cynic would be unlikely to argue that access to technology has not been a key issue during this time. By rights, access to technology at home, or lack of it, should be taken into account in schools’ data.
Management Information Systems
Management Information Systems in schools have been around long enough to have become very sophisticated. For example, if Fred in Year 7 and Jon in Year 9 are absent or late at the same times every week, you can be alerted to see if there is something going on you ought to know about. If a period of declining marks coincides with a period of absence, that too is a cause of investigation.
Now, though, there are complications. How should the school record attendance if a student turns up and then is sent home because someone in the class has tested positive? If the school makes online lessons available, and a student doesn’t turn up, is that because of laziness, or because they have home caring duties which would normally be undertaken before and after school, or because of a lack of technology with which to access the lessons? If a student’s grades suddenly start dropping, is that because she isn’t getting a proper breakfast and lunch at home?
These are issues to be taken up at a school level, but it’s worth bearing in mind that several MIS providers have created guidance about how to enter data such as this. It’s also a good idea, if you can, to find out how much access your own students have to technology outside the school, assuming you haven’t done so already in the hope of benefitting from the DfE’s laptop scheme. Even if there’s nothing you can do to mitigate the situation in the short term, it will at least provide invaluable data when evaluating students’ progress and devising catch-up strategies.
Test and Trace
Finally, in principle possession of the NHS test-and-trace app should help to identify students and teachers who are at risk of Covid-19. However, there is a privacy issue, and in any case, it presupposes that students will have a mobile phone that they are allowed to bring into school. For the DfE’s guidance about testing in schools and colleges, see this letter.
Even if the recently announced vaccines solve all our problems, regarding school attendance, I feel that the genie is out of the bottle now. Where the technology is available and works, online lessons can be just as good in many respects as those in a physical environment. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the effects on wellbeing and mental health of not being able to see friends in person. Perhaps a safe prediction, then, is that we’ll start to see a hybrid model of education, in which online education is more formally used to enhance in-school education. At the very least, the next time schools have to shut because of adverse weather, switching to online lessons should no longer pose such a big deal.