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Beyond Covid: A New Educational Paradigm

The world is struggling to find its way back to some kind of normality. Many countries are lurching from crisis to crisis, here relaxing restrictions and there tightening them. Everyone feels unsettled; some feel insecure; many face ruin.

Somewhere in the midst of all this education tries to carry on. At first it was through online teaching and platforms such as Zoom and Skype; then there was a restricted return to schools that attempted to preserve social-distancing. All around there appeared to be no permanent control over the evolution of the disease, and schools remain open despite being thought to be super-spreaders, even if not to the children who act as asymptomatic carriers. A good deal of research suggests that closing schools is the single most effective way to control the spread of the virus, and some of the most successful controls have been in countries that have done just that.

We have already seen extraordinary disruption to education. Examinations due to be taken in the summer of 2020 were cancelled and the confusion and stress caused by the subsequent botched attempts to estimate grades and award them raised serious questions about the competence of most of the agencies involved.

Universities are still reeling from the impact of the virus: first because the number of students they needed to admit changed radically as a result of the reinstatement of teacher-estimated grades for their applicants' school-leaving examinations; later because the return to university triggered widespread outbreaks of local clusters of infection. Longer-term implications measured by the reluctance of overseas students to travel to countries perceived as risks to health are yet to play out in full in both the independent secondary- and higher-education sectors. For many independent fee-paying schools, whether we approve of them or not, the outlook is grim, and especially so if they are residential.

We therefore find ourselves facing educational challenges on every level: how to teach; what to teach; how to compensate for loss of face-to-face tutoring; how to manage the loss of lectures; how to assess; how to interview and select for higher education; how to manage the economic implications of reduced numbers of indigenous and international students in our schools and universities.

The New Revolution

Almost unnoticed, an entirely different educational revolution is taking place that predates and is in most respects independent of the consequences of Covid-19, but in ways that will be accelerated by it. This is in the implementation of machine-learning in the delivery of teaching, learning and assessment. To see the likely impact as this germ of an idea grows and eventually takes off, consider for a moment the traditional trappings of education: groups of students together in classrooms being taught by (usually) one teacher in a manner that involves common material pitched somewhere near the level of the whole class but with inevitable deviations above and below that level for students more or less able to deal with it. Even our best intentions, for example those couched in terms of personalised learning, still essentially expect to be delivered through this model. Our assumptions are that education is collective not individual.

Online computer-based teaching and learning, whether through videos or apps, had already started to break the hold of this educational model long before Covid-19 broke its hold through force majeur. By choosing my own learning-vehicles on YouTube, by choosing to learn a language through DuoLingo or Memrise or one of the other apps, by essentially learning to take responsibility for the trajectory of my own education, I had substantially broken my dependence upon schooling and even upon university teaching. And it was clear that much more lay not very much further down the educational road.

In October 2020 through Kaggle a software company called Riiid launched an international competition to apply machine-learning and AI techniques to machine-teaching. Other initiatives, for example through companies such as CENTURY, already aim to provide online personalised learning-experiences remotely to any children anywhere in the world.

Of course, intent is not a measure of success, and all these initiatives have a long way to go before they deliver truly personalised learning tailored to the learning-needs of every student at whatever level is required, but the only thing that is certain about this kind of development is that it will improve and eventually supply something that has every chance to be better than whatever can be delivered through group or classroom teaching or, most anachronistically of all, lectures delivered to hundreds of students at a time.

One of the most common responses to all these moves is to point out that education serves more than the purpose of intellectual learning: it also socialises; it provides facilities for sport, musical, artistic and theatrical performance; in its best incarnations it leverages collective knowledge, skill and social awareness to supply a learning-environment that catalyses every kind of human development from the intellectual through the artistic to the sporting and beyond. And although it is seldom acknowledged directly, except under the circumstances of a pandemic, schools also provide purposeful child-care that allows parents to get on with earning a living and make their contribution to the national economy. And education, as we have recognised for centuries, carries much of the responsibility for imparting and preproducing the cultural characteristics and histories of the countries where it takes place.

For all these reasons, it is claimed, online learning neither will nor should nor can entirely replace schooling. But the implications of this shift in emphasis will nonetheless have a profound impact on schools if they cease to be primarily centres of intellectual learning, and no profession will be more significantly affected than teaching.

Moreover, lest we forget it, personalised online learning will be able to form detailed profiles of student abilities and propensities that will be of far higher resolution than anything achievable by teachers. If there are a thousand routes through a curriculum in one subject - there are probably millions - we will be able to tailor those routes to individual needs and predispositions and assess the capabilities of each students accordingly through their responses. So assessment as we have known it in the past, especially of the kind that follows the time-honoured by essentially anachronistic methods of examinations taken at isolated desks devoid of access to any resources other than those inside out heads, will become unnecessary and irrelevant: the profiles that will arise from personalised learning will tell us far more about each student than an examination ever could.

Nor is this without its down-sides: students who feel that they are being assessed all the time may feel levels of stress that are unprecedented in a system where one can effectively "tune-out" for weeks confident that one can "do one's stuff" in a final exam. So the systems that implement personalised assessment through profiling will need to allow students to "switch off", to play with ideas without being measured by how those ideas work out, and to explore freely without fear that they are always being assessed - nay, judged - in the process. And yes, unscrupulous and ruthless régimes such as we find in some countries may well exploit this kind of high-resolution insight into each student to what they take to be their advantage, but that is not something we are likely to be able to control in any case.

So a student applying to university or for a job will bring along far more than their GCSEs, BTECs, and three or four A-level grades, an IB Diploma certificate, or a class of degree: they will bring a portfolio of competences, each of them graded over a long period of time, in relation to their peers and potentially in relation to humanity as a whole. Everyone will be identified with a percentile of the ability-range in anything we are pleased to measure. Whether that is a "good thing" is an entirely different matter; but it is inevitable and inescapable. How we deal with it will be a matter for the future, but it will be a matter for us all.


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