During lock-down schools across the world have gone ‘online’ and are using digital platforms to keep education going through this time of unprecedented global shutdown. While the potential of the internet and digital tools is clear – improved access to content, communication with teachers and feedback on work submitted – is it equitable?
Can the experience of school for children and young people be reduced to a series of online communications to and from teachers and pupils isolated from each other? And will the impact of this be the same for everyone? The French president recently commented on the inequity of online education for French students, citing it as a consideration when sharing with the public the government's planned date for children in France to return to school. Will efforts to ‘close the attainment gap’ in Scotland continue while the physical spaces in which we educate children remain closed and pupils and teachers can only connect through digital platforms?
The internet and digital tools are not equitable. Socio-economic circumstances impact access to the types of digital tools children use, with cheaper devices including more adverts and in-app purchasing as standard (Burnett, 2016 - external PDF). The educational apps - of which many are currently free - may not continue to be accessible to everyone. At some point they will need to be paid for (EdSurge). Where schools have provided laptops or tablets, there are still geographic digital divides; rural connectivity internationally is not as good as in urban centres, and in Scotland, rural locations are more likely to have inconsistent or poor connections (Philips, 2017).
Learning is about more than just accessing information and getting feedback. Teachers respond to pupils needs in the moment, using all sorts of cues to gain feedback and adjust their teaching to suit their class. In online spaces, feedback is at best muted and at worst lost completely. When you can’t see the body language of pupils, hear them mutter or see the slump of their shoulders, how do you adjust your teaching to suit their needs?
In higher education, where online learning has been going for years, we know that online teaching is different. Effective online teaching is an art, a craft and a science (Openteach - external PDF). Online educators work hard to open up spaces for dialogue where students can construct understanding. They consider emotions, the social experiences of learning, and they humanise the online space. But it takes time. Online students in higher education usually have good reason to choose to study online, or are at least motivated to pass the module they are studying. Children across the world who are studying at home now, due to COVID-19, did not choose the online option. Exams have been cancelled so motivation for some students may have been removed and teachers have not had time to ease into online teaching, they have all been thrown in the deep end.
I am not suggesting that teachers are not doing a good job, they are doing a great job. I just wonder how aware we are of the challenges involved in creating inclusive online classrooms which reflect the values of the Scottish teaching profession. It takes more time than anyone thinks it will to put stuff online and requires the whole teaching skillset.