COVID-19: changing the face of education

COVID-19: changing the face of education

Posted on: 12th Apr 2020 by: Kristina Gambling

A visualisation of the Covid-19 virus.
Figure 1: A visualisation of the Covid-19 virus.
(Credit: Unsplash)

On Thursday 12 March 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 “coronavirus” outbreak a worldwide pandemic[1] and our lives changed; inexorably, irrefutably and without precedent.

Beginning in early February, the UK’s restrictions commenced with a series of government advisories including a range of voluntary restrictions such as “social distancing” and, if any symptoms were exhibited, self-isolation and quarantine; a slightly different and initially more lenient approach to those taken by other countries affected by the virus such as Italy and China. However, less than six weeks later the government implemented a drastic set of measures restricting movement and assembly and granting police powers to enforce the “social distancing” measures and quickly followed this with the Coronavirus Act 2020[2], granting the government and other authorities unprecedented powers including the authority to prohibit events and gatherings for the purpose of preventing the transmission of coronavirus. 

From liberty to lockdown, the UK launched nationwide closures of businesses, services and facilities on 23 March, just three short months from its first confirmed cases of the virus. This included the closure of schools at “home time”, Friday 20 March 2020.

Keeping calm and carrying on teaching

School closures did not immediately mean closure of the school gates and embarking on the extended holidays the uninitiated seem to think teachers get every year: vulnerable children (such as those with Education, Health and Care Plans and those with social workers) and the children of key workers were still expected to attend school for welfare purposes and to enable parents to continue to work, and teachers were required to set work for all learners to continue their education whilst “on lockdown”.

Suddenly teachers all over the UK had to forget their time-honoured methods of delivery and embrace technology, often considered the “dirty secret” of education by many die-hard, “old school” educators who embarked on their careers when chalk and blackboards were à la mode and telephones had holes where you put your fingers to turn the dial.  Virtual classrooms, video conferencing and web-based programs instantly replaced text books, lined exercise books and red pen feedback and for teachers, a strangely change-resistant breed on the whole, this whirlwind of transformation left no time to resist, no time to plan and no time to test the robustness of systems.

Enter the Network Manager; a superhero without a cape

With some sixty-plus timetabled lessons per day suddenly having to take place remotely the ICT of schools was plunged into the Marianas Trench of deep-ends.  When normally the ICT department might see ten or so ICT-based lessons demand for technological solutions sky rocketed: students without access to ICT at home had to be supplied with the necessary hardware, staff needed equipment and the “fairy magic” that is the ICT Network needed to support 70 new YouTube video uploads, 2000 remote desktop logins and countless virtual classrooms.  For teachers this has been a strange and daunting prospect; for the IT Network Manager this has been the Seventh Circle of Hell.

If teachers are resistant to change and reticent about technology, Network Managers revel in it, so surely this must have been all their Christmases come at once?  No, not exactly, and the reason for this is because Network Managers are wraiths, phantoms, figments of the imaginations of most educators; they hide in the shadows and work unseen and, often, unacknowledged by the general workings of a school.  They do not seek glory, they do not relish scrutiny and more than anything else, they like to know that when they do have to appear above the parapet the system they are proffering will not just ‘cope’ but will indeed excel.  This takes weeks if not months of preparation, testing and trialling under extreme load before they will even consider making their work visible to other members of Leadership.  In March 2020 Network Managers all over the UK were thrust into a live “Britain’s Got Talent” of limelight without warning, without preparation and without a stiff drink to soften the blow.  Stepping up all over the nation, IT Network Managers had to hang their hats on their systems and state for their Leadership panels how they would perform.

And as if this wasn’t hard enough for these reluctant superheroes they not only have to assure their service users that everything will work without compromise, they have to conjure their “all seeing eye” or crystal ball and foresee issues with individuals’ own domestic systems of which they have no previous knowledge or access.  Imagine, if you will, a chef being asked to prepare a banquet for some 1500 demanding guests without knowing what ingredients are available or whether s/he will have gas, electric or even a campfire on which to cook: this was the challenge faced by Network Managers at the start of this unprecedented event.

