With over a billion young people out of school around the world and many now learning online, the world’s online learning evangelists believe that this is an historic turning point. In our hour of need, technology has stepped into the breach, providing a test of online learning that could barely have been imagined before Covid-19.
With millions of young people in the UK now experiencing prolonged online learning, some think this is the moment for digital education to come into its own. For the most hardcore advocates – like Derek Haoyang Li of Squirrel AI – coronavirus has forced a tipping point not only for online teaching but for the emergence of artificially intelligent machine instruction to supplement the expensive workforce of human teachers.
Widening participation teams may also be having thoughts along these lines. As one head of widening participation said to me when the crisis broke: “the future of WP will be increasingly online: we need to be prepared.”
But is this right? Is this really the moment to develop more online widening participation work? Or is this the moment when we realise the limitations of online learning and the irreplaceable value of face-to-face encounters?
There is much we already know about the limitations of online teaching. Covid-19 has illuminated the depth of the digital gulf between well-off families where every child has a study-bedroom kitted out with a high spec laptop, and free school meal pupils in overcrowded homes, with shared bedrooms and inadequate IT. At least in the classroom, every child has equal access to learning.
A recent survey by Teach First found that teachers in the poorest communities believe that at least a fifth of their pupils do not have adequate access to a device for online learning at home. We think this may understate the problem.
Half of our centres report that “almost none” of their students have their own PC or laptop. We are also hearing that young people with English as an additional language, and their parents, are “struggling” to make use of online learning platforms. Online learning is exacerbating already worrying educational inequalities – and this should be a concern for WP staff everywhere.
We also know that the case for the pedagogical effectiveness of online learning has yet to be made – particularly for students who are struggling at school. According to a study from the Brookings Institution “online courses are difficult, especially for the students who are least prepared. These students’ learning and persistence outcomes are worse when they take online courses than they would have been had these same students taken in-person courses.”
Our staff report that the current online offer to young people is extremely variable. A centre leader comments: “The best examples are students who are having lessons delivered live and the opportunity to communicate with their teachers. The worst examples are schools with no online platform who just have a webpage that they have uploaded some word document resources and links to other websites.” Some schools are setting too much work, others hardly any work at all. So there may be a postcode lottery at work here as well.
Our response has been to provide online resources coupled with one-to-one telephone support, which can be offered to all students, and adds the human dimension missing from online coursework. It’s not perfect, but we believe that it is the most effective approach for the young people we work with.
The future is personal
What the Covid-19 crisis is revealing is that face-to-face work is essential for young people’s development and is particularly important for those from the most disadvantaged communities. When the dust settles on this crisis we believe that large numbers of disadvantaged students will have fallen behind their peers, and online learning may be exacerbating the problem. The response across the sector should be to connect with them and provide the compensation strategies they will need to bounce back.
The Education Endowment Foundation, which has assembled the most comprehensive summary available of research on effective teaching and learning strategies, says that “evidence suggests that technology approaches should be used to supplement other teaching, rather than replace more traditional approaches.” After only a fortnight of online learning we suspect that most young people, their parents and their teachers would agree.
We predict that after several more weeks in lockdown, people of all backgrounds won’t be clamouring for more online experiences, but will be desperate to re-engage, face-to-face, with other human beings.