WHEN the pandemic forced schools to shut and move learning to virtual platforms, the way students were taught changed overnight.
It has been a tough year for many parents, managing childcare and home-schooling on top of their own working from home responsibilities, as well as for teachers that had to adapt to engaging a classful of children online.
With all classes set to return on Monday, parents across the country have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yet, have the headlines and general lockdown malaise painted a misleading picture of the potential for ongoing digital learning?
Indeed, while there is light at the end of the tunnel with lockdown measures expected to ease further in time for summer, it is very possible we will see the pandemic’s impact on education extend for months and potentially years to come. Secondary and primary schools will need to balance the risk and reward of students attending physical education facilities, as there will be pupils who need to self-isolate due to potential contact with Covid-19.
This means we are likely to see a continuation of blended classroom and digital learning. But before we bemoan this as a repeat of the lockdown experience, we should consider what the opportunity for hybrid working could mean to the Irish education system.
A hybrid learning approach ensures students have the benefits of face-to-face teaching and social interactions with other students, while not losing out on their education if they need to self-isolate, with online learning.
The pandemic has given schools the impetus to adopt technologies and deliver teaching online, proving digital learning can be carried out successfully. Teachers have done an excellent job at ensuring the continuity of education during lockdowns by embracing apps and remote classes. Learning has never been a one size fits all approach, regardless of a student’s ability, and remote learning has unlocked a new way of learning for children.
So, hybrid learning must be recognised at the next stage in embracing a more modern, digitally forward education.
Ultimately, a hybrid model enables students to connect with their teachers digitally —whether that’s doing homework online, taking assessments via interactive quizzes, getting access to resources including pre-recorded classes for students to review on-demand, or even participating in a range of extra-curricular activities online. Fundamentally, digital learning can have a huge impact on a student’s ability to learn and become productive at a pace and environment that suits them.
The digital learning experience provides flexible benefits for teachers too. They are not only able to assess students online and keep digital records of students’ homework. It has empowered greater communication and collaboration with parents and guardians, enabling them to report on student’s progress with virtual meetings.
The potential to increase digital learning could also support greater quality and accessibility of education. In fact, research from VMware has shown almost 72% of EMEA decision-makers in the education sector believe hybrid learning will improve access to education for lower income communities, and 76% stated it will enhance provision for students with disabilities. Remote learning on a more permanent basis could also widen students’ accessibility to better schools and removes geographical bias from the selection process. For example, students that want to pursue a specialist course may no longer be restricted by catchment areas.
The pandemic has been a catalyst for change and innovation within the traditionally slow-moving, education sector. Positively, research from VMware has shown the majority (77%) of decision-makers in Europe, across the public and private education sector, recognise the move to distance learning will create new opportunities for schools in the long-term.
Hybrid learning models have the potential to turn the education system on its head. But to truly enable a successful and sustainable hybrid learning model for both students and teachers for now and beyond the pandemic, the education sector needs to invest further in software and partner with technology companies to improve the remote learning experience. Whether that’s with virtual desktops that provide students with a seamless learning experience in classrooms and at home, conferencing tools to enable hassle-free communication between students and teachers or migrating servers to the cloud to enable always-on learning. It also goes without saying that cybersecurity needs to be a key focus for IT teams at schools and universities making investments to enable hybrid learning.
Adopting new IT to enhance hybrid learning also involves equipping teachers with the required technology and digital skills so they can effectively incorporate it, whilst being able to support students who may have difficulties adapting and navigating virtual learning environments.
It will be the educational institutions that incorporate remote learning and technology into their long-term strategy, alongside training to ensure users can manage these systems, that will be able to meet the learning needs of today and beyond. These institutions now have some very experienced providers and consumers of online learning, that can provide excellent guidance and feedback — they should be listening to them.
In addition, internet connectivity cannot be taken for granted. While the Irish government funded devices for students in the pandemic to assist with online and blended learning, it’s important to ensure this is inclusive for all. To support and champion hybrid learning in the long term, the government must continue to invest in and provide subsidies to nurture the future generation of the workforce.
The pandemic has created a watershed moment for the education system and challenged the way learning is delivered and received. While it’s clear many students thrive in the traditional classroom setting, surrounded by their peers and more on-hand support, we should not ignore the benefits of virtual learning too.
Indeed, VMware research has revealed 27% of Europeans want to continue engaging with education institutions digitally.
The events of the last year have shown there is a place for digital learning to accompany classroom learning — and schools have proved that they have the skills and experience to make it a success.