The push for online content

Picture of Steve DixonOur Secretary Dr Steve Dixon has found some time away from his day-to-day work as a Senior Lecturer at Newman University; to reflect upon the technologically mediated realities that now exist within education. The post provides an opportunity to think about a variety of problems, digital divides and inequalities that can be situated around technology in education, which are being exacerbated by COVID-19. The post ends with the view that we all need to ensure that the configuration of these mediated realities do not prioritise content over a duty of care, empathy and empowerment.

Hair brushed?
Sound on?
Camera ready?
Full bookcase behind me, with no embarrassing titles?
Pyjama bottoms on?
(it is still before 2.00 pm after all).

Whilst I reflect on another day of Zoom meetings, Skype tutorials, live webinar sessions and endless emails, it’s easy just to smile to myself and think how getting ready for a day’s teaching in a UK university has certainly changed over the past few months. Part of this reflection is the recognition that I am one of the lucky ones – at present, I still have a job, I haven’t been furloughed, I’m still on full pay, and despite having to juggle childcare, home schooling and an over-inquisitive cat, I can work from home quite well. But something doesn’t feel quite right.

Picture of Steve Dixon's Cat
Picture of Steve’s Cat

I also feel rather lucky compared to most my colleagues. Having both taught and researched in the field of educational technology for many years, the transition to remote working has been relatively straightforward. Indeed, only last year I delivered a paper at the 2019 Annual Conference on the student experience of learning and teaching online via webinar software – now it’s an everyday occurrence. Like the majority of HEIs, my own institution has embraced the shift to remote learning by expanding the use of our VLE (in our case Moodle), coupled with Zoom meetings and tutorials and recorded PowerPoint presentations. Some universities have utilised Google or Microsoft Teams. Others have a strong culture of blended provision, coupled with an established staff development programme in online learning and teaching – for these, the shift has perhaps been easier. As such, across the sector the pattern can appear haphazard and inconsistent, as both institutions and staff have had to quickly adapt to the extraordinary circumstances we now all face.

There is a similar pattern in schools. Many primary schools in my local area are desperately attempting to provide online resources for pupils via both local learning grids and their own website. Secondary provision can appear even more sketchy, with those schools with basic VLEs such as Frog, for example, utilising these as they can. However, there are many secondary institutions whose systems are more geared to classroom management rather than learning and teaching, and with little staff expertise to draw upon, providing meaningful resources for pupils is extremely difficult. Whilst the right-wing press gleefully emblazons headlines about lazy teachers and angry parents, they conveniently ignore the fact that most schools have been open during the lockdown, as well as the pressure and increased workloads that teaching staff are facing. Those teachers who are having to cover for colleagues who are not allowed to have contact with children under current lockdown regulations, for example. Or those staff who are teaching key worker and vulnerable children in school, whilst at the same time still having to create online content (as well as phone parents to check on progress) for pupils still at home.

But it’s not just provision. I remember in the late 1990s, in the early days of the web, and even earlier days of online learning, there was much debate on this thing called the digital divide – the recognition that there existed a gap between those who had access to technology and those that did not, and the potential social and educational consequences of this. This gradually changed to a digital divide predicated on skills (with an understanding that access does not guarantee competence), and more recently this has been viewed through even more various lenses: age, gender, ethnicity, economic background, language, digital & media literacy… the list goes on. But what is becomingly increasingly clearer is that the impact of Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities in society, and that first understanding of the digital divide has not gone away. This can be seen right across the education sector. I know of many of my own students who are having to share ageing laptops amongst several family members, and latest estimates claim that there are 700,000 children across the UK with no access to technology. Whilst the UK government’s laptop scheme at least shows some recognition of this, at the time of writing a third of devices are yet to be delivered since the scheme was unveiled in April. This is amid warnings that any progress made in closing the attainment gap between poorer and wealthier students is rapidly being reversed. So much for online content, then.

Picture of a Laptop
Picture from T. Bennett’s Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In Education Studies, we need to talk about these things. Whilst we still don’t know what the long-term impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on UK higher education is going to be (and the current prognosis isn’t good), some things do not change, and we need to question and examine the use of technology in education even more. With the desperate push for online provision across the sector, we need to remember that education is more than a mere form of content delivery. Whilst we may need to utilise technology even more, we still need to reinforce both the nature and value of education. We need to find new ways of engaging with our students, news ways of enabling them to develop critical thinking, self-awareness and empathy. New ways of both empowering students and allowing them to collaborate, to remind them that education is not a transaction, nor a mere form of transmission, but a shared, social and transformative experience. During the lockdown, my students haven’t just needed content. What they have valued more are old-fashioned notions of contact and care – even through a screen.

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