Child in green shirt interacts with virtual ‘learn’ button floating in front of him

Getting schools ready for the ‘new normal’ in a post-pandemic world

  • A peek inside reopened schools in Denmark
  • E-learning isn’t a quick-fix solution 
  • Apple’s new features are designed to support post-pandemic learning 
  • Adaptive learning software helps students catch up on missed work
  • Edsights chatbot connect universities with their students
  • Are virtual experiences finally taking off?
  • More changes ahead  

The education sector has spent years devising new and adopting existing approaches to using technology in learning. But who would have thought that it would actually take a pandemic to truly accelerate tech adoption within education? In only a matter of weeks – a result of coronavirus lockdowns – educational institutions across the world were forced to switch to online instruction, a move that has affected more than 60 per cent of the world’s student population. While it’s hard to predict at this point what the post-pandemic education landscape will look like exactly, it’s already evident that the outbreak has brought meaningful change and that even more opportunities will surface once we get through this pandemic.

A peek inside reopened schools in Denmark

In fact, some countries have already started reopening their schools, but to prevent further spread of the virus, it’s crucial to take precautionary measures. In newly reopened Danish schools, for instance, student desks are spaced at least two metres apart. Pupils are required to wash their hands every two hours, and all surfaces in the school are disinfected twice a day. More lessons are now taught outside and students are warned not to get too close to each other. All classes are split into two smaller groups, allowing teachers to spend more time with each individual student during the lessons, which has a positive impact on their wellbeing. Unlike Denmark, countries like Italy, Argentina, and India are still hesitant to reopen their schools and prefer to rely on online tools that enable distance learning.

E-learning isn’t ‘a quick-fix solution 

The concept of online learning isn’t new. Before the COVID-19 crisis, according to ResearchAndMarkets, the online education market was already predicted to reach $350 billion by 2025. And the pandemic isn’t expected to negatively affect these numbers. If anything, in light of these new circumstances, educators are likely to be more willing to try and experiment with innovative teaching models, also after the crisis has subsided. 

There are many obvious advantages to online learning. According to the education consulting organisation Study International, remote learning is more cost-effective and offers more flexibility than learning in a traditional classroom. When done correctly, online learning can help students develop and improve self-motivation and self-discipline, skills that are crucial for the modern workplace. In conventional education, on the other hand, more attention is given to rote learning and developing traditional academic skills. Another beneficial aspect of learning in an online environment is that it’s less intimidating for learners, which consequently leads to improved participation in class. 

Based on the data presented in the 2020 Online Education Trends Report, it appears that student satisfaction with online learning is extremely high. The report, which involves responses from 1,500 students and 398 school administrators, shows that 95 per cent of students would be more than happy to recommend online learning to others. However, educators need to keep in mind that digital learning isn’t’ “a quick-fix solution to the pandemic” and that creating valuable online learning experiences requires a lot of time, effort, and dedication. Allison Littlejohn from the University College London (UCL) Institute of Education agrees with this assessment, noting that “it’s crucial for the online learning experience to be well-designed and we don’t simply shift existing content from one format to another.”

Apple’s new features are designed to support post-pandemic learning 

Teaching and learning in post-pandemic times will probably require implementing hybrid approaches that blend in-class instruction with online activities. To make sure this process goes as smoothly as possible, Apple recently updated its Schoolwork and Classroom apps with new features. The Schoolwork app enables teachers to assign work to their students, as well as track and assess their progress. The new feature makes it easy for educators to share learning content by allowing them to create handouts, which students can then arrange by class and due date in the app’s dashboard. Educators can now also provide real-time feedback and coaching by adding comments and recording audio. The Classroom app enables teachers to better manage and control the classroom, as well as their students’ device use. The app also enables teachers to organise their classes as one-on-one sessions or groups, and they can view a student’s screen, mute the sound, and control their access to other apps. After each class, the app generates a summary showing each student’s progress and activity during the lesson.

