Virtual Venture


With schools and colleges at different stages in their post-lockdown recovery, just how will the shift away from the classroom impact the global education market? Tania Jacobs talks to teachers and academics at the virtual coal face to find out more

Worldwide, there are currently more than 1.3 billion children in 186 countries affected by school closures due to the pandemic, yet seemingly, no two places are addressing the scholarly challenges brought about by COVID in quite the same way. Take Denmark, where children up to the age of 11 are returning to schools and nurseries with rekindled enthusiasm after initially closing on 12 March, while in South Korea, students are responding to roll calls from their teachers online, with face-to-face learning a hazy memory.

Even before the world was turned upside down with the outbreak of the pandemic, high growth and adoption in education technology was proliferous. To date, global ed-tech investments have exceeded $18.66 billion. By 2025, the total market for online education is projected to reach $350 billion. Whether it’s language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, or online learning software, the world of virtual learning is here to stay.

Yet the topic still elicits polarising opinions. Whilst certain academics believe these past turbulent months – with no online training, insufficient bandwidth, and little preparation, is unconducive to fresh learning and teaching methodologies; others foresee a hybrid model of face-to-face/remote education delivering significant benefits.

The past few months have certainly demonstrated successful virtual transitions within schools and universities globally.  Zhejiang University in China for example, has managed to upload more than 5,000 courses online just two weeks into lockdown using “DingTalk ZJU”. Imperial College London meanwhile, started offering a course on the science of coronavirus, which is now the most enrolled class launched in 2020 on Coursera.

For educational trainer Deborah Stapleton, distance learning has already brought with it, numerous benefits: “Coronavirus has given schools Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom; turning a laptop screen into a classroom for a truly collaborative online dialogue.




Engaging students can also be managed effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting, even document sharing. With the appropriate planning, there’s no reason why traditional offline and e-learning can’t complement one other supremely well."

To assist schools in the UK in the adaptation process, just after the UK’s lockdown began, the Department for Education launched a new online school, the Oak National Academy, where 2m lessons were accessed by learners across the country in its first week, suggesting that necessity really is the mother of invention.

“Fortunately, the UK was leading the way in facilitating distance learning long before coronavirus made it necessary,” adds education consultant Giles Anderson, “with 58% of Brits aged 16 to 24 using online learning materials, and 29% enrolled in online courses in 2019.”

For Anderson, today’s students are also at an advantage when it comes to using digital learning tools: “Unlike previous generations, they’ve grown up with extensive exposure to computers, smartphones, tablets and other smart devices. This means that they’re both more readily able to use these tools without major adjustment periods and, more notably, they respond better to them. They’re adept with using digital tools independently and also have experience with information rich media such as videos and interactive tutorials.”

Another advantage for the current tech native generation is the opportunity for students to pioneer new ways of interacting with each other using technology. A case in point - while traditional sports clubs have been put on hold due to social distancing; technology-driven clubs like esports have developed from a relatively niche hobby to a well-respected extracurricular activity. In fact, 1 in 5 schools around the world currently have an esports programme, while 71% are considering or might consider adding an esports programme in the future.


That said, as educational institutions embrace change, many are struggling with the impact on their existing IT infrastructure. Given that classrooms in the near future could be hosting numerous personal devices, laptops, drones, chatbots, and 3D printers, it’s important that the underlying network and back of house technologies are sufficiently robust.

Anticipating this, 81% of schools, colleges and universities in the UK have invested in improving their wireless networks to ensure that all these solutions are deployed with reliable performance in order to best engage students.

“Most students have multiple smart devices each, but even supporting just one device per student is enough to strain most older wireless networks,” adds Stapleton. “If classrooms are to host a greater number of digital learning tools in the future, then these networks need to be updated. Institutions should be looking to the latest wireless networking solutions, such as Wi-Fi 6, but also consider extending the wired and wireless network footprint beyond the traditional campus to a more widespread secure local and remote offering if they’re to keep pace with the evolving needs of their classroom.”

