April 2, 2020 4:14:30 pm
By Sumeet Mehta
Over the past three weeks in India, different states have imposed shutdowns on schools due to the Covid-19 scare. Online and consumer edtech companies have announced free live classes, sensing an opportunity to ostensibly impose their hegemony on learning. Experts are calling for a new normal where online classes replace schools and teachers. Investors are wondering if their old play books and assumptions have gone for a toss.
For all of them, I have four words: Take a deep breath. In fact, I have four more: This too shall pass. A lot of what I’m saying is rooted in being in education for the last 15 years. I have run a public listed education company in India, setting up pre-schools and K-12 schools around the country. And I’m seeing first-hand the convulsions that everyone is undergoing in the middle of this Covid-19 induced earthquake.
Most of my conviction stems from having spent a lot of time with parents and being a parent myself. And one thing I know for sure. Schools have less to do with learning and more with a parent’s need to get time off their child. Heartless and cynical as this may sound, the reality is that a vast majority of parents have to leave their home to earn a livelihood. And having two kids to take care of at home is a minor hiccup in that endeavour. The traditional joint family has disappeared (mostly) and parents do need schools to take care of their children while they are away. So schools are not going anywhere. If anything, this forced cohabitation during Covid-19 will only make parents appreciate the role played by schools and teachers (try taking care of two young kids while working from home!). Wait for the spread of Covid-19 to be arrested and see how quickly parents will make children line up to enter schools. I, for one, am waiting eagerly for my kids to go back to school!
My second reason is rooted in what I have learnt about child development and learning. I have understood that till about eight years of a child’s life, their synaptic connections are feverishly getting formed. And till 12 years, this undergoes a process of pruning. During this time, children are yet to have fully built the faculty of self-direction and self-control. In this phase, learning is best done through mediation by an informed and caring adult (a teacher). So, self-learning is not even the ideal form of learning before a child reaches middle school. Plus the concerns around screen time and kids sitting isolated in front of a screen and you have a recipe for a welcome back to schools once this crisis is over.
My last reason is the importance of peer learning, collaboration and good old human interaction. You can simulate group learning as much as you want online but there is little evidence yet of new relationships getting formed online. So far, we have had real relationships continuing online or getting supplemented by online interactions. Where do students get together, fight, learn, share and grow up together? Most parents and educators acknowledge that this is a very important role played by schools. And I see Covid-19 only strengthening our conviction on this aspect.
Now, I am the last one to say nothing will change. I am not a status quoist by any means. I see two trends emerging:
The traditional teacher training model will get disrupted
It was long overdue but Covid-19 is showing that it is possible to train adults online. It is possible to do a Netflix to teacher training. Technology will empower teachers with on-demand, bite-sized, practical training vs. the ineffective periodic get-togethers they used to do. Technology will make it cheaper and easier for schools to improve their teacher performance by making customised, data-based interventions.
Tuitions, test prep and homework help will get disrupted
Research is also showing that online learning is best used for remediation or supplemental learning and not for core, foundational learning. This means that students can revise using technology, they can clarify doubts using technology, they can practice using technology – all of these will be serviced more and more through online, live or asynchronous means. We are already seeing this with parents using various online tools to keep their kids occupied and Covid-19 has just increased the choice set manifold.
Covid-19 has so far shown us that technology will empower teachers, transform schools, disrupt tuitions, test prep and homework help. Schools will become better with technology. But they are not going anywhere.
(The author is cofounder & CEO, LEAD School)
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