Adaptive learning software helps students catch up on missed work 

While digital learning platforms and apps have already proven their effectiveness during the lockdowns, some edtech solutions will only truly shine in the aftermath. Before the outbreak, a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed and began testing AI-powered adaptive learning software, designed to make learning more personalised. But as the COVID-19 crisis started escalating, researchers had to temporarily stop the testing program at Pittsburgh Public School District. For scientists involved in the project, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. In fact, restarting in-class instruction will truly and thoroughly put the software to the test and allow researchers to see whether it can really help students regain lost ground.

The tool uses AI to monitor student learning journeys and detect their successes and challenges along the way. This data is presented to the teacher in the form of a statistical map, based on which they can easily identify each student’s learning needs and personalise their learning plans. If a student lags behind in a specific subject and needs to catch up, the software will notify the teacher. Unlike several other advanced technologies on the market, this tech wasn’t designed to replace human tutors. The aim is to augment the learning process without disrupting the relationship between students and their teachers, which is an important part of the learning process. 

EdSights chatbot connects universities with their students

Most of today’s students are growing up with technology at their fingertips, so it’s been relatively easy for schools to stay in touch with them during the lockdowns. However, handling all of the students’ queries can be overwhelming for bigger schools. In most cases, educational institutions simply don’t have adequate resources to reach out to every student individually and answer their questions. Chatbot technology offers an inexpensive solution to this challenge. 

At the peak of the pandemic, edtech company EdSights launched a free chatbot designed to connect students with their universities. Simply named COVID-19 Chatbot, the solution has been adopted by over 25 higher-ed institutions in the US soon after its launch. The chatbot communicates with students through text messages, asks them about their living conditions and, if necessary, informs them about housing assistance programs. Furthermore, it asks students about their wellbeing and whether the pandemic has affected their employment and food security. All students want to feel cared for, but not everyone is willing to talk about their problems with a human advisor. For some of them, sending a text and receiving a response from a chatbot can be a far more comfortable option. 

Are virtual experiences finally taking off?

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, schools around the world were forced to cancel field trips, sports events, and other crowd gatherings, which has been a huge disappointment for many students. Luckily, these challenging times are being met with creative measures. Jennifer Revels, a math teacher at Harris Middle School in North Carolina, didn’t want her students to miss out on the experience of going on a field trip to the Outer Banks, which has been a part of the school tradition for two decades. Instead of travelling to the actual destination, students explored the Outer Banks islands and beaches in a virtual environment, which was not as exciting, but still a great – and safe – alternative. 

Through a combination of videos, slideshows, and Zoom sessions, eighth-grade students learned about places they would have visited, took quizzes, and talked to their teachers about other trips they have taken in the past. Teacher Deb Blevins described the experience as bittersweet. “But it was an opportunity to see and talk about where we would have been each day, and the activities we would have engaged in,” says Blevins. 

Students at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, are taking their drama classes in virtual reality, using Oculus Quest headsets. In the comfort of their homes, students create a scripted performance and present it to a telepresent audience in a virtual environment. Although the idea for the class has been in the works for three years, the school started the course only a few weeks before the pandemic, which – in hindsight – turned out to be the perfect timing. 

More changes ahead 

While many schools are likely to reopen in the last quarter of the year, we can’t help but wonder what post-pandemic schools will look like? The ongoing crisis presents us with numerous challenges as well as opportunities. The biggest challenge for educators will be to create a safe learning environment where students will be able to enhance their learning outcomes. Perhaps the most apparent change will occur in classroom design. This will involve changing the configuration of desks and reducing classroom capacity. 

As teachers deliver instruction, they will need to make a few adjustments along the way and steer away from tradition. They will have to embrace a myriad of digital learning tools in classrooms to cater to students’ needs. What could potentially slow down the technology integration process is the lack of resources. This could leave millions of students worldwide unable to participate in digital learning. Therefore, it’s essential for schools to establish effective partnerships with organisations, businesses, and communities to reduce the digital divide. 

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