Learning in (and from) the pandemic

Priya Lakhani’s Digifest keynote was titled “How COVID-19 has catalysed edtech adoption” but actually ranged much more widely. What has the pandemic shown us about the role of technology in education and, indeed, how does that relate to education’s role in future society.

One obvious result of the pandemic is that we have (nearly) all got a lot more familiar with using technology. In some cases it has become second nature: we no longer qualify “chat” with the prefix “video-”, for example. Although we are all missing physical human contact, that deep engagement with technology presents an opportunity. In future we should always remember we have a choice of how to conduct meetings, and many other aspects of our lives. We should look out for opportunities for humans and machines to work together, each enhancing the other by adding its unique capabilities. In particular, we should remember that “artificial intelligence” and “human intelligence” are complementary, not competing. Human Intelligence will always be required of teachers, tutors and lecturers: Artificial Intelligence (AI) should help increase the amount of time they have to practise it.

For example AI can personalise and inform students: including taking a cross-curriculum view. It can analyse – not just identify – gaps in student knowledge and skills: is this student struggling in physics because they didn’t grasp a concept in maths? AI may be able to triage and suggest appropriate remedies: is this an individual issue, or a common one that we need to address in teaching materials as well as interventions? But it cannot analyse long-form essays, develop inter-personal skills, comfort a distressed student or celebrate with one who has “got” a tricky concept.

Getting this right isn’t just important for the school/college/university setting: it’s what we need to prepare students for in the workplace, too. Future employers should be looking for adaptive humans, who can continue to make productive use of whatever new technologies may develop. It’s common to talk about “life-long learning”, but maybe our concept starts too late? If you think of key habits and skills as “making things that work and making things work better”, then very young children already do that instinctively: might traditional education even be suppressing those ways of thinking – adapting, visualising, problem finding, problem solving, systems thinking – that we will need?

But – and hence my “nearly” above – we must ensure this opportunity is available to everyone. At the moment, something like 1 in 10 families does not have a laptop, desktop or tablet at all; in many more, learners have to share their devices. Software and connectivity also need to be sufficient for effective learning. And, though we often talk about post-pandemic “blended learning”, we must remember “blended teaching” as well. Tutors need new skills, too. In particular, if they are to work effectively with technology, they need to understand why it makes the suggestions it does, neither blindly accepting, nor blindly rejecting them. Technologists, deployers and managers all need to work together on this.

Ultimately, though, we must recognise that the pandemic has forced many of us to adopt a radically new way of making progress: trying something, failing or succeeding, and learning from both failure and success. Will we continue to do that, or will we revert to the safer ground of inertia, learning little or nothing?

By Andrew Cormack

I'm Chief Regulatory Advisor at Jisc, responsible for keeping an eye out for places where our ideas, services and products might raise regulatory issues. My aim is to fix either the product or service, or the regulation, before there's a painful bump!

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