Strange New World

Since the closure of schools education has changed without exception.  However schools have chosen to adapt their provision none are able to continue as before; every educator has had to drastically rethink their methods and it has been purgative for some; an opportunity to cull old materials and resources and implement new and updated ones.  However, this has also led to new and unforeseen challenges.  Many parents, also facing a sudden and drastic career swerve away from their chosen profession and into teaching, have identified that the volume of work set has been unrealistic and unachievable.  Schools have faced the backlash from frustrated and overwhelmed parents, but on reflection does this not mean that perhaps the expectations on teachers, schools and, most importantly, on students have become too demanding?  If the workload is too great for children to complete at home with a much smaller pupil:teacher ratio, is it really acceptable to expect this level of work to be accomplished in class with 30 other students all demanding the attention and assistance of the teacher?  Sure, teachers are trained to teach whereas parent are not, but also ought parents not to have greater control of and a closer relationship with their child?  Should they not be able to deliver the materials so carefully and diligently uploaded or emailed by their child’s teachers, many of whom have their own children at home to manage whilst trying to deliver a full teaching timetable with new technology and a domestic internet connection?  If maths is an hour in school, is it unreasonable to expect it to be an hour at home?  Who will take the blame if Child A does not achieve the grade they expect because they didn’t learn trigonometry because a parent decided they were better off learning something practical by washing the car?  Does Education need to revaluate its priorities in light of this new emphasis?

These are all rhetorical questions; there are no answers because we haven’t figured them out yet.  There will be many more problems to come, and education will evolve, both in front of and behind the camera; literally.  None of us knows what is coming.  We are facing a strange and difficult time in education where our collective and individual responses will be scrutinised and will undoubtedly face criticism.  However, we can only make our best efforts.  We can maintain perspective and a sense of proportion and roll with the punches as they come from every direction.  Teachers must continue to find innovative and exciting ways to deliver learning objectives to students who are more vulnerable and anxious than ever before with none of the usual tricks and techniques to coax engagement and the ever-elusive enthusiasm.  Schools need to continue to support teachers, parents, students and their other less frequently recognised staff who continue to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.  Parents must endeavour to recognise the work sent home isn’t some Machiavellian trick but indeed is an attempt to continue to provide a meaningful education to children the teaching profession genuinely care about.  And teachers and Leadership must appreciate that their Network Managers are operating not just their own systems under extreme and unprecedented loads but are also managing foreign systems in the blind – ask your partner if s/he will let you cut their hair with whatever tools you have in the junk drawer in the kitchen (come on, you know you have one), whilst wearing a blindfold and receiving guidance from your next door neighbour.  If they say yes, you must be a Network Manager (or they are very, very drunk).

Applause for All Keyworkers

As life continues to change for everyone we, as a people, must continue to revaluate our priorities and what we are grateful for.  Already appreciation for frontline healthcare workers has been profoundly and publicly documented[3], but this gratitude needs to spread much further.  It needs to include the drivers of lorries who continue to ensure goods are available on the shelves, the postal services and delivery drivers who continue to deliver our lockdown purchases, the educators of all ages who are trying to educate our young people, the carers who look after the most vulnerable in society including those who care for their loved ones, the services who maintain our safety and security at all times as well as in emergencies, and those whose work goes unnoticed because they make sure we don’t notice: the engineers and technicians who ensure we have heat and light and electricity, that our phones, TVs and internet work and our IT Network professionals who keep ahead of our needs as best they can.

Kristina Gambling (Partner of ANME Ambassador Andrew White)

 

[1] Euro.who.int. 2020. WHO Announces COVID-19 Outbreak A Pandemic. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 April 2020].

[2] Legislation.gov.uk. 2020. Coronavirus Act 2020. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 April 2020].

[3] Rawlinson, K., 2020. Public Urged To Raise £5M For NHS Staff With One Million Claps Appeal. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 16 April 2020]. 

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