Digital education in times of lockdown – A massive real-life experiment

Worldwide lockdowns forced education to move online all of a sudden. Despite the great potential of digital education, the everyday practice proved to be unruly. While existing inequalities continued to grow, on the positive side students, teachers and parents became more confident in using digital tools.

For many years developers of educational technology have been dreaming about tailor-made lessons for every student. Of course, over the last decades digital tools have already gradually been introduced in education. But the scale and rate of introduction pale in comparison to what happened this year during the worldwide lockdowns brought about in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Professor Rose LuckinProfessor Rose Luckin of University College London: It’s a massive experiment that needed to happen for digital education to move seriously forward, although not for the present reason. But it would have been impossible to make this happen without something like the corona-crisis.” – Read the full interview

Big differences in the quality and amount of digital education

Luckin is specialised in the design and evaluation of educational technology, using theories from the learning sciences and techniques from artificial intelligence (AI). She notices three primary uses of digital educational tools during the lockdowns: tests that students can download from their school, live lessons via platforms like Google Meet or Microsoft Teams, and video and audio lessons on demand, which students can follow whenever they want. But the quality and amount of digital education varies hugely between schools.
Professor Rose Luckin of University College London: Unfortunately we also see that disadvantaged communities struggle enormously. For them technology could in theory be of great help, but in practice they have the least access to it.”

This is also the conclusion that Belgian educational scientist Pedro De Bruyckere draws.

Pedro De BruyckerePedro De Bruyckere (Arteveldehogeschool in Gent, Belgium and Leiden University, Netherlands): During the lockdown we have seen in many European countries that the inequality that already existed has become more visible and more pronounced. Many people think that inequality only considers social-economic inequality: differences between rich and poor families. Of course that is an important factor, but we see other differences as well. For example a difference in the time that parents have for mentoring their children: those who had to work a lot versus those who didn’t or couldn’t work. (…) Furthermore,younger children have more difficulties with the digital home schooling than older children. And vocational education is much more difficult to digitise than theoretical education. It also turned out that girls received more support from their parents than boys.” Read the full interview

Growing appetite for digital tools

Despite some downsides of digital education during lockdown, professor Rose Luckin does also see positive consequences:

Professor Rose Luckin: The appetite of students, teachers and parents for using digital tools in education is definitely increasing. They start to realise what does and what does not work. For example, teachers have come to realise that teaching online can’t be the same as teaching in class. And many students need more support when they are working online, because it’s unfamiliar to them.”

De Bruyckere agrees that the most positive effect of digital education in lockdown is that the threshold for using digital tools has been lowered. But he warns that we should not judge digital education exclusively on the experience gained during the lockdown period. Pedro De Bruyckere: I see people pledge for or against digital education based on the lockdown period, but that’s unfair. Everybody was forced into this situation and nobody had time to prepare.” In order to learn from the lockdown period, he hopes that the educational field will monitor closely which practices work and which ones don’t. Pedro De Bruyckere: I also think that it’s time to consider the ethical aspects of the digitisation, issues like privacy and the power of platforms. And the user capacity of technology should be increased. Even Microsoft Teams was suffering from overload sometimes at the start of the lockdown.”

Luckin is convinced that the present crisis will result in a richer set of educational technologies and in educators who better know how to use the available tools effectively. Professor Rose Luckin: I really hope that we will move towards a more blended approach of education, blending the best of digital education during lockdown with the best of the physical education before the lockdown.” She also hopes that if we manage to solve the problem of unequal access to technology (infrastructure and skills), artificial intelligence can truly help in delivering tailor-made education.

Professor Rose Luckin: Software that can adapt to the level of the student is what is currently available in terms of AI. But AI has much more potential. Think about the use of voice activated interfaces, or text to speech and speech to text analysis. Think about supporting students with special needs. Think about using AI as an enabler for using simulated environments, like virtual chemistry or physics labs. Last but not least, digital tools should not just be used to develop the cognitive skills of students, but also to monitor their social-emotional development and collaborative skills.”

Useful links
European Schoolnet and Covid-19: supporting the School Community
UN digital learning resources compilation
Scientific article about the effect of the lockdown on home schooling in the Netherlands
A Worldbank compilation by country
World Economic Forum
Summary of a new report on the impact of school closures during the corona-lockdowns
EPRS publication on Education in isolation in the pandemic, following the path of Isaac Newton
• The European Commission’s updated Digital education action plan


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