In this guest blog Rupert Wegerif, professor of education at Cambridge University, offers helpful links to sites that illustrate how online education can do things differently. He argues that our current system of education is based on print literacy and that the use of new communications technologies might free us to reimagine education in better ways for the post-COVID future.
Because of the coronavirus crisis, there were no sit-down paper exams at Cambridge University this year. Normally in May and June we have halls full of rows of students each sitting at an individual desk scribbling fast filling in bits of paper. As a result of the crisis many of our exams were converted into what are called 'open-book' exams. Students were able to download the exam paper at the beginning of the week and work on the questions with access to the resources of the Internet. They then uploaded their answers at the end of the week. This meant that the papers I was sent to mark were typed and not hand-written and therefore much easier to read. They were also, usually better planned and better informed.
The rapid switch from paper exams to online mediated exams at Cambridge revealed an ability to change that few had suspected. Realising that things can be done differently opens up the possibility of re-imagining education. Probably no-one ever thought that sit-down paper exams were ideal. In real life today, it is hard to imagine a situation where anyone would have to write papers in long hand without the help of the Internet or the option to 'phone a friend'. On the whole people work collaboratively. Employers generally claim that they are looking for teamwork, communication skills, creativity, problem solving and just all around good common sense.
The crisis has forced us to ask if the way that we are doing education is really the best way and if not, then what would be the best way? Asking such questions inevitably points us to the more fundamental question of what education is for. The priority of the current examination system seems to be accurately labeling students - are they 'first class' students, or perhaps only 'third class'? But why is that useful? Who is it useful for? Could we do educational assessment differently?
It is not only exams that have moved from physical to virtual. As schools and Universities have shutdown many teachers have been teaching online for the first time. Moving teaching and learning online raises many questions. If your child's teacher is teaching via zoom, then you cannot know if she is locally based or at a distance. She could be zooming in from her holiday in the Bahamas. Perhaps teachers could be based in Alaska or Sri Lanka and zoom in their lessons. (There are an increasing number of apparently successful schools and colleges with tutors interacting with students only online: see, for example, Minerva schools https://www.minerva.kgi.edu/about/.)
It is possible that you are so fortunate that the Maths teacher in your local school is really the very best teacher in the world for your child, but this is not always the case. Some of the best teachers in the world have put on excellent lessons almost every possible subject online and these lessons can be accessed at sites like https://hegartymaths.com/ and https://www.khanacademy.org/.
One of the potentials of education mediated by the Internet is its endless variety and so the possibility of a personalized education. If you are a primary age girl with a passion for electronic engineering or quantum computing it is unlikely that you get support for this in your local school. With online learning, moocs (free 'massive open online courses' try https://www.futurelearn.com/) and other OER (Open Educational Resources see https://www.oercommons.org/) you could pursue any interest or any passion at any level.
The crisis has drawn our attention to new ways of doing education, but it has also revealed a serious problem with online education - inequality of access. Although this suggests technical and political solutions, it also points to the need to empower children with the skills and dispositions that they need to get the most out of online learning.
Online education needs broadband access to the Internet, a device to work with and often also the payment of fees. Many poorer students are missing out. This is a challenge, but it is the same kind of challenge that we have faced and overcome before as a society. For example, when we decided that (almost) every home should have a supply of safe drinking water and that (almost) every home should be connected to the electricity grid. The corona crisis has revealed that access to educational resources on the Internet is an essential good for modern life and should be thought of in the same way that we now think of flushable toilets, electric lighting, and decent roads.
Research suggests that access to educational opportunities on the Internet is much more than a technical question. Having broadband and a tablet are not enough - students also need to know how to learn together with others online. The main issue is being self-directed, having the confidence to ask questions and to learn through dialogue with others. There are many people and communities online who can teach anything that you might want to learn but first you have to seek them out and engage with them. This essential capacity to learn from dialogue is something parents can help with simply by talking more with their children. There is a huge difference between watching an educational video alone or watching it with a parent and drawing out its meaning through discussion.
Generation Global has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by offering a short course in educational dialogue followed by safe and structured opportunities for students to learn through dialogue with others online. https://generation.global/
Generation global tends to focus on global citizenship topics. But they are also teaching a form of learning through dialogue that works in every area of the curriculum. Peer-to-peer community learning sites like MIT's Scratch project also offer opportunities for social learning in the context of coding. According to their site https://scratch.mit.edu/
'With Scratch, you can program your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others in the online community. Scratch helps young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively ...'
