“Schooling in Times of COVID-19”: Highlights from the OECD Forum Virtual Event

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With children returning to school in many countries across the world, the OECD Forum team organised the virtual event “Schooling in times of COVID-19: How the pandemic is changing education” on 10 September 2020. Drawing on recent OECD work, it explored how the pandemic is transforming education and how we may go about seizing this opportunity for rethinking schooling for the 21st century, with leading stakeholders sharing best practices and lessons from experience.

Setting the scene for the discussion, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General, noted that teaching has been tremendously challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. About 1.5 billion children were locked out of their schools, while virtual learning has amplified many inadequacies and inequities in our education systems. Yet, a key takeaway from this crisis is that learning is never a place, but an activity. In fact, more technological and social innovation has taken place in recent months than in the last few years, with the crisis bringing people together like never before in finding creative solutions. This is a welcome development since education is still lagging very far behind other sectors when it comes to digitalisation, with less than 3% of global education expenditure spent on technology.

Throughout the closure of schools, online learning and technology have shown, however, that they are only as good as their use. Furthermore, neither the availability of technology nor competency have been the deciding factors on the use of digital tools for education. For example, it was not utilised frequently in a high-tech country like Japan, signalling teachers discomfort with the use of technology as an educational resource. Building teaching capacity has therefore become critical. The biggest promise of digital technologies is to make learning more interactive and personal, thereby amplifying the role of teachers by helping them engage with students’ diversities and different needs. Andreas further explained that, in the future, innovations such as Artificial Intelligence, Virtual / Augmented Reality, and blockchain all have huge potential in education, notably by helping create new types of assessments through simulations and games, the provision of learning analytics that help teachers manage their classes, and enabling a decentralized verification of degrees and credentials. But to close the gap between current practices and the potential of technology in upgrading education, teachers must be given time and room to invest in learning how to best harness this potential.

Read the latest OECD publication: The Impact of COVID-19 on Education: Insights from education at a glance 2020 by Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills

Speaking from personal experience, Lucy Kellaway, Financial Times Columnist turned teacher in a "challenging" London secondary school, recognised that she is not too tech-savvy herself, which has made the lockdown very challenging. Many of her students, too, struggled in these testing times. Access to technology is not the sole explanation for this; the issue is much more complicated than that, with Lucy noting that even those from the poorest backgrounds had some access to digital resources. Instead, she stressed the importance of also looking at broader social and behavioural matters, including the importance for students to receive support at home. Echoing Andreas’ remarks about the lockdowns demonstrating the social importance of education systems and their role in turning education into a whole-of-society practice, Lucy stressed that this period had made the value of school very clear to her. She may not be the only one: the organisation she co-founded, NowTeach.org, which provides teacher-training programmes for experienced career changers, has observed rising interest from people searching for a more fulfilling profession. Yet, Lucy also noted that education can actually be a “place” for some children a place where they learn to socialise, which fulfils essential needs in this respect. Ironically, the crisis has led some of her more vulnerable children to conclude that the only thing worse than going to school is not going to school.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), concurred, noting lockdowns have hurt kids and social interactions both between and within communities. In spite of the polarisation of the debate in the United States, people want these social interactions and sense of community back. In the eyes of Randi, this may help pave the way to a “new Renaissance” for education. The President of the AFT agreed with Andreas Schleicher that technology cannot be a substitute for teachers, but is rather a supplement that can help develop a real connection between educators and students. In line with both OECD findings and Andreas’ emphasis on the importance of advice and well-being for teachers and students, Randi further observed that the schools that performed best during the lockdown were the ones where students were taught problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, which bolster their resilience, and where community services had been integrated in the school system, enabling children to access support. Technology can be of a great help in these respects. But for this to be the case, Randi warned, companies and service providers will need to listen to teachers and strive to build technologies that cater to their needs.

As the U.K. & Global Online Learning President of Pearson, Rod Bristow agreed that technology is no silver-bullet, and stressed that technology can help only if it is in service of education and teachers, prioritising students and families. His company which provides resources for teachers, supports the operation of fully online schools, and has long championed innovation in order to improve the learning experience has learnt that there are benefits to online education. In many ways, technology when the pedagogy and platform used allow it can indeed foster a strong teacher-student relationship. Technology can also support inclusion by helping meet the needs of certain disadvantaged groups, such as those who cannot live far from their family, or who benefit from learning at their own pace. Furthermore, Rob reminded the audience that the world of work is changing. Education is no longer solely about what one knows, but also about what one is able to do. As the importance of digital skills is rapidly growing, there is a dire need to invest in teachers and support them in this transition. This is key for enabling them to develop a sense of ownership. We are moving to a world where we should be thinking about access to technological infrastructure in the same way as we typically think about regular infrastructure, such as physical access to a school. This calls for substantial investment and urgent attention from policy-makers.

