Dr Paul Armstrong- Senior Lecturer within the Manchester Institute for Education, University of Manchester

To salvage positives from the rubble of the pandemic is a difficult task, particularly given we are still far from being out of the crisis. However, all sectors appreciate that there are key learnings which have been exposed by Covid-19 over the past 12 months, and education is no exception.

For me, remote learning is one of the main points of contention. On the one hand, the sudden shift from on-site to at-home learning caused at least some degree of pain and strife to both educators and students alike. It also exacerbated issues around social inequality and problematic home learning environments (HLEs).

“Covid-19 isolation has had a detrimental impact on children’s education and welfare, particularly the most vulnerable.” That was the headline of an Ofsted press release in December 2020, which summarised the findings of its third and final set of reports looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people.

However, the pandemic has also served to highlight the potential of remote learning. Most notably, it has forced educational establishment – from primary to tertiary – to consider how they can best support their students so they can engage in learning materials from anywhere. Further, it has acted as a timely reminder (if one was needed) of the importance of HLEs on educational performance.

Responding to HLEs

Echoing the point made by the aforementioned Ofsted study, a recent report from the British Academy stated: “Covid-19 and the government response to it have impacted different people in different ways, often amplifying existing structural inequalities in income and poverty, socioeconomic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities.”

This finding will come as little surprise to educators across the UK. The relationship between a student’s academic performance and their socioeconomic status was well known – it is an issue that might be more of a focus in younger children, but it is prevalent and evidenced at all levels of education.

Nevertheless, when colleges and universities were forced to close, they had to confront this societal failing. They had to consider how best to support students that may not have an appropriate HLE, whether that was the space the student was working in, the resources they had access to, or the impact of lockdowns on their mental wellbeing. This greater emphasis on the home environment can only be a good thing.

Progress has inevitably been made in enabling remote learning over the past 12 months – educational establishments have had no choice but to invest in software and hardware so their students can access the curriculum and complete assessments from their own homes. Continuing this trend is now the key challenge; by doing so, educators will create more uniformed remote learning experiences, ensuring all students have access to the same materials and information, thereby creating a greater balance within their HLEs.

Tackling the digital skills gap

Maintaining the focus on remote learning ought to have another positive impact: improving the digital skills of both students and teachers.

Let us consider the technology that the further education space (like society at large) has had to rely on during the pandemic. Video conferencing and live streaming have become commonplace; cloud-based platforms have been used for students to download and upload documents; instant messaging tools have enabled real-time conversations between different stakeholders; and a variety of software have been deployed to effective monitor students’ performance and customise their learning experience.

For some, and more likely for students, using such technologies is second nature. But for others – notably for educators themselves – a shortage in digital skills will have impacted how effectively and efficiently they have been able to rely on the aforementioned solutions.

In the months to come, both the education sector and the state must work together to address two things: firstly, refining the technologies that are being used for remote learning, many of which will have been implemented in a Covid-induced hurry but may not be fully fit-for-purpose in the current guise. And secondly, providing skills training for those who need it in order to become comfortable with the technology that underpins remote learning.

Emerging out of the pandemic, the education sector ought to consider the long-term benefits of remote learning. Indeed, a more blended approach, where there is greater emphasis on how educators can best support students’ home learning as well as on-site, could offer great advantages for their academic performance.

If a renewed and maintained focus on blended learning is a by-product of Covid-19, then at least we have one thing to be grateful for.

Dr Paul Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer within the Manchester Institute for Education at The University of Manchester

The University is currently accepting applicants for its blended online MA Educational Leadership in Practice. Covering education policy, leadership of international schools, digital technologies and education research. The two-year part-time Master’s is designed to help educators looking to take their career to the next level and move into a leadership role.

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