Thank goodness for technology. Whether you’re a tech sceptic or a technophile, most people can agree that technology played an enormous role in ensuring that education could continue during the pandemic.
When Covid-19 hit, e-learning tools helped students to enjoy an unbroken educational experience, even at a time when they couldn’t physically visit the classroom or mingle with other students.
But while tech helped schools to successfully pivot to deal with pandemic learning, what does the future now hold for online learning? Given the choice of returning to learning as normal, should e-learning stick around, post-pandemic, to aid teaching and learning or is face-to-face teaching the most effective method?
That question is one that educators and stakeholders around the UK (and further afield) are now pondering. Get ready for the future of teaching as we know it.
Tech that just works
One piece of unequivocally good news about e-learning during the pandemic was, simply put, that the technology worked.
Whether it was online portals for distributing materials and collecting assignments or Zoom calls for conducting lessons by video, the technological infrastructure put in place worked as well as anyone could hope – at least, so long as pupils had access to it.
“We were delighted that in terms of purely covering the courses and helping people to achieve the grades that they needed, I don’t think we lost an iota [through the pandemic],” says Keith Metcalfe, headmaster at Malvern College.
The proof is in the pudding: while grading had to change during the pandemic, students by and large didn’t see a dip in terms of attainment levels. For example, in 2021 close to 45% of A-level entries across England, Wales and Northern Ireland scored top grades of A or A*.
These figures were up from both 2020 and 2019. Although teachers deserve plenty of credit for going above and beyond the call of duty in terms of rethinking lesson plans and student support, there’s no doubt that Covid showcased that online learning can be effectively used to achieve good results.
However, as Metcalfe noted, education extends beyond exam results. “I think our biggest feeling is that a school like ours has a holistic approach to education,” he says.
“It’s a boarding environment where we have long days, a massive variety of activities and thousands of social interactions during the days. It’s much more than just about qualifications. It does other things in terms of helping people get that sense of inner confidence, of resilience and lots of other areas increasingly recognised as being the things that lead to personal success and fulfilment.”
This is the part that needs to be hammered out in the event that e-learning continues beyond Covid. But Metcalfe said that he was excited about the possibility of incorporating e-learning methodology and in-person educational experiences going forward. The results could involve a hybrid approach combining some of what worked during the pandemic with in-person teaching.
“I think we were already on this journey, slowly, before Covid came along,” he notes. “It has accelerated that path to moving forward and upskilling or up-resourcing in terms of our schools.
“All those things that you were able to do during lockdown [in terms of e-learning] you can still do. But you get the added benefit of also being able to offer teaching with people in the room as well.”
Going full tilt online
For some schools, the future is not a hybrid mix of in-person and online learning: they’re going full tilt on the latter.
Founded during the pandemic, Minerva’s Virtual Academy is a fully online independent school for pupils aged 12 to 16. It offers a full UK GCSE curriculum (A-levels to follow) from the “comfort and safety of your home”.
To date, Minerva’s Virtual Academy has attracted 80 fully enrolled students, paying around £6,500 per year – making it a far more affordable option than many private schools with grounds to maintain and other infrastructure costs.
“We’re attracting a new generation of independent education and privately educated pupils because [those who are paying the bills] see it as an affordable private school,” says Hugh Viney, CEO at Minerva’s Virtual Academy.
At Minerva’s, approximately 30% of teaching is done via live lessons through video streaming services. The remaining 70% is carried out through asynchronous and synchronous learning using an online platform and associated teaching materials. Viney describes this as a “perfect virtual learning environment”.
We firmly believe online learning is a solution for the 10% of children that would otherwise suffer at school
“We firmly believe online learning is a solution for the 10% of children that would otherwise suffer at school, hate school, even refuse to go to school,” he explains.
“Ninety-five per cent of our kids who came to us during the pandemic previously went to normal, traditional schools. They have stuck with us this September rather than going back to traditional schools because pure online learning works so well for them. We’re not for every type of child – you need a self-motivated type of learner – but certainly, we’re a solution for [some].
“Those might be kids who have anxiety, depression or have suffered severe bullying at school. We are completely the solution for them.”
This virtual school approach to teaching has other advantages, too. Viney says that it supports students who are at either end of the educational spectrum in terms of ability.
“This sort of learning can really help the gifted and talented reach ahead of their peers and not be held back by other members of their classroom,” he says. “It also can help those who may struggle to go at a slower pace. It really is tailored to that individual’s ability.”
It could have other advantages as well. Rather than having only a pool of teachers within geographic distance of a school (or willing to relocate), this approach to online-focused learning could mean opening up possibilities for teachers from elsewhere. Want a French teacher living in France? How about a celebrated physics teacher from Germany? Time zones permitting, nothing would be impossible.
The future of tech
Even if schools don’t go all-in on virtual learning in the way that Minerva’s Virtual Academy does, there’s no doubt that cutting-edge technology has an exciting role to play in the future of schools.
Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS), for instance, has been pioneering the use of virtual reality in the classroom: using it as a teaching aid in various senior schools to help teach subjects including history, modern languages, the sciences and more.
If you thought that Zoom transported students from their bedrooms back into the classroom (to a degree), imagine entire classes taking place in virtual environments in which students explore VR scenes.
However, while ESMS head of e-learning, Simon Luxford-Moore, is bullish about the exciting opportunities made possible by technology, he says that it should come down to choice – and what best fits the occasion.
“It’s really about questioning what it is that we want as an end result,” he says. “For example, I may want to share how poetry could convey an image or emotion to an audience. You have to work backwards. You think, ‘OK, I know I’ve got some children in my class who won’t be able to visualise when I read them a story. They can’t get a picture in their head.’
“In that case you may use VR headsets to help put them in that situation. It removes the barrier they would otherwise face which prohibits their access to their learning.”
Luxford-Moore says that, to him (and, likely, many other teachers), the ‘e’ in ‘e-learning’ shouldn’t simply mean ‘electronic’, but rather ‘enhanced’.
“Yes, my role is fundamentally about edtech to enhance teaching and support learners to level the playing field using software and hardware, where appropriate, but it’s really about how can we enhance that learning experience so that every child can access their full potential,” says Luxford-Moore. “That may or may not actually involve edtech at any one time.”
The luxury of choice
At the end of the day, this may be the crux of the e-learning matter. It doesn’t have to be an either/or issue. If the pandemic caused the educational world to suddenly lean heavily into the use of tech-heavy e-learning then the world, emerging from the pandemic, now has the luxury of choice. That means more options for teachers and more options for students. Technology has proven its worth. Now it can be adopted where it makes the most sense.
“We’ve always had a holistic view centred on trying to keep traditional teaching where there is value, but also looking forward to what we need to provide for future generations in terms of enhancing their learning and providing them with essential skills to take forward,” says Luxford-Moore. “That has been our biggest takeaway from the pandemic: realising that we need to be prepared in terms of confidence and competence regarding our own skill set, so that we can adapt to future situations that might arise without much warning.”
No longer under pressure to immediately rely exclusively on tech, educators will now have the ability to more thoroughly assess what they want to keep – and what to jettison – from the e-learning revolution of the past couple of years. While not everything needs to shift immediately, there are some enormous possibilities to take advantage of. To quote Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.”
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