EDUCATION: THE FUTURE OF DIGITAL EDUCATION

Published July 25, 2021
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite illustration by Saad Arifi

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education in 2020 cannot be underestimated. By some estimates, 1.7 billion students were affected, in over 190 countries, by some form of school closure. Millions of young people — along with their teachers and parents — had to adapt to new ways of learning; in some cases, this happened overnight. The immediate need to continue education meant that governments and schools had to be creative.

The pandemic has changed the way we think about education: school shutdowns and distanced learning have become the norm. But as the global education sector rapidly digitises, we must first take a moment to consider the needs of teachers, learners and parents as we emerge into this new era of education.

To better understand the impact of the disruption and change of the past 14 months, we at Oxford University Press (OUP) undertook some research, releasing the findings in a report, Education: The Journey Towards a Digital Revolution.

Our research draws on insights from our internal experts across seven countries — the UK, Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Spain and Turkey — as well as from hundreds of teachers globally, and extensive secondary research. We observed clear trends in each region and several similarities across all markets, with the main finding being that digital learning became a feature of global learning in 2020 like never before.

In Pakistan, the switch to online learning wasn’t smooth. However, by February 2021, 36 percent of schools that we surveyed globally had digital learning platforms in place, and Pakistan followed a similar trajectory for private schools.

Hybrid learning is here to stay. But issues such as the digital divide, the well-being of students and skills development for teachers are crucial to ensuring fair access to education for all...

ADDRESSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

But not everyone was able to take advantage of digital to continue their education. While 98 percent of our experts believed that digital learning will be firmly embedded in teaching practices in the future,

85 percent of them believed that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds have fallen behind their more advantaged peers. This issue was very real in Pakistan, with economic factors heavily restricting children’s access to hardware to enable them to learn online.

According to the education statistics 2016-17, 86 percent of Pakistan’s primary schools are based in rural parts of the country, with limited access to the internet and mobile connectivity, restricting access to any digital learning solutions. The latest “Inclusive Internet Index”, which measures the accessibility and affordability of the internet for a country, also paints a grim picture for Pakistan, ranking it in the bottom quantile. This accentuates the problem that Pakistan faces in creating an equitable digital education system and, with 25 million children out of school even before the pandemic, we are faced with a significant challenge.

The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MOFEPT) responded to these challenges last year by initiating tele-school and radio school programmes during the pandemic. We are not alone in this approach. A Unicef report indicates that 75 percent of countries have used educational TV for at-home learning, while 57 percent have used radio; this indicates a substantial and global digital divide that will pose a barrier to the digitisation of education.

Our report echoes these findings, highlighting the significant ‘digital divide’ that exists globally: where poorer children are, in effect, unable to access the same quality of education. In India for example, a large majority of students have been impacted due to a lack of devices or connectivity at home — an issue replicated across Pakistan.

In South Africa, data is expensive, and respondents said only 10 percent of learners had access to a learning device at home. Beyond the high cost of data, teachers also found that there were technical glitches, such as connecting to the internet, or phones or gadgets malfunctioning at the last moment.

To enable Pakistan’s learners to access their education digitally, future government policy must bridge the economic and structural divides that separate young people from the quality learning materials they need to access.

SUPPORT FOR TEACHERS

The rush to implement digital courseware and other learning materials also necessitated a steep learning curve for teachers. According to the World Bank, no country had a universal digital curriculum for teaching and learning before the pandemic, meaning that teachers needed to up-skill quickly.

To support teachers in their professional development and to enhance their skills, we conducted virtual professional development courses throughout the pandemic, benefitting more than 68,000 teachers across Pakistan. The Virtual Teacher Training Modules comprised of pedagogical and textbook-based learning opportunities, including free webinars on various teaching methodologies. Along with this, we also worked closely with teachers to support and guide them through this digital shift during the pandemic. However, given the ever-evolving nature of digital technology, ongoing professional development for teachers will always be a priority.

There is no doubt that a digital revolution is underway. Digital education will be embedded in learning and we will move towards a hybrid model. In our teacher’s panel, 44 percent of the respondents said that the shift towards digital learning has changed education for the better. In addition, 98 percent of OUP’s experts said they believe digital learning will be firmly embedded in teaching practices in the future. Teachers also feel more confident in delivering digital learning. Prior to the pandemic, only 43 percent felt comfortable with it, but in our latest findings 93 percent now feel confident or very confident.

What does the future of learning look like?

Our survey respondents were united in agreeing that, as one Brazilian educator put it, “blended learning is here to stay.” Although some expressed doubts about changes in the short-term, the expectation is that a hybrid model will ultimately emerge with online and offline methods supporting each other.

If a year of school shutdowns has taught us anything, it’s the role and value of the teachers. While there are clear benefits to online learning, teachers found it harder to motivate pupils remotely with no time and space for children to socialise with each other or with their teachers, and there have been fewer opportunities to catch students who are falling behind.

We know the shift to digital and blended learning — despite the catalyst of the pandemic — will not happen immediately. This gives us time to listen to teachers and learn from each other, understanding the best way to incorporate digital into their pedagogy and improve learning outcomes.

FUTURE GOVERNMENT POLICY

We are making the case for governments to actively collaborate and learn from teachers and students and use their recent experiences to update future education policy. The curriculum needs to evolve too, so that learners develop the core skills needed to navigate future uncertainty and become “digitally fluent”.

Taking the learning from our report, we know that issues such as the digital divide, learner well-being and skills development for teachers may not be easy issues to solve, but they are crucial to enabling fair access to education.

Finally, I strongly believe that, no matter how much the mode of teaching changes, quality content and learning outcomes must stay firmly at the heart of learning. OUP Pakistan has a long and dedicated history of supporting education in Pakistan — since 1952 — and we will continue to do so, supporting teachers, learners and parents on the journey to discover the future of education.

The writer is the Managing Director of Oxford University Press.
He tweets @asaeedhusain

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 25th, 2021

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