Building Digital Education Networks to integrate online learning into post COVID-19 education

Online education has exposed numerous issues including serious inequalities in IT provision, the importance of schools in building friendships and communities, and schools previous underrecognized role in allowing parents to work and power our economy. As we begin to focus on a post-pandemic future there will be a renewed focus on returning schools to classroom-based education as quickly as possible. This is, after all, the default educational model and it’s many benefits including the ability to support students, especially the most vulnerable, build communities and give parents the opportunity to work will remain vital. As teachers, students, and parents across the country can testify this is model which has not, and most likely could not, been replicated in a wholly digital environment. However, such a rush to return to normality would fail to utilise the many benefits of online education. The most important of which is flexibility of location. Lessons can be held by a teacher anywhere to students anywhere. The current educational model – which online education throughout the pandemic has tried and in far too many cases failed – to replicate involves one teacher teaching one lesson to one class in one school at one time. While it is right to return schools to a primarily classroom-based model it would be a mistake to lose the additional flexibility. Instead, Government should encourage schools to set up Digital Education Networks (DENs). In an ideal world, students at every school would have access to in person tuition in every subject they may wish to study. However, this has never been true. In recent years studies of both primary and secondary education have repeatedly highlighted major issues in the provision of both Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) and Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. These are subjects which will be vital in a Global Britain seeking to expand its technological sector and secure its position as a leading nation. These issues have centred on a lack of trained teachers and a lack of time allocated to those subjects in schools. This has led to widely ranging provision at all age levels and a vicious circle of low subject take up at GCSE and A-level, resulting in both low subject budgets in schools and a small pool of suitable graduates who can – in part due to their scarcity – demand higher wages than schools are able to pay. According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages report from March 2019 “there are now fewer MFL graduates each year than there are MFL teacher training places.” This is clearly unsustainable. Instead, DENs will allow schools to establish support and resource sharing networks across the United Kingdom. Where one school alone cannot provide in person tuition, particularly in subjects with lower take up, then it could draw on the resources of the others in their network. Only a small number of pupils may wish to study mandarin in each school per year, thus making it unaffordable for a specialist teacher and so making mandarin unavailable. However, if only two pupils per year in a network of ten schools wished to study mandarin then that cohort would be able to form a joint online class with a specialist teacher. The cost of providing that staff member would then be shared by the network on a per-pupil basis. This has clear benefits to pupils through expanding the range of subjects they can study and expanding their social and educational networks across the country. It has clear benefits to schools through allowing greater flexibility in it’s hiring and teaching methods as well as a clear way to minimise the impact of budget pressures. It also has clear benefits to the wider country through providing better skilled citizens who have connections not just in their own local communities but also across the country. DEN classes would be integrated into the normal school timetable meaning that pupils would have the manifold benefits of a physical classrooms, with the geographic flexibility of a decentralised network. Indeed, those two mandarin students could study at computers in a supervised classroom with students being taught French, German, Italian, and physics taught by teachers physically located on the other side of the country. By using recording features, lessons could even be available in flexible time as well as flexible location in order to suit children who have been absent from school or operate poorly in the normal timetable such as some of those with Special Educational Needs. This would allow all students a fairer educational experience which works for them, not just on them. Given the uneven balance of STEM and MFL teachers working in private schools Government could encourage their participation in DENs as an important part of demonstrating the charitable status of those schools. Networks could also include mixed classes between areas with differing social backgrounds (for example Cornwall and Brixton) to encourage the building of a UK wide network of friendships and support integration. This could build on the work already done by the Faith & Belief Forum’s linking programme of interconnected schools and shared inter-community relationship building projects. Indeed, DENs could form partnerships with other schools across the world to build language skills and international relationships with only a fraction of the cost and other challenges of physical exchanges. A high skilled, technologically advanced, and united Global Britain could be built from every classroom in the country. Government could help the development of DENs by providing 1) a schools matching service to help schools across the country share resources effectively; 2) a certificate programme in digitally delivered education to allow teachers the skills to teach effectively online; 3) continued funding for laptops to be provided to school pupils as standard, this will provide additional flexibility in learning location and methods.




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