The Covid pandemic of 2020/21 has laid bare, the deficiencies in the education system. Our current system is heavily dependent upon the physical interface between teachers and pupils and is, therefore, very labour intensive as well as being expensive. The deficiencies in the system, when pupils were required to stay at home, were brought into sharp focus as there was no established back-up system. Whilst new technology provided some relief, it soon became evident that it would not be sufficient to keep things in order. Building on this experience, it is proposed that, using established new technology, we could revolutionise education to make it fit-for-purpose in the twenty first century. Systems would be developed to support existing teaching methods which would provide alternatives ways of rolling out learning material in a form which would be adaptable and extendable for many years to come.
Our current methods of teaching are expensive and labour intensive. The shortcomings of our reliance on the physical interface between teacher and pupil has been brought into sharp focus as a result of the schools being shut down for significant periods during the Covid-19 pandemic. History has (or should have) taught us that where labour-intensive industries are concerned that, sooner or later, new ways will be found to improve efficiency. Mining, shipbuilding, the docks and construction industries have all demonstrated what happens when an industry fails to move with the times. Due to its place in society, education has resisted change resulting in its teacher/pupil ration remaining largely unchanged for a century. Recent ‘advances’ can only be described as tinkering with the system without acknowledging that fundamental change is long overdue. Despite the advances in new technology and the curriculum, teaching remains largely as it was a hundred years ago.
New technology has given us the opportunity to provide information almost instantly. Only fifty years ago, Encyclopedia Britannica cost over £500 but now all of that information, and much more, is available on Wikipedia for free if you have access to the internet. But this is only available in a passive format – you have to go and search it out in order to benefit from it. However, on YouTube, we can find a video explaining how to change the oil filter on our cars and, on television, we watch a program telling us all about the Battle of Hastings. Some advances have been made with such initiatives as the BBC’s ‘Bitesize’ but this is ,at present, quite limited as well as inefficient and relies on a reliable internet connection.
Whilst enormous progress has been made during the lockdown, it has lacked structure and has been patchy when those without computers or broadband are considered. The proposal which follows seeks to address all of these issues and bring about a revolution in the field of education which will rival the creation of the Open University.
What would be the objective of such an undertaking? We propose:
“The development of a new, cost-effective, parallel system of learning which would be freely available to all irrespective of their background or level of affluence, using currently available technology as a base for further development as time goes by.”
Whilst its main purpose is to address the problems caused by the pandemic shut-down of schools, we see the new system providing:
• A backup for use in time of school shut-down
• A basic system for home schooling
• A cost-effective support system where conventional teaching has failed to achieve desired outcomes
• An addition resource for those who desire to progress more quickly than that allowed in school
This can be achieved relatively quickly by building on that which is already available using memory sticks, or flash drives as they are also called, with educational material embedded on them thus making them independent of an internet connection. The government already has a program to provide computers to all pupils so having one should not be a problem. Obviously this is fundamental.
The ‘stix’ would contain information in a similar form to that taught in schools and already featured on ‘Bitesize’ but would also have repeatable tests built in to confirm whether the lesson has been absorbed. Material could be presented in more than one form involving a teacher or without, just using text of voice-over. Absorption is improved by repetition in differing formats. The amount of data storage on memory sticks is increasing exponentially so, whilst initial developments might be restricted to simple tutorials, later versions could include video. The trick is not to move too quickly – Rome wasn’t built in a day.
The data contained on the sticks would aim to mimic the conventional lessons given by teachers in their classrooms. You can see examples in ‘Bitesize’ but first steps would not need to include video – that could come later. The initial lessons would be simple text based explanations with worked examples showing how things work. They would be supported by tests to confirm whether the lesson has been understood.
It could be useful to include guidance notes within each stick for parents. Whilst advice could be given on timing, it would be up to each pupil to work at their own pace.
The main priority is to address the backlog in English and maths. If you can’t read then it’s difficult to study other subjects as your intake is limited. If you can’t add and subtract, or know your tables, then maths will difficult.
Concentrating first on primary education, the core subjects of the national syllabus would follow: history; geography; biology; chemistry and physics followed by modern languages. Later developments, when secondary education is added would include: social sciences; religion; Latin and Greek. Practical subjects such as carpentry and metalwork could be added when video is part of the system.
There is, at present, a growing pool of content but this would need to be extended. The obvious place to look for new content is to enrol retired teachers to provide it. They have experience and are conversant with the requirements of the national curriculum which has to form the basis of the system. A call would be made for volunteers and a pool appointed on agreed conditions and with a system of remuneration based on results. The development of subjects could run in parallel but would focus, initially, on one year and then progress year by year.
The basic lessons could be backed up with educational games as the UK already has a massive investment in the gaming industry.
It is arguable whether to target the group most affected by the pandemic shut-down of schools or start at the bottom and work up. It would probably be best to start with the group which had the most suitable material available or target the group with the most to lose overall. This would be years six and seven as they need the basic skills to enable them to move on to secondary education.
At this stage it would be useful to introduce targets, so initial coverage could concentrate on:
1. Year 7 maths and English followed by year 6
2. Years 4 and 5 maths and English
3. Years 2 and 3 maths and English
4. Year 1 basics
5. Years 6 and 7 core subjects
Priority 1 should be complete within six months and the first four within a year.
We have already mentioned the use of retired teachers for the provision of content but the project will require inputs from others and a small body to control the processes. Considering the history of botched government initiatives, especially concerning IT projects, it would not be advisable to leave the project in the hands of the Department for Education but to bring in a wide range of commercial interests under the control of a small group.
Based on the experience of the two world wars where Churchill was Minister for Munitions and Beaverbrook for Aircraft Production, we would propose the appointment of a high profile individual to lead the project. Our opinion (and it is no more than that) is that Professor Brian Cox would be the ideal candidate. He would need a small team to provide direction but all development work would be handled by existing commercial entities who would be invited to participate on a pro bono or non-profit basis. The intention would be to mimic the fast-track procedure and timescale employed to develop the Covid vaccines.
Roles, which would develop would include:
• The Department for Education for funding
• Microsoft for the software
• A manufacturer for the flash drives
• Currys/PC World for warehousing
• Amazon for distribution and Royal Mail for collection
• Schools to arrange for distribution and administration
It is envisaged that the stix would be made available through a number of routes. Obviously Currys/PC World could make them available on a commercial basis and this might be the preferred route for the private schools. They could also preload modules onto Chrome Books which are sold by them. For the state sector there needs to be a robust system for distribution and recovery which does not involve cost to the beneficiary. It is envisaged that schools would arrange to control the distribution of the stix using Amazon and, after use, they would be recovered using Royal Mail. To aid this, return envelopes would be distributed with the stix. Schools would keep tabs on who has what and the progress of students.
Once established, the system could be gradually rolled out across the world by incorporating others into the fold:
• The British Council for liaison with the Commonwealth
• YouTube for demonstration of use
• The Gates Trust for international adaptation
• The Heywood Foundation to advise the steering group
• Books2 Africa for advice on use in developing countries
The purpose of this would be to build on the UK’s reputation for providing the foundation for state education in many countries, especially those using the English Language as their mother tongue.
Comus: A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634 by John Milton
Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
I did not err; there does a sable cloud
Turn forth her silver lining on the night,
And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.
Or as we say – “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
The Covid pandemic has cast a cloud over our education system and demonstrated its frailty. But this presents us with the opportunity to make use of the new tools that are available to us now; to update our systems and make them more appropriate to the current day, and more robust as we move into the future.