More than a billion children are currently out of school with no return date.
As we enter another month with educational institutions around the world in lockdown, it has become clear that the Covid-19 outbreak has the potential to forever change not just how we learn, but how we think about learning.
While the world’s schools, colleges and universities may be closed, education must go on. This is a challenge unlike any we have faced before, but it is also an opportunity to harness the human capacity for learning and to further develop our tools.
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In this environment, online systems, data-driven structures, and artificially intelligent algorithms offer critical resources for students, teachers and even parents. But realising the full value of these resources requires re-thinking how our education systems interact with technology, forging a new path and incorporating technology into every aspect of learning.
For several years now education has been one of the fastest growing sectors in technology. According to HolonIQ, a global education intelligence firm, the ‘Edtech’ field is projected to be worth $341 billion by 2025.
This is unsurprising given its obvious potential, not just today, but for the cities of tomorrow, which will need to be agile enough to embrace change and disruption. Those that thrive will be the ones already investing in the wider strategic infrastructure that supports online learning.
Communities around the world have been wrangling with the demands of continued support for education through the Covid-19 lockdown. When Abu Dhabi closed schools on March 9th, the emirate immediately activated an “at home” model, with all of its school children continuing to learn through online platforms.
In a time of social distancing, that means that not only can students continue to learn, they can also continue to engage with their peers and their teachers. And during these trying times, it is clearer than ever just how important these relationships remain for our mental and emotional health.
That shouldn’t be regarded as a replacement for the social warmth of physical classrooms and human interaction, but it is a viable way to foster and maintain connections when the alternatives are not available.
In some areas, we shouldn’t be afraid of also considering how to retain some of these technologies in a post-Covid-19 world. Learning online means students can progress at their own pace, with personalised systems that puts each student at the centre of every class. Instant and ongoing assessments also provide teachers with feedback on individual progress, giving them a chance to adjust, correct and spend additional time on material through one-on-one instruction.
Videos, games and interactivity can also keep the lessons flowing, harnessing an approach known as the “gamification of learning”. This motivates them to learn, practice, and ultimately achieve full mastery of the material. The most successful platforms also allow for streamlined and consistent delivery of lessons, relieving teachers and parents of the time needed to build resources from scratch. This frees them up to focus on the actual delivery of the lessons, maximising their direct engagement with students.
It can be more than just continuing to teach, it can be a qualitative shift in our education systems if we grasp the nettle.
This is not to say that embracing Edtech is without challenge. For example, schools need to be scaled up with the necessary IT infrastructure and hardware, while external systems themselves have to be able to handle the processing demands of home access.
Similarly, the tools we use also have to be based on sound learning principles and properly aligned with national curricula, with the most important stakeholders in mind: the teachers and students. From a design perspective, teachers and students will bring endless varied challenges and Edtech systems must be designed with this diversity in mind, especially for those students with special educational needs.
Lastly, we should not be so arrogant as to assume that teachers and parents can simply be “dropped” into Edtech systems. Software designers may always be confident that their tools are eminently intuitive for all users, but the reality is that scaling up online technologies also means ensuring we provide support in the form of the training required for our students and children, helping them to get the maximum value from these technologies.
These things are not easy. They take time, they take investment and they require a government that is committed to deploying innovative systems in an environment that doesn’t always rapidly embrace change. Abu Dhabi invested heavily over the years, directly and indirectly, to support companies that deliver these programmes as well as a stable infrastructure to support them, giving the emirate and its students flexibility and a way forward.
Ultimately, the most effective providers will be those who keep users at the heart of their endeavours, offering a holistic learning experience which ensures that no student misses a beat, whether inside the classroom or out.
And the education systems that are best placed to thrive in a post-Covid-19 world will be those who retain the technologies and tools that have been tested so fiercely during this outbreak.
Geoffrey Alphonson is the CEO of Alef Education
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