• Homeschooling children during the COVID-19 crisis is changing our approach to education.
  • Experts believe the innovations teachers use during the outbreak may lead to lasting change, with technology playing a bigger role in schools in the future.
  • But advances in e-learning must not leave the educationally disadvantaged behind.

Around the world, schools in over 100 countries are closed to protect against the spread of coronavirus, affecting the education of nearly 1 billion children. For the lucky ones, homeschooling will take the place of the classroom.

In some parts of the world, it will be down to parents to keep their child's education going as best they can. But digital technologies are increasingly being used to deliver lessons to children at home.

Until the pandemic closed schools, only a minority of children were taught at home. In the United States, an estimated 1.7 million children were homeschooled out of a national school population of 56.6 million.

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The estimated number of home schooled children in the United States 1999-2016.
Image: NCES/Statista

Today, things look very different. Around the world, schools are using existing platforms from the likes of Microsoft and Google as well as conferencing apps like Zoom to deliver lessons for their pupils. In the UK, virtual gym classes delivered by fitness instructor Joe Wicks have proved extremely popular.

Meanwhile, France has created “Ma classe à la maison” (my classroom at home), which can be accessed on devices such as a laptop or a smartphone. It provides four weeks of courses with what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes as “confirmed pedagogical content”.

Education revolution?

The OECD is tracking how technology is replacing face-to-face teaching. “It is particularly inspiring to see entirely new ways of working emerging, ones that go beyond simply replacing physical schools with digital analogues,” says Tracey Burns, of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills.

In Japan, private sector companies are offering free online courses to children in lockdown through a government digital platform which allows students and parents to choose which one they study.

“As more schools close, we must pay special attention to the most vulnerable, not just physically, but also academically and psychologically,” says Burns. “All responses must be designed to avoid deepening educational and social inequality.

“As systems massively move to e-learning, the digital divide in connectivity, access to devices and skill levels takes on more weight.”

She says it's too early to say that bricks-and-mortar schools will be replaced by e-learning anytime soon. But Andreas Schleicher, Director of Education and Skills at the OECD, sees the crisis as an opportunity to rethink how we organize education.

He argues schools and teachers should no longer be seen as “knowledge delivery systems” and that teachers should be empowered to take greater ownership of what they teach and how they teach it.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Empowering teachers

“I meet many people who say we cannot give teachers and education leaders greater autonomy because they lack the capacity and expertise to deliver on it,” added Schleicher. “But those asked only to reheat pre-cooked hamburgers are unlikely to become master chefs.

“Simply perpetuating our prescriptive approach to teaching will not hold up in this moment of crisis, which demands from teachers not just to replicate their lessons in another medium, but to find entirely new responses to what people learn, how people learn, where people learn and when they learn.”

Drawing on the results of the OECD’s global teaching survey TALIS, he says technology should have a much greater role in the classroom. “Technology cannot just change methods of teaching and learning, it can also elevate the role of teachers from imparting received knowledge towards working as co-creators of knowledge,” he says.

Teachers across the world told the survey a shortage of digital technology in the classroom was hindering learning. Just over half of teachers were able to let their students use computers for projects or classwork.

Only 60% of teachers had received professional development training in the use of technology and almost 20% said they had an urgent need for development in this area. But with the coronavirus pandemic giving us a glimpse of how education could evolve, this could change. Schools may never be the same again when they reopen after COVID-19.