Students, parents and educators are in the midst of another tumultuous school year due to COVID-19. At the height of school closures, in mid-April 2020, 94% of learners worldwide were affected by the pandemic, representing nearly 1.6 billion students in 200 countries.
According to recent research, the impact of this time away from the classroom could have a lifelong impact to students’ earnings. One estimate suggests that global learning losses from four months of school closures could amount to $10 trillion in terms of lost earnings. Despite the impact to learning, and growing evidence that schools are not hot spots for coronavirus transmission, a number of schools around the world remain closed.
How have educational disruptions impacted student learning?
An average of 50 days of in-person teaching have been lost to school closures, globally. Based on preliminary data comparing students’ academic achievement and growth during the pandemic to the achievement and growth patterns observed in 2019, this time out of the classroom has impacted learning.
Research has shown, that while in almost all grades, the majority of students made some learning gains in both reading and maths since pandemic started, gains were smaller depending on the subject. Students in grades 3-8 performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in the latter part of 2019. However, maths achievement of students in 2020 was about 5 to 10 percentile points lower compared to same-grade students the prior year.
Many are keen to understand the long-term impact of this prolonged disruption to students’ education and what parents, students, teachers, businesses, and government can be doing to help mitigate the learning losses due to COVID-19. One of the key questions that needs to be addressed is: if and how the adoption of new learning methods, skills, and technologies may be able to address this problem in the future.
How have education ministries responded around the world?
Almost every country introduced additional support programmes to remediate learning loss as schools were reopening, according to a UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank survey of 149 ministries of education. Inclusion of remote learning in its education response to COVID-19 – using online platforms, TV/radio programmes and/or take-home packages – were also standard responses. Spain quickly introduced educational content through its broadcast channels, Mexico leveraged its educational television (Telesecundaria) by combining short educational videos with lesson plans, and Uruguay adopted live remote teaching using its national online learning platform. Online learning has been provided as a solution in many parts of the world, although the rates differed by income level.
In about 60% of countries, the Ministry of Education created its own platform to display educational content for teachers and students in primary and secondary education. Commercial (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Google Classroom) and open source platforms (e.g. Moodle, Canvas) were also used to complement those national education platforms for the delivery of synchronous classes.
But, how effective did countries find the switch to remote learning? Globally, online learning platforms were rated as either very (36%) or fairly (58%) effective.
This is not surprising, according to Mrinal Mohit, Chief Operating Officer at BYJU’S, an Indian educational technology and online tutoring firm, who says that online learning can leverage the power of digital tools to make learning fun and engaging. In video-based lessons, teachers can encourage students to interact through discussions in small groups. With game-based learning, students can collaborate to foster important socialization and teamwork skills.
Of course, the data has shown the effectiveness differs based on income group, likely due to the ability to fully leverage the benefits of remote learning based on network connectivity or other pre-requisite infrastructure, digital skills, and/or appropriate access to technology.
To tackle this, companies like BYJU’S are making sure their learning content can be accessed on SD cards and/or 2G and 3G networks. Their Give Initiative (part of their Education for All programme) encourages donations of old or unused smart devices that will then be refurbished and powered with BYJU’S content and distributed free to children with no access to online education. Of course, further public action could support this goal.
What will the future of learning look like?
Many countries have now adopted hybrid approaches, constituting a mix of in-person and remote learning for when schools reopen.
Going forward, Mohit believes we will continue to see the rise of blended learning. Learning will eventually combine asynchronous online elements with synchronous elements, enabling students to interact with each other, their teachers and learning content, all at the same time. “I think the future of education will seamlessly combine offline and online learning and we will be able to find the right balance somewhere in the middle. We will witness the education sector take a leap from the traditional one-to-many approach to blended one-on-one learning experiences, providing students the best of both physical and digital worlds,” he says.
The recent announcement of cooperation between TAL Education Group – an edtech firm headquartered in Beijing that currently teaches over 3 million students – and UNESCO also points to the changing nature of the sector. This agreement focuses on developing a global online learning system responsive to emergent crises using IT and AI technologies.
Onion Academy demonstrates another future-oriented learning product; it combines AI technology and animation videos to deliver knowledge points and thinking tools. The animated videos last for 5-8 minutes on average, accompanied by an after-class exercise on the app to help students review concepts on the spot and cultivate self-directed learning.
By applying AI and big data technologies, the app diagnoses academic performance, develops personalized learning paths, and recommends video content according to individual learning behaviours. Many students enjoy this form of learning. Onion Academy currently has over 51 million registered students and 1.8 million registered teachers. The platform has accumulated learning hours of over 4.3 billion minutes, with over 4 billion exercises completed and over 150 billion learning behaviour data.
These types of innovations and partnerships indicate that the digital transformation of the educational sector is accelerating. The use of frontier education technologies to develop a dual-teacher model that merge online and offline learning will be central to the future of education.
The mode of delivery is just one aspect of the changing face of education. The skills students will need to succeed are also rapidly evolving. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he outlines how schools continue to focus on traditional academic skills and rote learning, rather than on skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and adaptability, which will be more important for success in the future. While establishing a routine will provide the structure students need to succeed, research has shown the benefits of learning through play as well as the potential for significant learning gains from gameplay interactions. Therefore, finding ways to achieve this will be important in any future educational design, whether an online, offline, or hybrid model is used.
Growth and outlook for edtech
While the length and extent of disruptions to classroom teaching are still unclear, it is clear that technology will be more important to life inside and outside of schools. This has been reflected through growing investments in edtech over 2020, which brought in over $10 billion of VC investment across the world; global venture funding for edtech companies reached $4.1 billion between January and July 2020, more than double the amount raised during the same period in 2019, and the highest amount raised in that time frame for the past five years.
While there were significant deals in the US, including Coursera’s $130 million round in July 2020 and MasterClass’ $100 million in May, the largest deals in 2020 were China’s Yuanfudao, which raised $1 billion in March 2020, followed by Chinese startup Zuoebang’s $750 million in June. A global investment firm also purchased shares of TAL worth $1.5 billion in 2020. Based on analysis of venture capital deals in this space over the last few years, there is clearly substantial interest in edtech investments, signalling strong future growth and quality of the sector.
While there are clearly tremendous opportunities in the field of education – and in the technologies that bring these to light – leveraging these within the context of the broader wellbeing of children and students, considering online safety, the need for stronger connections, and the new skills required for success will be key.
Through innovative partnerships, such as Quizlet and TikTok, new content and delivery mechanisms, and consideration for the overall health of children, we can strive to foster a future generation that has learned more than it has lost from the pandemic.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vision of Humanity.