Is this how to make schools pandemic-proof?

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on education – but is it possible to ensure that the next pandemic won't do the same?

Andy Hargreaves

Coronavirus: After the Covid-19 crisis, how can we make schools pandemic-proof?

The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by many myths. One of the most damaging, perhaps, is that this pandemic is a once-in-a-century occurrence.

This ignores the near misses of ebola, SARS and swine flu. And according to a 2018 World Health Organisation report, the probability of pandemics is actually on the increase due to climate change, deforestation, increased proximity of exotic species and human populations, and international travel.

The risk that future pandemics will occur in our lifetime, perhaps even within a generation, is non-trivial. We must prepare for this not just in health terms but educationally, too.

Coronavirus: The impact on education

Our national education systems must be redesigned so they can provide high-quality and equitable education for all during a pandemic or other disaster – and that must be in ways that transform education for the better in “normal” circumstances, and right now.

The answer is paradoxical. We need to develop more in-school virtual learning, and learning outdoors. Learning needs to get more digital and become more physical.

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Some countries were able to respond swiftly and nimbly to the pandemic because of their prior stance on technology use. Estonia, one of the highest performers outside Asia in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, designated internet access to be a human right in 2001, and has all its curriculum publicly available online.

Uruguay instituted one laptop per child in 2007 and has a national innovation agency that provides curriculum and innovation materials online. It saw a massive uptick in use of its platform within days of moving to learning at home. 

South Korea already had near-universal access to wi-fi and devices before the pandemic hit. One teacher per school was designated to participate in a national network to develop online teaching and learning.

Digital transformation

Now is the time for a permanent digital transformation in the UK. We need to ask:

  • What are the best ways to strengthen all students’ learning and wellbeing, with digital technology and without it?
  • What can we do about the deep digital divide that is amplifying existing inequities in education?
  • How can we explore the unique innovative potential of digital technologies inside and outside schools, while developing clear strategies to deal with the proven risks for students of digital addiction and excess screen-time?

Here are five things that need to happen moving forward.

1. Access to the internet and to devices for learning should be a basic human right

It should be universal, public, inclusive, and free on a national, interactive curriculum platform developed with teachers and managed by national governments.

2. Digital competence should be a national curriculum priority

Digital competence includes accessing platforms, understanding interactive functions, managing and not being distracted by chat-based links, appropriate and inappropriate online behaviour, assessment of the value and legitimacy of online materials, capacity for self-assessment and self-monitoring, and ability to understand and express emotions online.

Digital competence must be developed from an early age. Ability to teach online, as well as in-person, should be a mandatory part of teacher preparation, and continuing professional development.

However, online home-based learning should not be a way to replace or reduce in-person learning in a physical school environment, except during a crisis. Physical schools will still need to be the prime environment for learning and wellbeing.

3. Self-directed learning should be taught explicitly.

Effective digital technology use depends on young people’s capacity to be responsible, self-directed learners. This capacity should not be presumed or simply hoped for. It must be explicitly taught. This includes self-motivation, time management, ability to screen out distractions, capacity for self-assessment, knowing when and how to seek assistance, etc.

4. Responsible digital innovation must devote resources and attention to risk management

Digital technologies incur considerable risks, as well as benefits. These include excess screen time among young learners, digital addiction, tendencies to encourage short-term tasks and reading habits over longer-term ones, adolescent anxieties arising from online identities and interactions, and displacement of other important activities such as outdoor play.

5. Digital technology use should be inquiry-driven, evidence-informed and impact-assessed

Technology use should not be introduced in blanket form without careful assessment of possibilities, risks, unique value and relative impact compared to other ways of learning.

Getting physical

After learning at home, pupils have returned to school under conditions of strict sanitation and physical distancing. Physical distancing requirements have raised questions about the impact on children’s emotional development, teacher-pupil relations and the nature of the school as a community.

One response in several countries has been to increase students’ time out of doors, where risks of transmission are significantly reduced. Being outdoors with others has benefits for wellbeing. Learning outdoors is something in which Nordic countries have a long tradition. This has helped them to respond positively to the pandemic in all seasons.

In Norway, they say, there is no such thing as bad weather. There is only bad clothing.

The capacity to teach some of one’s subject or curriculum in an outdoor environment should be part of all teachers’ training and ongoing professional development. Outdoor learning options should be included in guides for potential activities in all parts of the curriculum. School designs should also be modified and enhanced to encompass greater possibilities for outdoor learning.

From abnormal to extraordinary

The paradox of a pandemic-proof educational system that can also accommodate all eventualities is that it will have greater use of digital technology and of more learning outdoors.

Denmark has been a leader in learning outdoors during the pandemic, yet it also makes more use of digital technology for young people’s projects than any other country. High-quality learning can be more digital and more natural.  

And when all teachers have the capability to integrate these elements into their practice, it will improve learning and wellbeing now as well as in the future. Once this immediate crisis has passed, let's make this a time to move from this and next years’ abnormal interruption to young people’s learning to an extraordinary future for all of their education.

Andy Hargreaves is director of CHENINE: Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education, at the University of Ottawa, in Canada. He is honorary professor at Swansea University and an education adviser to the Scottish government

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