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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

Online education: What will we keep as lockdown ends?

David LeFevre, Imperial College London

Teachers across the world have never had to work so hard or so creatively. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, professional development that would otherwise have taken years has been crammed into a few weeks. Even those who mistrust technology have found themselves getting to grips with putting materials online and handling the complexities of online video conferencing packages such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

To say that this is not an ideal way to develop online teaching practice is an understatement. Yet, if and when life in the classroom does return to some kind of normal, what will we have learned? And what lessons would we like to retain in order to help pupils of all backgrounds and abilities learn and thrive? Could it be that we might take something truly valuable from this undoubted crisis?

As someone who was researched the interface between education and technology for 20 years, I believe we will. The emergency online classrooms that teachers have worked tirelessly to establish should not be misconstrued as representing the field’s full potential, but nor are they without value (Peach, Yaliraki, Lefevre & Barahona, 2019). Teachers and their students are learning more than the curriculum in lockdown, as teachers from Glade Primary School in east London recently demonstrated.

Yet we have to be honest: for some this has all felt traumatic and profoundly unsatisfactory. Many children have slipped off the radar, with some having effectively dropped out of education for months. It’s hardly a recipe for enthusiasm for the global online experiment.

Yet to write off the entire field of online learning because of our experiences during the coronavirus crisis would be serious mistake. Online education can be more than a mere backup to in-person teaching, and a smart teacher and school will give it a chance to develop rather than discarding it when the crisis subsides.

The reality is that it looks like online education will be with us for a while even once some face-to-face teaching resumes. The shape of the upcoming academic year is still uncertain for schools and universities, but health measures may well mean classroom numbers are reduced by law, and policymakers are talking about [£] reliance on blended learning well into the new academic year.

‘The real change for students will begin when we realise that the best online education is led not by technology but pedagogy.’

For schools there is the challenge of making up for lost progress, whereas in universities significant numbers of students may remain stranded on the other side of the world due to travel restrictions. Furthermore, domestic students will need to participate in core lectures online due to restrictions around facilities. We will need to use every tool available to us to ensure that pupils and students are not seriously disadvantaged.

Switching from in-person classes one week to online video calls the next was an astonishing feat, and the nation’s teachers continue to deserve our undying respect. However, this transition shouldn’t be the last word. What we have been through need not be a single action but rather one stage in a process in which we move from emergency measures to improvement and even innovation.

The real change for students will begin when we realise that the best online education is led not by technology but pedagogy.

Certainly there will be many practical challenges to address, but there will also be pluses. Recording online sessions means that those who are struggling will be able to repeat content or study at times which suit their needs. Teachers will learn to build student communities and to engage shy online learners. They will also begin to enjoy what is now possible as they access new tools and ways of connecting with students.

In time, online learning may well include experiments, labs, activities, projects, rehearsals, presentations, real-world assignments, virtual or augmented reality, and micro-immersions to provide students with a rich and varied experience. This won’t replace the tried and tested classroom experience or the direct impact of teaching face to face. But it will offer educationalists new ways to do what they have always wanted to do – to share knowledge and ideas in life-enhancing ways (see for example Li & Lefevre, 2020) with a new generation so that they can, in turn, shape our world.


References

Peach, R. L., Yaliraki, S. N., Lefevre, D., & Barahona, M. (2019). Data-driven unsupervised clustering of online learner behaviour. npj Science of Learning, 4(14). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-019-0054-0

Li, N., & Lefevre, D. (2020). Holographic teaching presence: Participant experiences of interactive synchronous seminars delivered via holographic videoconferencing. Research in Learning Technology, 28. https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v28.2265