By Vicky Gill
"It is evident that our education systems are in desperate need of reform in light of the pandemic."
There is no doubt that the way in which we now consume the majority of our content is online and through devices. However, one area that remained largely untouched by this change has been education. The ability to have students in classrooms and lecture halls were equalisers where no one was put at a technological disadvantage. This has been disrupted by the pandemic. The ways in which we learn have changed, especially for university students due to significantly larger numbers of students in lectures than in school classrooms which have made forming ‘bubbles’ and keeping rooms well ventilated very hard.
Yet, whilst the vast majority of those studying at universities, and those isolating at home from school, are online learning, little has been put into place to ensure that there is equal opportunity for all students so that they all have the same access to resources.
"The ability to have students in classrooms and lecture halls were equalisers where no one was put at a technological disadvantage."
The government had plans to allocate and provide devices such as laptops to schools who would in turn loan and distribute them to those who do not have access to such resources at home. This was a welcomed policy, and it indicated that the government was listening and aware of the technological inequalities, yet this has ended up being a failure due to distribution issues with many schools receiving just a fraction of the devices needed. This highlights a very tricky situation for schools and for parents. We know that having sustained access to education is important, especially for those in exam years, and as the article linked above suggests, there has been a fall in attendance due to children having to isolate which means that for many who do not have access to laptops, due to the implementation of this policy, are missing out on perhaps weeks of education.
There were policies in Labour’s 2019 manifesto (such as free broadband and a national education service that included “well-funded schools with lower class sizes”) aimed at tackling the inequalities that were, pre-pandemic at least, rarely mentioned. In an age where smartphones are a necessity to keep in contact with people and to navigate through normal life (especially now with the tracing app) there is also now an expectation to have a working computer at home so that you can return to some sort of remote normality. With libraries shut due to the pandemic, especially during the two national lockdowns, children were without even shared or public access to computers. There is a fear that due to the economic downturn we are seeing, public libraries will inevitably take a hit because of supposed reductions to council budgets. This should not be allowed to happen if we truly care about equal access and opportunity, especially to our young people who may not have the resources to buy books, and as aforementioned have access to a device or to a stable internet connection.
A different situation is occurring within universities, however. University libraries have access to resources such as digitalised books and other research tools; libraries are open in many cases, although you may need to book a study space in advance, and universities offer hardship funds and bursaries if you need financial aid to buy equipment. Yet, the sense of isolation and disconnect is very much the same. The promise of having some face-to-face teaching meant that the majority of students, especially those in their first year, decided to move to a new city with hopes that there would be a semblance of ‘normal’ university life with small in-person seminars and tutorials, but have instead been left feeling isolated and abandoned by the universities.
There is a marked shift between the way in which teaching at schools and sixth forms differs from universities and the smaller, more intimate and interactive settings of tutorials and seminars in many cases has been lost due to a lack of planning. The isolating method of learning online, from black screens on zoom calls, to group emails has had a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of many students. I personally think that working with people, especially face to face, when I was in my first year was a comfort; the familiarity of learning in this way was reminiscent of classes at school, and was also an opportunity to get to know people - even more so when considering how many people were in lectures and ultimately how overwhelming that felt.
"The isolating method of learning online, from black screens on zoom calls, to group emails has had a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of many students."
It is evident that our education systems are in desperate need of reform in light of the pandemic. It has taught many of us that human connection and interaction is valuable in learning, discussing, and sharing ideas, and is perhaps something we have taken for granted. Furthermore, without such policies and initiatives to ensure that students in the education system have equal access to technology and resources regardless of whether they are physically in or out of school – during school holidays for example – we will fail to support children through the minimum that is required of them in the education system, never mind giving them access to resources that help them find their own interests.
Vicky Gill's interest in politics grew after participating in the UK branch of the European Youth Parliament in 2018, and after doing a module on the 20th century social and political history of the UK at A-Level.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.