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Murdoch Centre for Educational Research and Innovation


Where to next? Schooling in a post COVID world

As I write this we are in Level 4 Lockdown. The school is empty except for a couple of wifi-less teachers, and masked-up maintenance workers carrying out essential tasks. The classrooms that are normally humming, the grounds that are normally full of the happy noise of boys playing are all silent. Even the reception staff have admitted they miss the naughty boys who trigger the Roystead door to open and then run away (but don’t take that as license when school returns, chaps!). A school without people is a sad, depressing place.  And yet the gardens are bursting into full bloom: trees are in bud, flowers are appearing and green shoots can be seen everywhere. We are surrounded by signs of hope and the promise of a brighter future, and even the rise in temperature warms the heart. For some day this criss will be at an end. How will we look back at this period in our lives? As a horror show that we don’t even want to think about, or as the moment when everything changed? The post-COVID education environment is far from certain. The crisis has caused major changes, but is not known what lasting effects these will have. Students have missed out on a face-to-face education, and some will have slipped behind where they would normally be; the next few years will be busy and hard, but I am confident that our students will be able to bounce back. This will mean hard work for teachers and students, but having experienced the absence of school, I think that all will be more appreciative of school when it returns.

For many industries, COVID will be a line in their history: pre and post COVID. Without a doubt the biggest change will be in remote working. Businesses have found that employees can work from home, and might need to come into the office only occasionally – or possibly never, with regular Zoom meetings. This has caused many companies to wonder why they are paying high real estate prices for offices in city centres when they might not really need them. For these businesses, COVID will be the time they realised that their workforce could work from home, and that the overheads of office space could be eliminated – or passed on to the employee to bear. The concentration of population in big cities that was the hallmark of the 20th century might start to retreat, with accompanying changes in the social structure of the country, reduced demand for infrastructure and environmental consequences. The shift to working from home has negatives, as humans miss out on the social interactions we gain from work, and the boundaries between work and private life start to disappear – but there is an economic gain that may well drive change.  What about schools? Schools, like many industries, are at a crossroad. The airwaves have been awash with webinars on the future of schooling, with many academics keen to leverage the changes we have seen. In particular there is increased enthusiasm for online learning to become a normal part of student learning. However, I think that this issue is much more problematic than some would have us believe.

Online learning has been around for many years, and is now embedded as a part of the educational scene in most tertiary settings. There, students are motivated and have the maturity and self-discipline to persevere – one would hope. Online learning is cheap in the long run. It is costly to set up, but once a course is established it can be run at low cost and scaled to many thousands of students at very little extra cost. Compare this to face-to-face teaching: lower set-up costs, but scaling is expensive: it is twice as expensive to teach 50 children as 25 (unless we go down the path of very large class sizes): overheads simply double. For most schools, it should be noted, the largest part of their expenditure is staff salaries. Online learning is thus a tempting option when the economics of learning is concerned. However, economics is not the only factor. Online learning has low success rates, whether measured in terms of student retention or attainment – and this is with university level students. MOOCS – Massive Open Online Courses – can measure enrolments in the tens or thousands, but only a tiny fraction actually successfully complete many courses. It seems that the human side of engagement is crucial to the enjoyment of learning – and this is needed for students to stick with a course.

I t seems that the human side of engagement is crucial to the enjoyment of learning.

One argument is that students at schools across the world have now had a taste of online learning, and this can be leveraged in the post-COVID world. But the reality is that they have not been studying true online courses, but rather their normal course delivered online. The distinction is that an online course is designed as such from the very beginning, and the best ones are shaped very differently to a normally delivered course; online course design is a specific skill, and one that very few teachers have been trained in. Parents report that their children are coping, but not thriving with learning online, and teachers dearly miss the interactions with students and colleagues. Thus there has been a widespread experience of what many people think is online learning, and that has not been a highly positive one. Rather than boost the future of online learning, I suspect a generation of parents, students and teachers has been put off online learning: it has not been what they want from learning, especially when compared with the traditional face-to-face classroom learning – which suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.

My prediction is that there will be a new enthusiasm for schools, but with a revaluing of the things they offer us as humans that go beyond the technical elements of learning. There will be a change in perspective, with a better understanding that school is about so much more than feeding information into a student (which can be done more efficiently by an online course): that it is the daily interactions in the classroom, playground and sporting field, in the bush on cadets or a camp, the chats in the staff room, the trials, failures and mishaps, that do most to shape us and fulfil us as human beings. 

Dr John Tuckfield

Director of the Murdoch Centre for Educational Research and Innovation