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How is coronavirus reshaping education?

There are multiple ways of measuring the impact of coronavirus. Whether it’s businesses losing an overwhelming amount of trade, individuals cancelling their holidays or streets being empty of traffic, the pandemic has globally altered every aspect of life.

Before the lockdown came into place, a key way to measure how impactful the coronavirus had been was the closure of all primary schools, secondary schools and sixth form colleges. Apart from the children of select key workers, like NHS, police and fire brigade staff, all children would now learn from home. Those who were allowed to attend school would be given the equipment to undertake online learning. 

As a result of this, GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled for the first time since their introduction. Students who were expecting to undertake the tests to determine their academic or vocational futures no longer have anything to revise for. Their marks will instead be based off predicted grades, mock results and prior attainment. While Ofqual, the regulator of examinations, will do what they can to make the assessments fair, it is no compensation for individuals that have worked and revised so hard already. An expected or predicted grade will never quite match the satisfaction of sitting an exam and working towards a final result. 

While Ofqual, the regulator of examinations, will do what they can to make the assessments fair, it is no compensation for individuals that have worked and revised so hard already.

Students won’t have only been damaged by an absence of their final exams. The abrupt end to their education – whether as secondary school or sixth form students – means that end of year opportunities they expected to take place will no longer happen. For many, end of year balls and celebrations to conclude their time at an educational institution will have been cancelled. These matters may seem small, but it is our years in education that shape the rest of our lives. 

The pandemic doesn’t look likely to end any time soon. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, doesn’t believe schools will open again before September 2020. As the peak of the disease isn’t expected until the middle of May, many believe that there would be little point in reopening over the summer. Sixth form students heading to university however, should be reassured that their place will not be affected. According to Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the combination of ‘teacher assessments and previous assignment’ should mean individuals are granted a place at university this autumn. 

Sixth form studdents heading to university should be reassured that their place will not be affected.

The same has been the case at universities. The crisis began to hugely impact the UK just as universities were breaking up for the Easter holidays. This has meant they have been able to use this break to transition to online teaching. However, this is a significant challenge for universities. As the Guardian reports, moving all of summer teaching online in just a few weeks is a big feat. Universities are trying to ensure their lower income students aren’t left out of teaching if they can’t access the internet from home. Furthermore, online examinations raise significant challenges, such as how they will be moderated and how the prevention of cheating will be ensured. Academic matters facing universities, as they try to balance retaining their international reputations with protecting students, are stark. 

Online teaching is a significant challenge for universities.

However, there has been widespread criticism over how universities have behaved, not least over accommodation protection. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, administration of the crisis has been poor. In America, Harvard University gave their students five days notice to leave their accommodation. Many students who lack stability have left with few opportunities due to the fast spread of the virus. The situation is even worse for international students trying to get home, who face the insecurity of travel restrictions, insecure visas and few flight options. This is on top of growing racism against Chinese and Asian students, due to the virus’ origins. Just as the university is altering the whole of society, the number of ways in universities and their students are specifically affected is numerous.  

University life is not likely to return to normal any time soon. Some universities that fail to utilise their technological capabilities of moving online could be permanently affected. With a Public Health briefing suggesting the pandemic could last until next spring, a global recession is likely. This would mean universities would have to limit spending and cut staff. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, several Russell Group funding for research costs is reliant on student income. If students are unable to attend, there will be inevitable severe consequences. Indeed, if there are fewer international students, universities, to maintain their financial sustainability, may need to look at alternative forms of funding. 

Some universities that fail to utilise their technological capabilities of moving online could be permanently affected.

In the UK at least, the Department for Education will be held to account. Domestically, it is they who are responsible, under the guidance of other government departments, for the actions that are taken. The Times Educational Supplement report that the Education Select Committee, led by Robert Halfon, have launched an inquiry to investigate ‘how teachers will be supported financially’ and how GCSEs and A-levels can be graded fairly. Other aspects of their investigation include how children’s services will support vulnerable people, the financial implications for schools and universities and whether disadvantaged groups will get the assistance they require. It is reassuring to see that MPs are asking necessary questions and constructively ensuring the government acts appropriately.

The crisis, however, is global. According to UNESCO, over 160 countries have implemented nationwide closures affecting over 87% of the world’s student population. While China has started reopening their institutions, the majority remain closed around the world. The UK is far from alone or unique in imposing a nationwide shutdown.  

According to UNESCO, over 160 countries have implemented nationwide closures affecting over 87% of the world’s student population.

There could be some reason for optimism. It is undeniable that coronavirus has reshaped education. But could this be in a positive way? According to the World Economic Forum, the coronavirus pandemic has forced educational institutions to evolve towards online teaching. It has allowed education to be embraced as something that can be undertaken and learnt anywhere. Furthermore, the virus has taught the importance of building resilience to combat issues and deal with political crises. Despite all the changes, coronavirus may have actually forced educational institutions to positively adapt to the future. There is some positivity in an otherwise extremely negative situation. 

The pandemic has allowed education to be embraced as something that can be undertaken and learnt anywhere.

What does the UK – and the rest of the world – go from here? For children, teachers and educators, the picture isn’t clear. The situation is extremely volatile. In the UK at least, the gates of schools look set to remain closed for the foreseeable future. For many, schools are not only places for learning. They provide structure and support for families. Children from low income backgrounds knew they could receive at least one hot school meal per day.  While many students will continue their online learning, some will have neither the appropriate location or support to complete tasks. For those leaving their educational institution behind, a long summer with no holidays away, minimal job prospects and cancelled exam results awaits.

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