Digital school during the Covid19 crisis (1) – A situation analysis

The health crisis has shown us how important teachers are. After decades of a steady decline in the reputation of teachers, we have had their irreplaceability demonstrated to us. On the one hand, children at home were a great burden for many parents, on the other hand, there was great variation in the quality of teaching provided by teachers during the lockdown period. Some things went great, many things went well, but some things didn’t work at all. There was a lot of heterogeneity. The divergence of perception of how well or poorly the school functioned during the lockdown period is even greater. There is the super-how-it-worked discourse among school officials as well as the near despair of many parents. At least it became clear at one point or another that school is much more than the teaching of knowledge and know-how. But this did not play a major role either in practice or in the discussion about it. There was little willingness to perceive the school in crisis ambivalently, the multi-perspective view only took place very sporadically. We almost all have an opinion about school. There is a mad tuft of creative transformation ideas for school, which is so colourful that hardly anyone noticed the absence of digital transformation ideas before the crisis. But we can’t see the forest for the trees. The big picture of what school should be in its entirety does not exist. We should therefore learn from the crisis that such a big picture is also needed in our post-industrial age with its new, educationally determined social structures and its inherent contradiction between a neo-romantic culture of happiness and a neo-bourgeois culture of reputation. If we look closely, the health crisis has made us realise that we are hardly aware of all the things that a digital transformation of schools needs to achieve. For example, motivation to learn runs very much along social lines. Without encouragement, children tend to become tired after fifteen minutes. Digital teaching must either provide social encouragement directly – which is very difficult – or support parents in providing this encouragement. Another exemplary challenge is that children are not only motor but also social bundles of energy and the school must set the framework for them to let off steam. This is also necessary in Lockdown – if possible with alternatives to the popular online ball games. But we were neither digitally prepared for these kinds of challenges, nor did we address them digitally appropriately when we needed to.

The positive experiences

If we look even closer, we see that the super-as-it-lies discourse is quite fact-based. In fact, there have been many positive developments. Many teachers used digital teaching tools for the first time and some were very creative in their use of digital tools – both digitally experienced teachers and newcomers to digital teaching. This creativity not only helped all concerned and involved, but also provided new impulses for the further development of e-learning tools. Furthermore, it shows that the crisis has helped us to overcome emotional resistance to digitalisation, resulting in exciting ideas for future innovations. In the coming months, it will therefore be crucial to consolidate this progress. We should continue to cultivate digital forms of teaching, research the experiences with them and use the findings from this research to design new e-learning tools. If we look broadly, we also see good examples of how schools and institutions developed creative ideas in the health crisis. For example, in some places digital translation services were used to communicate with parents via SMS in their mother tongue. This can be seen as a first step towards addressable digital communication with parents. Admittedly, such good practices were more local initiatives than a matter of course everywhere. This makes it all the more important to identify, analyse and share them in the wake of the lockdown.

Courage to be realistic

All these concrete positive experiences should motivate us to tackle the digitalisation of the school with more commitment than in the past. (“A lot is possible, a little bit always goes.”) But we should not do this in a feeling of “we-were-super-good”, because this is disrespectful in both directions – towards those parents who were overwhelmed when everything was thrown at them, as well as towards those teachers who had a very hard time with the changeover and are now more afraid of digital progress than before. Let’s be realistic and start from what we have seen so that we can initiate effective developments. Most digital tools are complicated to use, have bug-like features and do very little for successful digital teaching unless teachers creatively adopt and configure them for their purposes. The reality is that in many places there was little experience in using digital tools before the crisis and there was a lack of technology support and professional coaching. In addition, politically committed teachers fear that by using the commercial software offered free of charge, pupils will be conditioned (and thus, in their eyes, corrupted) for its use in subsequent professional life and that the software will illegally spy on them and their pupils. These fears must be taken seriously, addressed in dialogue and the consequences placed in the experiential context of digitalisation in a scientifically sound manner. Remarkably, it is precisely the change of the school towards an institution of individual coaching that seems to have been a major obstacle to the switch to digital teaching in schools. One possible explanation is that the more concrete skills that need to be taught, the higher the cost of effective online coaching compared to offline coaching. For example, many craft skills, making design decisions and artistic practice with a large emotional component are very difficult to teach online and would need much better technology – although many were surprised that such teaching was even possible. In addition, it is much less possible to keep track of students online. This is a problem with the ad hoc coaching approach in the virtual classroom – except for structured group work. As with other observed problems, the root cause is that we don’t understand enough about how to use video interfaces and need to explore it better. Digital-analogue mixes, for example, produced excellent results in art colleges (e.g. assignments by post and tasks to write letters embedded in lessons via video conferencing), but at school level these “cool” crossovers stressed tremendously.

The biggest challenge

Parent-friendly communication and coordination was the biggest challenge for schools during the health crisis. Often there was communication through many mediums, each school, each teacher following a different rhythm, by different means and through different channels – including communication in paper that had to be picked up/delivered. Even within the same class, different teachers chose different channels of communication, some of which were used sporadically or without obligation. This placed immense burdens on the multi-child families. Some parents spent Monday mornings organising, understanding and planning – not counting filling in the gaps in the teaching materials – unless they had to plan several times a week. Inevitably, the gap between ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated’ families widened – even a free application for extended emergency care after 11 May required eloquent justification and high communication skills. But there are digital solution concepts to improve communication between schools and parents. Specifically, personalised portals for parents can better structure communication and help parents better sort through the poorly coordinated school activities for their own family situation, curate the information material for their children and feed back their experiences and problems to teachers. Furthermore, it is possible to use digital event filters to enable schools to evaluate their level of coordination from the point of view of the families concerned, to identify structural problems and to further develop their digital teaching in many aspects and in a coordinated way.

Invisible problems

Perhaps most worryingly, in some places large groups of students were lost altogether during the lockdown: They were neither heard from nor seen by – in some cases, especially by digitally-affine teachers and without this triggering any activities on the part of the school. There are therefore some indications that, as a result of the lockdown, Switzerland’s educational society offers even more unequal opportunities than before. The postponement of examinations (in some cantons) will only mitigate this if there are active measures to support the lost students. From a research perspective, therefore, the most fundamental question is: can we harness the potential of digital technology to get students from educationally disadvantaged families more interested in learning – or at least include their perspective and that of their parents in crisis management? Among the less welcome developments is the fact that the health crisis has again promoted the old division of roles in many families. Moreover, solidarity is undermined by the two-tier division into mothers in and mothers out of the system-relevant professions. The latter have no entitlement to care for their children in half-school cantons such as Zurich.


Acknowledgements

Nada Endrissat, Thomas Gees, Martin Halter, Christoph Luchsinger, Tine Melzer, Thomas Jarchow – von Büren, Reinhard Starka and Anne-Careen Stoltze-Siebmann played a major role in the creation of this article (including the other parts). We would also like to thank Alain Gut and our colleagues in the ICT-Switzerland Education Commission, as well as colleagues from Parldigi, with whom we were able to exchange ideas. The series “Lessons from the Covid19 crisis” was initiated by Ingrid Kissling-Näf. It is supervised by Anne-Careen Stoltze-Siebmann.


Part 2: Fundamental Considerations will be published on 12 June Part 3: Concrete recommendations will be published on 19 June

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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