As of mid-April, UNESCO estimated that 190 countries had closed schools nationwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting more than 90 percent of enrolled students worldwide. While some schools are open in Europe, in certain regions it's already confirmed that classrooms will stay empty for the rest of this term. As a result, many education systems have shifted to using distance learning tools—particularly digital ones—either to continue with the curriculum or to ensure learners do not backslide.
With a young child at home, I, like many parents, have been forced to become a teacher when schools closed. Despite years of research on digital learning policies, I was still quite unprepared for this challenge. The experience has reinforced my belief that three factors are essential for any digital learning method:
- It is inclusive.
- It supports (rather than replaces) the learning experience.
- Evidence of what methods work and in which context should inform digital learning interventions.
Digital Learning Should Be Inclusive
We know digital learning can reach pupils when they cannot physically attend school. This has previously been the case for sick children confined at home or in hospitals, those in remote locations who can't attend school daily, and migrant children. Next to this opportunity, however, is a risk that digital learning widens the gap between vulnerable and more advantaged learners.
Availability of hardware is the first challenge to making digital learning accessible and effective for all. If families are unable to provide each home-school child with a computer or tablet, these pupils won't be able to participate or get the most out of their lessons. Likewise, there is the issue of inadequate or nonexistent internet connection, based on where their families live and what they can afford.
Unless vulnerable learners are helped with access issues, digital learning will only enhance the learning experience of those who are already advantaged.
Those designing digital learning solutions need to consider their likely effect on the disadvantaged. A parallel example comes to mind in a recent news story about medical face masks designed with a window to allow deaf people and the hard of hearing to be able to read lips. By meeting the needs of all learners, digital learning will not widen the disadvantage gap, but hopefully bridge it.
Nothing Replaces Professional Educators
Playing the role of teacher in recent weeks has reminded me how important it is for children to be supported by professionals in their learning. Digital interventions are a tool supporting the learning process, but they cannot replace the teacher.
In addition, it is unrealistic to expect that the digital environment, even if it includes social facets, can replace the school experience, especially when it comes to developing social and emotional skills. Education systems should think about how to support this development both during the closure period, but also when schools reopen.
Gathering Vital Evidence During the Crisis
The new and repurposed digital learning interventions that have sprung up since the COVID-19 crisis began are giving most children access to some sort of education while away from school. While these rapid reactions are welcome, they leave little room for evidence-based decisionmaking.
After all, we know that digital learning does not always work. For instance, RAND Europe's recent evaluation of a digital feedback programme in primary maths showed that the intervention did not improve pupil outcomes.
Evidence of what works, for whom, and why is needed for effective policymaking and the development of new digital interventions. Collecting data to evaluate these programs has, understandably, not been the first priority during this unexpected pandemic. Such research, however, could guide forward-looking policies, including preparation for possible future pandemics.
We can hope that when pupils around the world eventually return to school that digital technologies will have helped them keep learning during the crisis. It would be better if education policymakers also came away with deeper knowledge of the effectiveness of the digital tools and of how they can support the most vulnerable children.
Schooling may have changed forever in light of COVID-19. Let's hope that it is for the better.
Axelle Devaux is a research leader at RAND Europe who focuses on education policy and, in particular, education technologies and how they can support vulnerable learners.
This commentary originally appeared on EU Reporter on May 1, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.