The uniform is one size too big. The shoes need breaking in. The brand-new backpack hangs awkwardly off a pair of tiny shoulders. There’s a brave smile with a missing tooth or two, a final holding of hands, a hug, a kiss, a hesitant wave, and inevitable tears.
Before COVID-19 disrupted our lives and forced our kids to open their laptops and learn from home, the first day of school was a rite of passage — the start of a life-determining journey that has broadly followed the same shape and rhythm for generations.
From kindergarten to Year 12, classrooms are run by teachers who deliver lessons that start and end with a bell. They set tests, watch over examinations, and post grades that might delight, disappoint, or even surprise parents.
This one-size-fits-all approach to education has been in place for a couple of hundred years. Now, however, it is undergoing unprecedented change and not just because of COVID.
The response to the coronavirus has demonstrated how technology can help transform how we teach and learn. But the push for change started long before the pandemic struck, and it will go on long after the threat subsides. For years, policymakers have been exploring new transformative approaches to K-12 education that go far beyond just online lessons at home.
As lockdowns ease and schools start to reopen in some places across our region, it’s as good a time as any to take stock and look at the likely future of education.
Children who start school from now on will grow up to be workers and leaders in a digital-first world that will demand new skills and new ways of thinking.
To succeed in life and at work, they will need all the social, emotional, and academic support they can get via rich and flexible learning experiences that will differ vastly from the schooldays of their parents.
In short, education’s age-old three Rs – Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic – are being joined by a fourth: Rethink.
New data-based technologies are opening up ways to transform practices, structures, and even cultures in schools.
We have solutions with the potential to transform the system … the question for us now is: How can we use technology to rethink education?
“Technology has changed many aspects of our society over many years, but school structures have largely stayed the same,” says Sean Tierney, Microsoft’s Director for Teaching and Learning Strategy, Asia.
“Now, we have solutions that have the potential to transform and improve the system so students can achieve more and develop valuable skills with better outcomes. The question for us now is: How can we use technology to rethink education?”
Tierney and others want a systemic shift in which education will move away from “a teaching culture to a learning culture.”
COVID-19: Learning goes on by going remote
Schools, colleges, and universities around the world were closed when COVID-19 struck. But lessons didn’t stop when innovative educators turned to remote learning technologies.
Through the crisis, millions of students across Asia and the Pacific have been learning and studying using new collaborative digital tools and resources on a massive scale. They have been physically apart, but virtually together.
In Taiwan, 2.5 million students and 200,000 teachers have kept up with their lessons via Microsoft Teams. In South Korea, Microsoft Azure helped authorities to expand the country’s remote learning capacity by 500 times within two weeks so that more than 3 million students could access its online resources.
Education ministries in Malaysia and the Philippines have also turned Teams to conduct training sessions, share information, and check in regularly with thousands of teachers who have made the rapid transition to remote lessons.
Hong Kong’s Christian and Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Primary School switched to remote learning within a matter of days after the territory’s students were ordered to stay home. Its teachers conducted lessons in empty classrooms via their laptops (pictured above) while students remained safe in lockdown, watching, listening, interacting, and learning on their devices.
“Modern learning cannot be confined to the classroom, and it is more important than ever to empower our teachers to continuously guide and nurture students during this difficult time,” says the school’s principal, Kenneth Cheng.
Larry Nelson, Regional General Manager for Education, Microsoft Asia, has lauded “school, university, and government leaders across the Asia Pacific who made the early call and reacted swiftly. Protecting our students, educators, family, and friends is the highest priority.”
Real-time data, innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), and a range of new devices and tools, will help transform the roles and relationships of students, teachers, and parents.
Students will be empowered to learn for themselves in flexible, often collaborative ways, both inside and outside classrooms at their own pace. They will be able to follow their own interests and be challenged where appropriate. “The real learning is that learning can be hard,” Tierney adds.
Teachers will have access to individualized real-time data on how well each of their students is progressing – scholastically and emotionally – so they can devise new challenges and offer appropriate support for each child to move ahead.
Parents will be better connected to, and involved with, their child’s education with certainty, detail, and confidence.
The classroom, as we have known it for centuries, will also be re-imagined. Anthony Salcito, Vice-President of Education at Microsoft, predicts technology will see schools morphing into “learning hubs.”
“When you think about the three big investments that schools make, they’re constantly thinking about what’s happening with instruction in the classroom, what’s happening with the operations of their school, and also learning beyond the classroom,” Salcito recently told Bett 2020, a global education conference.
