By Howard Green

Tony Blair, upon his election into government in 1997, famously declared that his top three priorities were “Education, education and education”. At the other end of the century, Vladimir Lenin proclaimed that education that didn’t teach about life and politics was indeed a “hypocrisy”. Education has been a central focus of politics for over a hundred years, and today is no different. As the Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted conventional ways of learning for many, the modern British educational system needs short term and long term reform if it is to adapt to the issues of the 21st century. With the advent of Zoom lessons and online assessments, now is the time to explore the full potential of digital technology as the new frontier of education.

There’s no doubt that internet technology has influenced the direction of modern education. Many students, in secondary and higher education and beyond, rely on the internet to learn. GCSE and A-Level students revise from watching YouTube videos or through interactive web pages such as BBC Bitesize. Primary schools and secondary schools run lessons in all subjects with the aid of computers and tablets. Many are still sceptical about the lack of human interactivity and human communication in online education, but these issues are already being solved. In my experience, most school students prefer videos of an individual explaining a concept or process to traditional textbook learning, which rarely offers much in the way of entertainment and engagement. Education, in its current form, is largely disconnected from the practicalities of modern life. If we are to continue with our system of assessment and examination on students, why should we still use such traditional methods of learning?

Portable internet-capable devices such as tablets are increasingly used in primary classrooms. Credit: Syda Productions

The cancellation of most secondary and higher exams since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic is old news at this point. This exam season has been replaced by ‘Teachers Assessment’, meaning that the grade given to a student in a subject is decided by past assessments and work their teacher has witnessed. This is no doubt far from perfect, but functions as an acceptable short-term bodge to stand in for the exam format. The real risk is that educational leaders will fail to plan for the next academic year. If the strict exam format continues post-2020, assessments will be even less fair than they have been previously, as different students will have different gaps in their knowledge dependent on their circumstances during school closures. It is already hard for students who are starved of education during the pandemic due to work and family commitments; if next year’s exams go ahead we risk putting even greater pressure on these students. There has been a lot of opposition to exams over the years. After our experience with the pandemic, our education system may finally adapt and change. The key once again is in our use of the internet and technology, and whether we allow students’ fluency in it to shape the future of our education system.

The pandemic teaches a valuable lesson: the value of mental wellbeing. Isolation has been tough on many people, but our use of technology has offered means of maintaining our wellbeing, through online counselling and by allowing us to continue to engage in normal human conversation. In terms of student mental health, technology can deliver positive outcomes that outweigh its negatives. According to YouGov, 1 in 4 students are affected by mental health issues (although even this is likely an underestimate). Innovations in education over the airwaves mean students do not have to adhere to the strict environment of the classroom, which can be daunting to many. Students now have the option of tuning in and tuning out, avoiding the strict routine of school life, and avoiding the parts of it that may make them uncomfortable. The classroom is an important space and shouldn’t be abandoned, but through online technology we can redefine its parameters for those who struggle in traditional educational settings.

Education should not come at a price for anyone

To make the most of these new technological developments, we need a radical renationalisation of the entire educational sector. Sadly, the creation of a National Education Service is one of the many important policies we missed out on when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour lost the general election in 2019. Many of us would not dream about state-run schools being privatised in the same way that the NHS has been over the past decade. But with private companies acting as exam boards, the continued spread of the academy model, and educational resources being dominated by the powers of the private market, much of our education has already been sold off. More importantly, all online resources for young students are produced by private organisations. Schooling under coronavirus relies on platforms such as Zoom, which admit that their ‘free’ platforms come at the cost of private data. Education should not come at a price for anyone, and no child should have to accept the terms and conditions of a particular internet outlet in order to further their formal education. Private companies can create reliable and effective tools for online education; in turn, the state must regulate against misuse of these tools and work to develop alternatives that respect students’ data privacy.

Although the state of education under Covid-19 may seem dire, it is possible we will come out the other side of this pandemic with a new understanding of the power of the resources that we currently have. Pandemic life has made many of us realise both the brilliance of internet technology and its necessity. As education is undeniably a human right, so too is internet access. By merging a crucial human activity with humanity’s new tools, we can maximise the potential of both.

Featured image credit: Dobrislava

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