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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: The Pandemic and Education What are we missing?

9 June 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Dr Ann Devitt from Trinity's School of Education and Learnovate discusses teaching, learning, technology and Covid-19, and asks what might we be missing in the move online?

Ann Devitt, School of Education, TCD.

Since 12 March, schools, universities and all education institutions in Ireland have been physically closed but virtually open. Educators from their homes are working hard to ensure continuity of learning for their learners young and old in their homes and are trying different avenues to achieve this. This crisis has forced educational systems across the globe to move online and is likely to transform what teaching and learning looks like in the coming years. The relatively slow pace of change in embedding digital learning in schools has suddenly accelerated. Educators, even those who were slow to embrace technology, are suddenly finding themselves running online classes and managing student learning online. The development of educators’ digital skills could have a really positive impact on how we integrate technology and learning in the future.

But at this moment in time, when the academic year is drawing to its close and we are facing into great uncertainties for next year, it is worth pausing to reflect upon what we want our future of learning to look like and what we can learn from our Covid-19 experiences. Educational theory over the decades has grappled with how and where learning “happens” and how and whether the context in which learning takes place relate to learning. An ecological perspective on learning, like that of Leo Van Lier or Bronfenbrenner, challenges the notion that learning takes place essentially in the brain of the individual and is only indirectly related to the context of learning. From an ecological perspective, learning emerges in and through a learner’s verbal and non-verbal interactions with the elements and individuals in their learning context over time. This interactive structure can be seen, for example, in the close engagement of an infant with their caregiver through eye gaze, facial expressions and gesture but also in the asynchronous interactions of the peer-reviewed scientific article where authors enter into dialogue with knowledge and others in their field through citation and discussion.

As John Dewey wrote in 1916, “education means the enterprise of supplying the conditions which insure growth”. Education should not therefore follow a “banking model” of filling learners up with knowledge. And yet, we may be in danger of re-establishing this very model in our collective move online.

Policy and practice in recent times in Ireland has moved to a more active, interactive and creative teaching and learning environment. The principles of the Trinity Education Project (TEP) attest to this as do the developments in the primary and junior cycle curriculum nationally. In the sudden move to virtual learning that happened in March, all educators and learners instantly lost the social context of their usual learning environment. This is not just about children missing their classmates or people missing their friends. It is a fundamental element of the teaching and learning process that became suddenly absent and has not been fully replaced, as suggested by preliminary findings from a study of teaching and learning practices under Covid which is funded by the TCD COVID rapid response initiative.

Colleagues in the School of Education (Dr Aibhin Bray, Dr Joanne Banks and I) and Trinity Access (Eilís Ní Chorcora and Jen Maguire Donohue) in collaboration with Learnovate have designed and deployed a teacher survey which is live in the field for another week. Initial findings indicate that the most common modes of engagement tend towards the transactional - sending work and sending feedback - and away from the dialogic, active or interactive. Whilst this reflects the intensive efforts of our teachers who have moved to teaching online in a virtual instant (pardon the pun!), it is important that we as educators re-establish the rich, active, interactive practices of our face to face teaching in an online environment. As one of the teacher participants commented “[I] miss the conversation that is so important in class that pushes the learning”

In this uncertain future that we are facing where we may not have the physical proximity of the classroom for learning, we have to remember that we are all at the heart of it still human. We are driven by our social nature and we learn through our interactions with each other and with our environment. In the online learning space, it is essential that we do not forget this. We must learn to bring ourselves, our relationships, our engaged interactions with us online so that we do not revert to a learning model of passively filling our learners with online content.

Dr Ann Devitt will speak as part of the upcoming Behind the Headlines discussion on 'Human+Technology Beyond Covid-19' organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub in partnership with ADAPT, TCD. Click here to attend this online discussion.

Dr Ann Devitt is Director of Research at Trinity's School of Education and Academic Director of Learnovate. She is also the Principal Investigator on IRC funded Family Digital Literacy project in collaboration with NALA: She conducts research in the area of technology enhanced learning, in particular for language and literacy. Learnovate is the research and innovation centre focused on education technology funded by Enterprise Ireland and hosted in TCD.



Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)

Beyond Apocalypse Fatigue and the New Normal with Jacob J. Erickson (26 May 2020)

Prison and the Pandemic with by Ciara O’Connell, Sarah Curristan and Sophie van der Valk (19 May 2020)

Literature and the Pandemic with Eve Patten (13 May 2020)

Distress and Disease at Sea with Killian O'Brien (30 April 2020)

Adapting in a Time of Crisis with Melanie Ní Dhuinn (28 April 2020)

Power in the Name of Emergency with Róisín Costello & Conor Casey (21 April 2020)

Human Rights in a Time of Crisis with Donna Lyons (14 April 2020)

Solidarity in a Time of Crisis with Rory Montgomery (6 April 2020)

Art in a time of Pandemic with Rita Duffy (1 April 2020)

Leadership in a time of Crisis with Mary Doyle (25 March 2020)

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