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Façade vs foundation: Making the case for offline education

Jun 03,2020 - Last updated at Jun 03,2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic, education emerged as a key sector utilising digitisation to deal with the effects of the lock-down. With schools unsure of when they will open again, children across the world needed to keep up with classes while staying at home and, as a response, governments have created new and innovative ways to deliver the educational content to them. Perhaps prematurely, this achievement has been celebrated as a progressive move towards the future and hailed by many as a step in the right direction for education.

This shift may be considered as part of a trend where the belief that digitising aspects of everyday life into apps or online portals means that we are moving forward, while services that require physical and in-person interaction are viewed as regressive and impractical. It is no wonder that Uber, for example, may be considered the poster-company for such a way of thinking, as digitisation makes sense to business-minded people who want high potential for scalability, easy data tracking, and quick return on investment.

Choosing to accept this at face value leads to ignoring that not everything can or should be digitized, at least not completely; and especially not schools. Few people would object to the idea that the current school system is lacking, as it undoubtedly requires continuous improvement that provides learners with a space for self-expression, innovation, and hands-on learning. However, full digitisation cannot be the answer at this time as it creates two main issues, namely the reduction in equity and the loss of vital learning outcomes. 

The concern for equity among students is due to the reality that some do not have an Internet connection to begin with, let alone a fast and a reliable one. The same applies to digital devices, and a space to learn from home. Research done by the World Bank and others shows that most of the world has access to some type of technology, but very few lower income households have enough devices for all the students in that home to use. Additionally, not all parents have sufficient knowledge in the technology or the taught subjects for them to provide adequate support. At this time, adopting a distant learning approach to education unfairly disadvantages middle and lower income households. No social initiative, no matter how well-supported, can be capable of distributing the needed equipment that would ensure all children have the same opportunity to learn.

Looking more broadly gets us to the second and most important challenge to digitising education, which is learning outcomes. It is vital to take a moment away from the excitement of a new era for education and the shiny potentials of technology to think about what we rely on physical schools to help us with beyond academia. Schools and colleges provide a space for students to build relationships with peers, learn social norms, rebel against those norms if they wish, discover themselves through empathy with others and develop social skills that cannot be taught through an online course. Inside a physical school structure, much of the learning is happening outside of the classes themselves. From dealing with the school’s rules and regulations to having conversations with peers during breaks, these are aspects essential for personal development. As someone who has been running an educational enterprise for the past eight years, I would even argue that the simple act of touching objects and creating experiments by-hand has a major impact on brain development that no online simulation can compare. Children and youth need to navigate the complexities of human life so they can grow into well-rounded individuals who can navigate society and exist outside of technology, even while using technology.

This is not to say digitisation and technology do not have a place in education. Educational institutions like the Mind Lab have utilised technology to keep parents and students updated and connected, used it to deliver up-to-date content to teachers and trainers, and even provided supportive content and videos as a reference for our students. Through my experience, I see that while it is useful to utilise technology in education, this also needs to be tempered with an understanding of why we are using it and if it is adding real value to the students’ learning experience.

In time, new and innovative ways of using technology may play a larger role in education, but a focus on what educational outcomes we actually want and how technology can assist with those outcomes may be best achieved through developing truly modern and holistic systems that builds students’ capacity to face today’s challenges with their mind, spirit and hands, both physically and digitally.

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