Crisis 12: Matthew’s on the computer

The reality of digital intervention in education has often fallen short of the claims. Yet I’ve been impressed with some brilliant uses of technology during the lockdown. Oak National Academy, for example, and the generosity of trusts like Greenshaw and schools like Parklands. Our own experience of delivering a fully virtual Summer Institute to 1699 trainees was eye opening for the potential and quality: it may have been our best Institute ever. It’s amazing what we can do when we have no other choice.

We should experiment more. Yet I fear that, without careful planning and structure, extending digital learning for students could widen inequality rather than reduce it.

It was right to invest in whatever way possible in digital learning as an emergency measure while most children were unable to attend school. It is right to develop backup plans for future disruption. Many young people have benefited from these measures and could benefit from them in future emergencies. But one of the things we have learned is that digital access is not evenly distributed. In order to learn effectively online you need more than content. You need a suitable device; you need a reliable connection; you need space and peace to study; you need encouragement and problem solving and, often, a bit of adult direction.

Some children have access to much or all of this; others don’t. Those children in the first group may actually have learned more during lockdown than they would during traditional schooling. The others have fallen further behind. If we keep this up, the gaps will widen.

This is my nightmare vision of the future: the affluent develop digitally-enabled enclaves of home schooling. Those who can afford it pay for childcare or even tutoring (or take time off work); fix up the spare bedroom or reception room into a mini classroom; buy high resolution screens, good quality keyboards and ultrafast broadband. They meet like-minded families for play dates and socials or pay for sports clubs and music lessons. Maybe entrepreneurial private schools supplement this with a low cost, blended learning model – two days a week at school, three days at home, tutoring help desk on demand.* Those who can’t afford this go to state school. This would be the end of comprehensive education and the start of a savage tear in our county’s social fabric.

So, if we do want to expand the use of digital in the delivery of education, I think we will need to spend vastly more time on the non-digital barriers to learning rather than on the kit and content. How would we ensure that every child has the equipment, space, guidance and mentoring to make progress? How will we spot the small minority at risk of harm?

Digital learning in lockdown was a case study of the Matthew Effect: to those that already have, more was given. It is a thorny problem in education reform in general. So many interventions either require some level of social (or actual) capital to make the most of them, or can be swiftly captured by those that have that capital. This means that, at best, interventions tend to help the borderline vulnerable rather than the most desperate. This is certainly better than nothing, but not really what is promised or needed. At worst, their benefits are wholly captured by the middle class: just watch house prices rise in the catchment area of an improving school for one example.

I’d like to know more about educational interventions that work (consistently and over sustained periods) for the most disadvantaged families. There may be lessons there for how to make the most of our recent digital experiments in a way that works for everyone. There would also be lessons for educational reform more generally: too much of what we do, despite the best intentions, seems to reinforce the old patterns of inequality. I fear that it would be hard to build a political coalition around such reforms, however. We haven’t yet got to the place where we worry about the education of other people’s children as much as we worry about the education of our own.

* Edit: From The Atlantic, 21st August 2020: ‘Across the country, parents are using Facebook to form “pandemic pods,” hiring tutors or out-of-work teachers to educate their kids as school district after school district announces that it will go partially or fully virtual.’ The nightmare scenario comes closer. Of course, not all parents are able to hire tutors: ‘Rich families are hiring tutors to supervise their kids as they go to Zoom school, or are forming one-room schools with in-person instruction for their children. Meanwhile, poor families are facing neglect charges for not managing the digital transition well enough.’

The full crisis collection.

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