“Over the past few decades, the focus has been heavily weighted on the classroom experience. I think we will see a shift where schools will create a foundation of inclusive, flexible, data-driven buildings and spaces that will enable students to learn beyond those walls.”
Tierney also sees the physical formality of classroom culture melting away. “The classroom was important when you had to broadcast a certain message at a certain time to a certain group of kids. You had to have them in proximity. But this management and teaching model doesn’t have to dominate anymore,” he explains.
“In many ways, the classroom has become a physical barrier and just a way of holding onto the past. We are no longer bound by limitations that used to require us to have 30 kids in a classroom with one teacher.
Beyond classroom walls
“Now we can rethink that model. It can be multiple teachers with multiple kids. They can be places where kids can move around more flexibly. They don’t have to do the same thing at the same time in the same way. Schools have been exploring this for some time – technology changes the success rate.”
Nonetheless, Tierney believes bricks-and-mortar schools will play a valuable role in the future. For instance, a school is a safe place for children to learn social skills while their parents are at work.
“That won’t change. But with data-based technologies, educators will also be able to create flexible learning spaces and continuous on-learning environments, which will spread across the home, schools, and communities.”
Perhaps technology’s most direct impact will be the emergence of “personalized learning” where each student enjoys focused individual attention from teachers who will access real-time data on their progress and problems.
Tierney regards this as a fundamental breakthrough for learning. “Knowing what is happening in the lives of each student might spell the difference between a toxic path and a prosperous path in the future. With data-rich models, we can help support kids holistically.”
He further explains: “If I am one teacher and I have 30 kids in my class, I will only have the chance to have a cursory look at every child. But if I had ten really experienced teachers in that classroom, they could watch three kids each closely and look for problems and opportunities for each.
“We now have technology that can act as those ten extra teachers. It can give me the ability to observe all kinds of details and to understand at a much deeper level what the needs of those kids are. Not just in regard to content, but also pastoral care and life in general.
“Technology can recognize patterns and certain conditions that might need intervention. We can become much better at supporting them. Some educators describe this as data-driven learning. But that is a horrible term. It’s really people-driven learning.”
Social and emotional well-being
Personalized learning is a holistic approach that must do more than only focus on academic progress.
“It will also help teachers stay on top of, and adjust to, factors that affect social and emotional well-being. Teachers will be able to ensure students feel inspired, safe, valued, and able to learn in ways previously not possible.”
New learning tools will also be able to adjust to the needs of individual students – without instructions or intervention from their teachers.
“It would be like one of those virtual ten teachers turning up the brightness of a screen without bothering to tell the teacher. The smarter the technology gets, the more the teacher is supported and empowered.”
Personalized learning and real-time data could also see an end to the current cycle of lessons and tests.
“A test gives a teacher a snapshot in time about a whole bunch of kids. But once you have the results, it can be very difficult to adjust your teaching to address shortfalls because it is too late,” he says.
“Whereas if we are measuring all the time in real time, we know exactly where every child is because each will be on a continuum at any point in time. So they will still be graded, but based on real-time assessment that looks at a much deeper range of intelligences.”
To make all this work, the profession of teaching must transform, and that will be a challenge for some, Tierney admits.
Teachers learning alongside students
“There are teachers who teach in the traditional way. And there are great teachers who are also model learners. They learn with the kids. They don’t feel like they have to know everything, but they have to show what great learning looks like,” he says.
“Overall, it means inspiring students onto a path of lifelong self-learning. And that can include learning about new technology, which they can learn with the kids. If they can explore new ways of doing things, they can all grow together.”
Tierney says some teachers might struggle with this cultural shift. “When traditional teaching is your paradigm, you can get trapped inside a rigid mindset of feeling that you must know everything about the subjects you teach and that you can’t show weakness.”
Instead, teachers of the future “may need to spend less time designing the content component (of their subjects) and more time around the learning experience so that kids can find and create their own meaning around that content.
“A teacher should be an expert in learning and demonstrate the habits of mind that require great learning. They should be a model on these things for their students.”
The ability of teachers to keep adapting and innovating will be crucial, according to Salcito.
“What we want educators to do is not be bound by the structure of a 40-minute lecture, classroom dynamic, or assessment that’s connected to a curriculum, but recognize their goal and mission to expand upon every student’s potential.
“The best innovation that inspires most young people is the teacher.”