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On Friday the 20 March, the majority of the UK’s children and students in full or part time education were sent home.

Only those considered vulnerable or those of key workers unable to make any other kind of provision remain in schools. School is literally out – very probably for the summer. In large parts of Europe and Asia it already was.

Overnight more than 24,000 schools in the UK alone have been asked to deliver their curriculum virtually – providing some kind of educational continuity in a time of mass uncertainty. It seems likely that this will prove a seminal moment for the way education is delivered going forward – and while a transformation in the opportunities for access and affordability may be highly alluring the challenges remain significant.>

As anyone currently trying to home educate their children (with or without the strain of remotely working themselves) will testify that schools do an awful lot more than impart information. Are educators ready to design education in a manner that is sufficiently engaging and relevant without being in the room? And how can we ensure that the technology is sufficiently robust to cope with mass education?

Luckily there are a few examples of countries that seem to have made significant strides in these areas that we can learn from. Estonia set itself the goal of digitalising all educational materials already back in 2015. As a result, promising and functional digital education start-ups have sprung up like mushrooms. Providers like Tallinn-based Drops, voted Google’s Best App in 2018, and Lingvist, available already since 2014, boost language learning skills by adjusting to the learner. Guaana and Clanbeat help individuals and organizations in innovation, research and personal growth. Dreamapply makes applying to Estonian universities literally a dream.

Estonia has responded to the C-19 crisis by making it’s system widely available across Europe while shutting its own schools with a confidence that comes from someone who has stockpiled sometime ago. It’s PISA ranking is literally top of the class and they are confident that switching to a fully digital delivery system won’t dent that achievement.

What are the barriers that will need to be overcome for the rest of the world to catch up?

Firstly as was evidenced by the near collapse of platforms like Teams, Firefly, Google Hang Out and so forth – the technology isn’t ready yet. Huge strides have been made overnight but in many cases these platforms were seeing an increase in traffic of over 125,000% and they simply weren’t resilient enough. They are learning fast.

Secondly infastructure isn’t universally in place. Ironically a sophisticated economy like the USA and large parts of Europe lag behind a lot of other countries in its broadband provision. This is a major hurdle and only investment can resolve this – though creating educational hubs where pupils can gather in smaller communities might be a good stop gap. Pupils also need to have access to the actual hardware – laptops, ipads and the latest software that enables live streaming and/or transmission. Without equal provision educational inequality – something that digital provision is so well positioned to eradicate – will in fact grow.

Another barrier is that most teachers currently don’t have the skills to develop engaging digital courses – and in line with a lot of online experiences, consumers (pupils and parents) will be looking at the same level of interactivity and engagement as currently provided by apps like TikTok or SnapChat. Teachers and administrators will need to pick up some of the skills that the business world has been scrabbling to acquire – storytelling, journey management, experience personalisation and gamification. This will take time and will require educational institutions to become “pupils” once more. AI can help enormously in creating differentiated models but they are in their infancy in an educational setting.

Finally, and possibly most challenging – education isn’t just about academics. It plays a huge role in socialization, emotional well-being, promoting physical activity, pastoral care. Schools have often been used as part of the social provision for the more vulnerable and it’s hard to think of a way that a digital system however well designed could substitute for that.

The Spring of 2020 will undoubtedly mark a sea change in the way we provide education – it will force a pace of change and adoption that might otherwise have taken decades as we effectively send a generation home for the foreseeable future. But while schools and administrators are currently doing everything in their power to just keep some kind of continuity going – the wider questions will need to be addressed if digital/remote education is to be as effective and engaging as the current model.

Perhaps that is a project for the summer.

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