Will rise of the virtual classroom teach us a painful lesson?

In the final part of her series on the long-term impacts of the pandemic, Krupa Solanki of UnWork warns that the switch to virtual learning amid Covid-19 will widen the inequality gap and damage workplace diversity

In our earlier articles on the long-term impact of the pandemic, we examined shifts in technology, the changing nature of work itself, the effects on the physical office, and the implications for the law and legal workplace. This final article in a five-part series explores the implications of Covid-19 for education.

Given the density of schools and campuses, it is no surprise these were the first to lock down and are today causing concern on reopening as we face a second spike of the virus. Most students adjusted to virtual learning, virtual socialising, and even virtual graduation ceremonies. In a period defined by learning curves and painful lessons, what can we learn about the way the world is changing from the education sector?

Thrown into turmoil

Before the crisis struck, societal change meant we were longer as wedded to the notion of further and higher education as the foundation for a prosperous life as we once were. People recognised other opportunities to thrive. A key turning point was the astonishing growth in tuition fees in the UK and US, leaving many to begin their professional careers with often crippling levels of debt. Scholarship systems went some way to advance meritocracy, but these systems nigh on abandoned average students.

With the onset of this crisis, our well-established but not always revered education system has been thrown into turmoil. Most universities and colleges were the first to ‘shut up shop’ taking learning and socialising online. Schools followed suit and switched to remote or home learning, with weary parents playing double duty as teachers alongside day jobs. For children of essential workers, schools stayed open with skeleton staff but this too was riddled with issues. Advocates of the system have claimed that the emergence of Covid-19 has merely accelerated the pace of digitisation in education. However, the seemingly forgone conclusion that this is to the benefit of the sector is not necessarily the case.

In fact, the detrimental effects of remote, technology-led teaching have been notable in expanding the gap between the privileged and those who have less. The wider struggle between private schools and state schools in the UK shows a clear and worrying trend. Where the private sector has been able to readily digitise, with virtual learning environments such as Blackboard, Moodle and Firefly linking children to their lessons, state schools have been less readily able to mobilise such systems at scale.

Even where state schools are able to mobilise these environments, under the auspices of the current digital educational system, families that have four children will need four laptops or devices. This is not always a reality. Technology lending schemes and relative cheap non- branded technology has gone some way to help but, as ever, better access to resources and tools puts some children ahead others.

Diversity starts in school

For employers, this should be worrying. The cause of diversity begins long before the first job application hits the recruiters’ table. Firms concerned with diversity should note that the process begins as early as primary school. Each year that progresses acts as a gate that sadly filters out more minority and disadvantaged groups. This coronavirus period is already predicted to have a marked impact on students, especially those at crucial periods in their educational journey.

Before this crisis, statistics showed that 50 per cent of BAME students are more likely to drop out of university. Given a gap in educational standards which disproportionately affects people of colour and those from lower socio-economic communities, we can only predict that this number will rise in future. This has a huge implication for the diversity of future workforces.

 Away from the potential detriment in learning standards, a switch to virtual also has wider implications. Like offices, educational establishments are spaces for learning by osmosis, in watching, observing and interacting – these practices cannot be easily replicated online. A familiar storyline in Hollywood is the one of the maverick teacher who inspires their students to look at the world in another way (see: The History Boys, Dead Poet’s Society, Good Will Hunting…etc).

Though Hollywood adds a certain panache, these stories are not too far removed from the truth: teachers do hold great power and influence in the lives of their students. These relationships are almost inevitably built on small gestures and face-to-face interactions. While they might not be impossible, they are certainly difficult to replicate online.

Life skills learnt face-to-face

Critics of this will state that most of these students are Gen Z-ers who do not know a world without technology and are therefore used to such interactions. But technology is constantly evolving. Before you know it, you are out of date. For Gen Z-ers, stating that their predilection to technology is the basis of their success deprives them from learning life skills away from the technology they know. Many of these life skills are learned by watching and observing. Digitisation of the educational sector at every level is certainly a good thing. But it cannot be the only thing.

When we think of virtual classrooms, we fail to appreciate that they are not the same as real classrooms. This is a problem. The shambles of Zoom classrooms have has been well depicted online: from technological ineptitude and whimsical insights into the lives of professors to more serious criminal acts, the virtual classroom is a world away from what students know of real classrooms. In our pioneering, dig-deep mentality, with which we have responded to the pandemic, we run the risk of conflating the two to the point where the virtual becomes the norm. Appreciating the differences between them can help bring out the best features in both.

‘Why not apply the same hybrid approach to students and the educational sector…?’

In discussing the ways Covid-19 has changed the workplace, we suggested that a ‘hybrid’ approach with some time at home and some at the office would be a way forward. Why should we not apply the same reasoning to students and the educational sector? The two are not so dissimilar; offices become campuses, workers become students and bosses become educators. We cannot explore the future of work without first thinking about the future of education. Like offices, schools and universities are not just containers for people while they learn. They are also repositories of stories and memories that shape and inform lifetimes of behaviour. For vulnerable students, they are also sites of sanctuary.

As campuses consider a hybrid approach to reopening this autumn, the question of exactly what type of education students are paying increasing tuition fees to receive will be on everybody’s lips. It may not be a stretch of the imagination to suggest that students will revolt against paying a premium for an education that is entirely virtual. How universities resolve that one is a real brain-teaser.

Krupa Solanki is Chief of Staff at Unwork and Cordless Consultants, with a background in human rights and criminal law. This article is the fifth and final in a series on how Covid-19 will change the world.
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