The pandemic has made it painfully clear: the digital transformation has by no means arrived in all areas of public life. Especially in schools, overcoming the crisis often depended on the commitment of teachers and parents. While the negative effects of digital learning have been the main topic of public debate, current research gives hope. In many places, digital teaching has released creative energy and brought about new structures. Austrian journalist Caroline Haidacher and Humboldt Research Fellow Miri Yemini from Israel discussed the benefits of remote learning at the third Communication Lab*. The result is a piece about resilience in everyday school life and the creative power of teamwork, which can only help us in the development of global sustainable education.
Crisis as Opportunity: Innovative Education in the Time of COVID-19
Author: Caroline Haidacher
The days leading up to 17 March 2020, when Austria's schools closed their doors in the face of the rapidly spreading COVID pandemic, were hectic. Regina Pock, the director of a primary school in central Graz, struggled to keep a cool head, to separate official information from rumour and to calm worried parents. In those early, uncertain days, she recalls, "My first priority was the health of the teachers and children." Masks and disinfectant were hurriedly obtained and older teachers were sent home; anyone not associated with the school was barred from entering.
Learning at a distance
Almost overnight, terms like "home schooling", "distance learning" and "digital learning" became integral to the anxious public discourse – and in the conference rooms the massive copying operation began. Regina Pock knew she needed to act. The IT administrator advocated acquiring more computers and switching to digital classes. "Since we have a lot of international students, we had an advantage," Pock relates. "We've always been networked." However, that was mainly true of the administration; older teachers, in particular, usually taught using analogue means. They needed new tools to help them find their way in the digital realm. "The teachers showed enormous solidarity and took a lot of initiative," recalls Pock. Soon, the entire faculty was using Padlet, a digital bulletin board where graphic, text, audio and video files could be used cooperatively.
Learning from home doesn't have a very positive image. Numerous studies in the last year and a half show that underprivileged children have lost ground and are exhibiting learning deficits; some are no longer reachable. The term "lost generation" has become common – experts fear that the long-term negative consequences of distance learning can no longer be averted. But while the warnings of researchers, government and society must be taken seriously, there is another side to the story.
Innovation and initiative
The pandemic has also encouraged the human powers of innovation and self-renewal: studies in Israel have shown that the state of emergency in 2020 had a galvanizing effect on teachers. The decisive factor was autonomy. Professor Miri Yemini, recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship and a sociologist at the University of Tel Aviv, has spent years studying the conditions that allow teachers and principals to develop initiative and creative solutions of their own – also known as "entrepreneurial spirit". This spirit was present during the recent pandemic among many teachers and school administrators.
Autonomy and support
Paradoxically, the chaos of early 2020 provided the perfect conditions for this kind of development. "During the first half of the crisis, schools were completely alone," explains Yemini. "The government´s rules were confusing, so teachers had to find their own creative ways of dealing with the situation." In the context of a study in 2015, the researcher identified teachers and school principals viewed as especially dedicated by students, their parents and communities. In qualitative interviews, Yemini asked them what they needed in order to realise their visions. The surprising conclusion: not more money or resources, but mainly autonomy and support from their institutions.
Crisis as opportunity
Yemini and her team took advantage of the COVID crisis to collect further data. Some teachers outdid themselves: during the lockdown, one primary school teacher developed a virtual tour that allowed his students to visit places that were out of bounds – markets, parks, and playgrounds, for example – with a mouse click. Another teacher, in a poorer area of Tel Aviv, organised meetings between older and younger students to share computers and wi-fi connections, resources to which many of them didn't have easy access. A teacher at an anthroposophical school, where technology is prohibited, developed a particularly creative interpretation of "distance learning": he created an open-air maze for his students, for which every clue to the solution was informative. This enabled students to learn while simultaneously getting some fresh air and exercise. The relatively vague guidelines issued by the government allowed the teachers a lot of freedom to bring their own concepts and ideas to life.
Transformation in education
Restrictions on movement in Austria made such projects impossible, but Regina Pock still sees the pandemic as having spurred a transformation in the educational system. Older colleagues in particular were suddenly catapulted into the digital age, which served to inspire and motivate many of them: "On the whole, the results are overwhelmingly positive," summarises Pock. A large-scale poll by the independent educational forum Deutsches Schulportal supports her opinion: over half of the teachers surveyed claim their students are now empowered to take more responsibility for their own learning process while more than two thirds tried new teaching methods and approaches during the pandemic that they intend to continue using. And 44 percent of the teachers surveyed believe that, in the long term, the crisis will lead to positive changes at their schools.
Miri Yemini is convinced as well: "For teachers who were already kind of bored or passive, this crisis was an opportunity." Teachers had the chance to acquire new skills, and not just digital ones: crisis management skills have also been strengthened enormously – invaluable in a country like Israel where the threat of armed conflict is constant.
Resilience and responsibility
For students, too, the conclusions to be drawn are more nuanced. There is no question that the divide between children from richer families and the less privileged grew considerably during the pandemic. However, this doesn't mean that an entire generation has been lost. Miri Yemini's research yielded proof that "there were opportunities for students too: they became more resilient, more responsible, more self-managed." Similarly, Regina Pock witnessed an improvement in her students' awareness during the pandemic, in areas like hygiene, consideration for others, knowledge of how germs and sickness spread – and, of course, in the digital world. All in all, according to Pock, the positive effects outweigh the negative.
The question now, according to Miri Yemini, is what lessons will be applied in the coming school year. Weaknesses must be pinpointed and students who have fallen behind need assistance. Here, the role of policymakers will be particularly important: governments should offer active support and cooperation while still allowing teachers and administrators the autonomy for creative action and problem solving.