Other grass roots obstacles are cropping up too. Students without reliable internet access and/or technology, will struggle to participate in digital learning; this gap is seen across countries and between income brackets within countries. For example, whilst 95% of students in Switzerland, Norway, and Austria have a computer to use for their schoolwork, only 34% in Indonesia do, according to OECD data.

Further inconsistencies can be seen in the States, where there’s a significant gap between those from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Whilst virtually all 15-year-olds from a privileged background said they had a computer to work on, nearly 25% of those from disadvantaged backgrounds did not. While some schools and governments have been providing digital equipment to students in need, such as in New South Wales, Australia, many are still concerned that the pandemic will only serve to widen the digital divide.


One overarching debate expected to rumble on for the foreseeable future, is just how effective learning online can be.

Research by Global Education Management Systems (GEMS) shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

The effectiveness of online learning nevertheless varies amongst age groups. “The general consensus on children, especially younger ones, is that a structured environment is required in order to keep students focused,” suggests Claire Reid-Warrilow of Sommet Education. “At the higher education level, it’s important to look beyond simply providing a video equivalent of the physical class or lecture. Instead, the faculty must adopt a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote ‘inclusion, personalisation and emotional intelligence’. These more holistic structures can produce learning outcomes that are a match for fully face-to-face teaching.”

A further facet in the virtual mix, is the strength of the relationship between teachers and pupils. “Teachers have to think about how to sustain those relationships and use technology to enhance teaching and learning, not replace it,” reflects Kieran Orwin of The King’s School Canterbury. “This means, for example, not just sending an email with instructions to watch a video, read a webpage and answer some questions. Teachers must guide and instruct classes before providing resources that complement this, using video lessons, presentations, and lesson plans. To work, teacher engagement is absolutely central to the learning process.”


Processes to ensure this happens are already in force, from regular catchups and lecturing via video conferencing tools. The former can be achieved via regular planned tutor time with small groups of pupils – logging into a conference tool at a time – to review learning and support wellbeing, timing this, so every group gets a feedback session weekly. For the latter, the use of video casting tools works well, as can recording a video on a phone and putting it on YouTube.

For Anderson however, it goes further than a teacher’s mere presence: elements of their sense of personality and teaching style have to be put across: “It’s essential that students have a sense of who you are and what kind of person you are – there’s no one physically in the classroom, so you need to reach out and connect in more creative ways,” he reflects.

Shifting teenagers into using tech for “work” not “pleasure” is a further hurdle. Recent research from Europe, indicates that students reported using a computer for entertainment purposes – watching video clips, social media use – for around 32.5 hours per week, while time spent doing school work online, either at home or in school, was just 5.5 hours.

“The issue isn’t that students lack the ability to sustain attention,” explains Stapleton. “It’s that, once in front of a computer, they revert to the primary function (passive consumption of rapidly shifting media content) they have spent years establishing. To learn effectively via computer, pupils must expend deliberate cognitive effort, battling temptation and quelling response patterns cultivated over thousands of hours.”

Whilst it may be that checks in place such as reminding students to put screen-time locks on tempting apps and to monitor their transgressions into non-work uses, will begin to address the problem, only time will tell if the continual use of tech for education can begin to solve this issue.

One overriding truth made abundantly clear through lockdown however, is the importance of disseminating knowledge across all sectors of society. Says Stapleton: “If online learning technology can play an enabling role in this journey, then it’s incumbent upon all of us to explore its full potential.”


BOX OUT Practice Makes Perfect

“During lockdown, I was incredibly impressed with how IT was suddenly a part of every aspect of learning, and pupils really made the most of this. They launched a distance learning newspaper, The Piccadilly Press, and started preparations for launching the Piccadilly Podcast series. Collaborative working through different Teams channels meant there was an even platform for interaction and those pupils who are usually a little quieter in the classroom suddenly contributed as much, and in some cases more, than their peers. We have now worked to integrate these positive advances into our new school curriculum from September. “ 

 Caroline Townshend, Head, Eaton Square Senior School, London

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