Once upon a time, there was a school that wanted to grow up to be a “21st-century school.” It made some efforts to get rid of some old bad habits and adopt a few trendier ones – and it was somehow satisfied with the result. But then, disaster struck (in a very contagious form) and the school started to fall apart. It suddenly realized that the quest for “living happily ever after” was not a road paved with roses.
And here we are now, perhaps in the middle of one of the most unsettling breakthroughs that modern educational systems have experienced worldwide.
During the last two decades, most constitutions participated in a sweeping technology upgrade that also affected a range of instructional practices. And yet, were we ready to teach our students under any circumstances? As we painfully realized at the beginning of the pandemic, in most cases we were not even close. Have we learned some new lessons that will have a serious impact on education for the years to come? We certainly have – and they will.
Let’s assess where we where then and explore where we go from here.
The tale of the first lockdown
The announcement of the first lockdown came with two distinct priorities: stay healthy and keep education going. As were healthcare systems, educational systems were also caught off-guard: they were short on equipment, short on personnel, and, most importantly, short on feasible ideas about how we could effectively deal with this extremely challenging situation.
Although we’re well into the 21st century, the problem was – and continues to be – that the 20th-century school has come back to haunt us. In fact, it never left the building.
We entered emergency remote teaching mode, bringing many practices that we were hoping to leave behind back to life. The most prevalent of all was lecture-based teaching. This included us giving endless lectures, during live sessions with muted students, or through pre-recorded long videos that students were “supposed to” watch on their own time. Unfortunately, many schools, educators, and parents are still facing this reality – either because under-resourced schools and communities have no other realistic options, or a failure to adapt and evolve.
Pushing students off the stage as main characters in their learning and stepping back into our role as the class protagonist was the most significant step back during the first lockdown. Yet, there was no way around it because, at the same time, we were struggling with technological issues, absent students, canceled activities, and more traumatizing changes to our students’ lives.
The tale of the second lockdown
Not that much time has passed between the first and the second lockdown, but we are now very much aware of the fact that students struggle to make any intellectual (or emotional) progress while they silently watch us delivering our instruction. What wasn’t working in an actual classroom context anyway was doomed to fail in a virtual setting, where the challenges are multiplied by so many factors.
Inevitably, the discussion is quickly shifting from technical issues to pedagogical ones: our new concern is to effectively facilitate students’ online progressive learning. That calls for the re-establishment of our inquiry-based instruction, or the adaptation of this approach since traditional methods are now proving more insufficient than ever.
Nevertheless, issues related to unequal access to distance education haven’t just vanished, regardless of the actions taken by educational administrators to tackle them. Inadequate hardware, failing internet connection, and even lack of electricity are just some of the problems that prohibit us from seamlessly pursuing our educational goals, and effectively render many innovative approaches luxuries.
So, what could increase students’ inclusion and educators’ innovative practices in these new conditions? In this case, I see mobile-assisted learning as the gold standard. Smartphones are probably the most accessible and easy-to-use devices at the moment; in comparison to computers or tablets, which might be cost-prohibitive or difficult to master, we can expect that most students have access to one and know how to make it work.
As an educator and a parent, I can identify with both – technology should not only meet educational goals but should be user friendly and trustworthy enough to help students get started autonomously. Relying on parents to facilitate lessons can be an added barrier for students’ families. We should take into account that, at the same time, caregivers have been struggling with financial issues, long work hours, and, often enough, limited digital literacy that may prevent them from supporting their children’s remote education.
The 100mentors mobile app (alongside the web app) can support us and our students in pursuing inquiry-based teaching and learning, without adding to the technological “pressure” they are already under. Complementary to formal instruction, we can create Topics for discussion on the app and invite our students to post their questions at their own time and place, using their private devices.
A pool of over 5000 mentors around the world contribute with their answers to enhance our educational community – but we, as educators, can respond to our students’ questions too! The answer format is a bite-sized video no longer than 100 seconds; this way, we get to keep our students’ attention and give them just the right amount of food for thought, to keep their online learning going at a pace that feels comfortable for them – after all, they are the generation of Snapchat and TikTok.
Can these tales have a happy ending?
There is no way we can perceive the pandemic as “a good thing” considering the death toll, alongside the socio-economic and psychological impact it’s had worldwide. It appears that we’ll only round the bend slowly, yet there is no doubt that these months will write history and only future analysts will be able to fully evaluate the consequences. Hopefully, there will be some silver linings.
Among them, we hope to see that during this gruesome period, education will have experienced a “leapfrog” event, taking a compulsory, yet exceptional, step in leaving 20th-century practices behind and embracing all-inclusive, technology-friendly, inquiry-based approaches – finally catching up to the spirit of the 21st century.