Other actors, too, stand to play a critical role in this respect. Asked to present the model developed by ProFuturo, Magdalena Brier, Managing Director of this digital education programme launched by Telefónica Foundation and “la Caixa”, agreed with the fact that the pandemic had made the digital divide more apparent than ever. To reduce associated educational gaps that children in disadvantaged areas face, ProFuturo works on five pillars: teachers’ training and class management, digital platform and equipment supply, technical and pedagogical support, community awareness, and monitoring evaluation. In this way, ProFuturo is able to help bring education to places both with and without internet access. For instance, her foundation has implemented a teacher development project in Nigeria, Liberia and Tanzania with other members of the Teach For All Network, training thousands of teachers throughout the pandemic. Active in areas as remote as the Amazon or refugee camps in Malawi, ProFuturo nevertheless agrees that a positive aspect of the crisis could be to hasten the digital transition. Seeing quality digital education as the right path forward, Magdalena concluded by encouraging governments, donors and private institutions to join them in their efforts to narrow the education gap for children in vulnerable environments.

Asked in the ensuing Q&A whether increased reliance on technology disadvantages students from poor backgrounds and how to fill in gaps when states are unable to provide needed infrastructure, Rob Bristow noted that this is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technology can improve accessibility by reaching people that might not have access to education otherwise. But if there is no technology access at all, it does make it very difficult and hinder education. Lucy Kellaway reiterated that it is not just about providing kids with laptops, observing that access does not guarantee effective use for education. Andreas Schleicher emphasized the need for students to benefit from appropriate space, time, and support at home in the absence of a classroom environment. Randi Weingarten further remarked that whilst most teachers already knew their students when lockdowns began, starting the year remotely will be something else entirely.

In light of the reiterated importance of parents’ essential role in schooling, panellists were then asked if there exist digital programmes to help them develop their own skills. While Magdalena Brier agreed about the urgent need for such initiatives, explaining they are trialling this approach in Colombia, Andreas Schleicher noted that PISA data had shown that even something as simple as parents asking “how was school?” on a daily basis made a huge difference. Indeed, showing to children that their studies and achievements are valued is key. Thanks to the pandemic, parents now understand better what it means to learn and teach. In the eyes of Randi Weingarten, this presents a unique opportunity to change the culture of belonging and help ensure that parents feel that they are part of the school community. Building on this point, Rod Bristow stressed that digital technologies actually have significant potential in this respect too, as they can facilitate parental engagement.

Also on the Forum Network: Will stronger school-parent links continue after the coronavirus lockdown? by Rowena Phair, Project Leader, Education & Skills Directorate, OECD

What about teachers, shouldn’t their profession be elevated in order to attract the best people? Andreas strongly agreed, observing that students’ results are better in countries where the teaching profession is prised by society. However, this cannot be solely reflected through the provision of higher salaries better pay does not always translate into better teachers. Instead, there is a need to provide them with good opportunities, and to make teaching intellectually more attractive. Speaking from experience, Lucy Kellaway concurred, noting that while more money would be nice, making teachers feel more valued is most important.

Turning to a final question on the Future of Work, Rod Bristow stressed the need to provide an education that will be able to close the gap between knowing and doing, pointing to the rising importance of experiential learning enabled by digitalisation. Andreas further explained that many countries are working on preparing children for jobs that do not yet exist. The OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 project which aims to help education systems determine the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values students need to thrive in and shape their future provides them with valuable resource to do so. Indeed, it is no longer possible to teach young people every skill they will need throughout their lives. Instead, they must be taught how to think, and infused with the right set of aspirations. In Andreas’ words, all teachers should ultimately be asking themselves: “How do we educate our children for their future, and not for our past?”

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Tackling COVID-19 Future of Education & Skills Child Well-being

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Willemien Bax

Head, OECD Forum, OECD

Willemien Bax is currently Head of the OECD Forum, the Organisation's largest annual public event. Ms Bax, a Dutch national, has over 20 years of experience in public affairs, working with governments, as well as non-governmental organisations and the private sector. Prior to joining the OECD, from 2001 to beginning 2010, Ms Bax worked with the European Consumers Organisation (BEUC) as Deputy Director-General where she oversaw BEUC’s public affairs and media relations strategies in a number of public policy areas ranging from transparency and governance to food, environment, health, economic and legal affairs. In 2004, she initiated a training programme financed by the European Commission, for all consumer organisations in the EU, as well as potential EU-candidate countries. The training focused on giving consumer organisations the tools to develop effective public affairs and communication strategies. In 2009, in her capacity as European Chair of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, she contributed to debates on major international public policy issues such as financial regulation, innovation and energy efficiency.

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