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2020: The Year When Digital Learning Came Into Its Own

2020 - unforgettable but may herald a better, more equitable future for education
Adolescent girl in sleeveless tee shirt girl looking at laptop
Online learning at home became the new norm

So here we are at the end of 2020, an unforgettable year. When I joined TeachingTimes as Commissioning Editor of Digital Learning magazine in March we were just beginning to go into lockdown.

At that stage we were expecting it to be a temporary measure. No one could foresee that exams would be cancelled, that online learning would be the main method of teaching for so many months, that we would have online schools such as Oak National Academy or that so many companies would generously offer their resources and services free of charge.

We have received hundreds of emails and press releases that use the adjective ‘unprecedented’. That word needs to be banned in 2021 because everything is unprecedented. All the old ways have disappeared and, while it has been a shock to the educational system, it is not entirely bad news.

Facing up to inequalities

We have been forced to confront realities that we have ignored for so long. One is the Digital Divide.

We have long known that we cannot take for granted access to computers and the Internet. There has always been a significant minority who have been digitally excluded. That was not ‘unprecedented’.

Sadly, schools tell us that it is a case of too little too late with the government rollout and there are many children who still do not have adequate access. But at least it is now on the agenda, the subject of court cases and attracting attention from some influential supporters.

The exam system

It is also making us re-evaluate exams and the role that technology can play. There have been questions over many years that we over-assess pupils in the UK and that, unlike other countries, we have two sets of school leaving exams: GCSEs at the age of 16 and A-levels at the age of 18.

Exams are big business, taking a sizeable slice of the schools’ budget each year but they also generate revenue for the UK from many overseas countries. Nevertheless, this pandemic has encouraged changemakers and thinktanks to question their role.

High stakes, end of phase exams require children all to be in the same room at the same time with an invigilator. Now, we do make special arrangements for candidates who use assistive technology as their regular way of working but really there has been remarkably little change to the system since the 1950s and some would argue that the abolition of course work was a backwards step.

Earlier this year TeachingTimes reported on technology for exams and looked at what was happening internationally, particularly in New Zealand and Egypt. We found that the UK was lagging behind other countries.

Things are beginning to change. With improvements to Artificial Intelligence we now have technologies which could let candidates do exams at home, in the workplace, in a hospital or in a prison.

The BBC reported at the end of November that Machine Learning, an advanced form of AI, could be used to detect cheating. Its could  also mark multiple-choice exam answers automatically. All students would need was a laptop, a WebCam and an Internet connection. This could be a significant step forward.

For this to happen, we will need to make even greater efforts to bridge the Digital Divide. But, given that we are so wedded to the concept of exams, this may be the very impetus to get government to address the Digital Divide once and for all.

Schools no longer just buildings

This time last year we were living in a fool’s paradise. We had every reason to assume that there would be no major changes to the school system: that children would get up and travel to school, that they would spend several hours there, engaged in face to face teaching and learning, that they would be set homework and follow a rigorous national curriculum.

Those certainties no longer hold true. What we have seen in the course of a year is that schools may be brands rather than buildings. Think Oak National Academy for one.

One in eight children did not return to school in September and we have seen a massive increase in online tutoring. Whole year groups have been out of school and totally reliant on online learning while hard pressed class teachers have been doing two jobs, both  teaching their regular classes and running sessions for children working from home.

Pupil engagement has become a major issue

Last year, lack of engagement might have been seen as a discipline problem where children were not making good progress in class. This year it has often been used to describe pupils refusing to turn on the computer, refusing to do work.

Greta Thunberg
Following their own interests, instead of the National Curriculum

However, while the government threatens parents with fines and talks repeatedly about ‘Learning Loss’ and ‘Catch Up’, a new breed of learning is evolving.

Pupils are using the technology to learn new skills and to find out about topics that have nothing to do with the National Curriculum. They have been exploring Black History in greater depth,  becoming more informed about environmental issues and taking back a measure of control over their own learning.

Gamification of learning has been a frequent theme as software developers adapt their products to ensure that they can be used by families, assess prior learning and set suitable and meaningful challenges.

Some pupils are making better progress through not attending school. Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, it seems that children experiencing long-term anxiety, learners with health problems, ASD, and young people in danger of exclusion are experiencing an improvement in their mental health.

We need the dust to settle before we fully understand what has happened in 2020. It has been a year of great uncertainty and has imposed intolerable strains on schools and staff. However, it could also be the start of better times for young people as we now have the chance to evaluate and to make radical alterations to the current education system.

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