The upcoming challenges for secondary education

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  • How the pandemic necessitated the adoption of digital education tools
  • Schools need a framework to assess digital education tools
  • Research shows that digital tools have benefited education
  • Hybrid learning as a possible replacement for traditional education
  • Schools need to meet the demands of the future

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of disruption to the world at large, and the education sector has been no exception. Due to national lockdowns and efforts to combat the spread of the virus through social distancing, schools had to close for months on end. Millions of students around the world had to quickly get used to an entirely new experience: of having their education conducted on a solely online basis. Worse still, many schools were completely unprepared for this pivot. Moreover, the parents of schoolchildren had their own worries, and had to work from home. Many others lost their jobs due to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19.

More than 180 countries around the world mandated these school closures, meaning that some 1.6 billion children worldwide were out of school at the peak, which was in April 2020. By the end of 2020, a third of all school systems were still fully closed, with the remainder often only partially reopened.

How the pandemic necessitated the adoption of digital education tools

However, the rapid need to adopt remote learning solutions has accelerated the development of this hitherto niche (or optional) type of tool. EdTech and related services have seen unprecedented levels of adoption and innovation, and have found uses in secondary schools, other educational institutions, and elsewhere. One of the major areas of concern is how much of this will remain in place once schools can return to what is increasingly being referred to as ‘the new normal’. It is likely that not all EdTech services and solutions will continue to be used, but many will probably remain in place. Schools need to start reflecting on which solutions offer the most long-term benefit, and which were merely adopted as a coping measure during school closures.

A part of this lies in the reasons for adopting digital educational resources. In a poll by SurveyMonkey, 45 per cent of respondents said that the most vital concern about shifting to distance learning was keeping up with coursework. 33 per cent said that their top concern was lack of contact with educators, 31 per cent said that it was physical isolation, and 30 per cent said their top concern was balancing digital learning with other priorities.

Schools need a framework to assess digital education tools

In order to make sound decisions regarding the retention of certain digital and EdTech tools, schools need to develop a framework for assessing these tools’ efficacy and cost-effectiveness. There are so many solutions and platforms available, many of which utilise modern technologies in a fascinating way, that it can be hard to filter out those that are to soon become superfluous. This goes hand-in-hand with a general rethink regarding education. Will schools shift from ‘traditional’ learning to blended or hybrid learning models? Of course, what matters most are academic goals, which provide a basic framework for assessing the efficacy of digital education tools.

These academic goals can be met through traditional, online, blended, or indeed hybrid learning, and the tools to retain will be those that promise to continue improving learning outcomes in this regard. This includes, but is not limited to, the improvement of reading skills, mathematical skills, graduation and failure rates, closing achievement gaps, student communication and collaboration, increased opportunities and prospects, readiness for further education, meeting the needs of students with special needs, and working in tandem with other educational institutions.

But what is an online tool? The definition can be broader or narrower depending upon one’s frame of reference. In the educational context, one could say that a digital (EdTech) tool is a platform, programme, application, or technology that can be accessed via an internet connection and both enhances a teacher’s ability to impart information to students,  as well as the students’ ability to access this information. In this respect, digital tools remain necessary so long as a portion of the learning experience is accessed online by students. This implies the adoption of methodologies like hybrid learning, but more on that later.

Research shows that digital tools have benefited education

Work has been done by the Technical University of Munich and Ludwig Maximilian University to consolidate years of research into the use of digital tools in educational settings. The study by these two universities found some interesting, albeit occasionally predictable, results. For instance, teacher support appears to be necessary regardless of whether or not digital technologies are adopted. Students who received support from teachers, as well as their peers, when using digital tools were those who benefitted the most. Additionally, those tools that were developed with defined learning objectives in mind were found to be the most effective.

Some of the findings were less predictable, however. For example, physics classes were found to benefit the most from digital tool usage. This presumably ties in to the fact that digital tools were found to be most effective when they were used to explain (or rather, illustrate and visualise) complex and abstract concepts – such as 3D modelling and other tools that can recreate and present things like geometric concepts or chemical compounds. The same could be said of showing anatomical processes and features. Overall, the impact of digital tools was found to be positive. But like all tools, how they’re used is more important than whether they’re adopted in the first place. “[T]he potential of digital tools to support learning depends to a large extent on the particular learning situation,” said researcher Sarah Hofer.

Hybrid learning as a possible replacement for traditional education

We can now turn to hybrid learning, which is an area that promises to keep digital technologies relevant in education into the future. This educational methodology allows us to rethink how teaching and learning can occur. It opens up opportunities to rethink classroom design and setup, the essential tools that teachers need to perform their roles as educational facilitators, and meeting the needs of remote students – thereby promising to eliminate some of the geographical and logistical barriers to education.

Hybrid learning solutions offer many answers to the challenges of remote and mixed educational environments. For instance, those platforms and tools that grant immersive connections are among the most important. It is not enough to merely transmit audio-visual content, but it must be immersive – utilising technologies like virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR). Naturally, these solutions will need to have a primarily visual focus, albeit more immersive than a mere screen. Perhaps most importantly, they need to bring people together, rather than transmit a lecture to each student individually. There needs to be space for communication and collaboration in a visually centred and immersive digital learning environment.

Despite the discourse surrounding ideas like hybrid learning and digital educational tools, the core of the secondary school experience revolves around the student-teacher relationship. The dynamics of this relationship may need to be rethought and improved, but teachers are as important now as they have ever been. Students may have access to a range of digital education tools, but they need teachers to help navigate them.

Teachers will still need to be involved during every phase of a child’s educational journey, which includes planning and curriculum designing, as well as teaching. This also includes involving teachers in rethinking their own roles as educators and facilitators of learning. Herein lies one of the major challenges that must be met. If we are to see a revitalisation of education that is aided by digital technologies that promise to reshape the student-teacher relationship, then teachers will have to be educated and trained differently. Those who are already in the profession will need to be re-trained and equipped with the necessary skills and competencies to adapt to, and adopt, these new educational tools and methodologies.

Schools need to meet the demands of the future

This is all part of an effort to equip students with the skills, mindset, and educational background to tackle the problems of the future. As the world becomes increasingly digitised and digitalised, the needs of the future are forever altered. “In a changing world, we need new skills to be able to face the challenge posed by climate change. We aim to provide recommendations on how the school system should be reformed for us to be able to curb climate change as efficiently as possible and adapt to the challenges it brings,” explains Laura Riuttanen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR), which is based at the University of Helsinki. “Climate change affects us all, but children and adolescents are the most vulnerable people, as their psychosocial development is still ongoing and they are dependent on adults. Through methods employed in educational sciences, we are able to increase understanding of climate change’s impact on young people and how to support them in adapting to it,” adds Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro, who teaches at the university’s Faculty of Educational Sciences.

These are the challenges that currently face educational systems across the globe. While it is certainly the case that the pandemic has caused unforeseen levels of disruption, the truth is that the ongoing ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (also known as ‘Industry 4.0’) started changing educational priorities years before COVID-19 came about. The pandemic, along with school closures and the pivot to remote learning, merely accelerated the adoption of digital tools within schools, which is arguably a necessary step towards familiarising secondary school students with the smart, automated tools and technologies that will soon come to dominate organised human activity.

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