Scratch has been hugely successful with about 30 million users now and with good evidence of impact on teaching coding. But what is of most interest to me is that it is an example of a completely new model of education that seems to follow the educational affordances of the Internet rather than the educational affordances of traditional print media. Other platforms like iearn https://iearn.org/about and nQuire https://nquire.org.uk/about apply a peer-to-peer learning in a community of practice model to inquiring into and trying solve real-world challenges.
The idea of an 'affordance' is simply the idea that any technology makes it easier to do, or even to imagine doing, some things rather than other things. A knife has an affordance for cutting, a fork for lifting. We often think of technology in education as if it had no impact on our educational goals. We imagine, perhaps, that we had the idea to teach in a certain way and then that we use the technology to implement that idea. But sometimes educational goals also are shaped by the kind of technology that we are using.
In considering educational technology some people forget that literacy itself is a technology. Education is much bigger than literacy. In oral societies education occurs through participation in communities of practice. Much education is based on dialogues and apprenticeship in a similar way: think about a group of mechanics working together repairing cars in a garage for example. In such communities of practice everybody, even the youngest and least experienced, has a role to play even if that is only making the tea. Over time everybody gets drawn into the practice - the more experienced 'old-timers' have a role mentoring the others. Learning through participation and dialogue within relationships offers a more universal model of education than our current system of schooling.
It is hard to imagine modern mass education without the technology of print first developed by Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th Century. One of the first books printed was Euclid's Elements and this became a core textbook for teaching Mathematics in thousands of the new textbook-based schools which grew up across Europe. School subjects are defined by the printed exam paper and the printed textbook that supports the exam or the corpus of books that have to be read. In Cambridge we do ask students what they are learning we ask what they are ‘reading' as in 'are you reading maths or history?'
From a larger historical perspective, it looks very much as if the current global education system is based on and serves the needs of a particular form of information and communications technology: print literacy. However, we now live in the age of the Internet. It has been claimed that the significance of this shift to the Internet is bigger than the Gutenberg revolution, bigger even than the shift from oracy to literacy.
Print is a 'one to many' medium. Textbooks are printed by whoever controls the printing presses and whoever decides the content of the curriculum. The Internet is different. On the Internet users do not only passively consume content, like the readers of books, they also actively create content, like young people uploading videos to TikTok. On the MIT Scratch platform, for example, students produce code and share it with others - they provide the curriculum materials and they teach themselves together within a community of practice.
Could the peer-to-peer model of learning offered by Scratch and other sites be expanded to offer the seed of a new global Internet-based education system of the future?
Everywhere in the world now there are schools, year groups, subjects defined by textbooks, individual paper tests and exams that rank everyone together on a single scale. In this system people often seem to imagine knowledge as a kind of object, the sort of thing you can store in a book on a library shelf, classified according to subject. A simple model of education follows which is based on the idea of transmitting knowledge from the books into the individual brains of each child and testing how well they have acquired this content with individual sit-down paper exams.
Is it possible that one impact of the COVID-19 pandemic might be to enable us imagine education differently?
To know how to go, forward after the crisis we need research, not just research into what works to best deliver the goals of the old system but also research to explore the potential of new ways of thinking about education. That is why Hughes Hall at Cambridge are now working with colleagues from Arm Education and stakeholders from across the University to investigate the potential of working together in a new center for research on Digital Education Futures. The idea is to create a space where partners in industry, policy and practice can work together with academics to rigorously investigate the potential of new ways of doing education.
The Digital Education Futures Initiative (DEFI) is a response to the challenges and potentials of new information and communications technology. These are the same challenges that the COVID-19 crisis has brought to our attention. One source of the challenge to the old educational model is the way in which AI is rapidly changing the nature of work. The old model of education seems to be based on the affordances of a legacy technology, the printing press. Now that we have the Internet, mobile phones and AI, is it possible to think education differently? Sometimes change does not happen without a crisis.
Romeo, R. R., Leonard, J. A., Robinson, S. T., West, M. R., Mackey, A. P., Rowe, M. L., & Gabrieli, J. D. (2018). Beyond the 30-million-word gap: Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function. Psychological science, 29(5), 700-710.
Seldon, A., & Abidoye, O. (2018). The fourth education revolution. Legend Press Ltd.
Wegerif, R. (2013). Dialogic: Education for the internet age. Routledge.
It is critical for all stakeholders to pay for discussion post to ensure the continuity of skills development and to implement training programs to close skill gaps. Decisions need to be rethought in a way that takes into account not only the realities of the present, but also the full range of possibilities for the future.