Any UK school student who has studied the history of medicine should be able to tell you that wars change things. Mediaeval wars gave surgeons many opportunities to practise. Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole’s reforms were a product of the Crimean War. Plastic surgery got better in response to the horrific injuries suffered by pilots in the Battle of Britain. War can stimulate improvements.
War also leads to technological change. The British invention of radar in World War II led to the development of radio astronomy in the latter half of the 20th century. Arguably the most famous 20th century example of war stimulating technologic progress is the beginnings of modern computers as Alan Turing and his team worked to crack the Nazi Enigma code. War is perhaps the most obvious example of disasters causing technological changes. A different example is how people in earthquake zones have changed their buildings to protect themselves.
However, technologies can also lay dormant for some time before society catches up with their potential. The modern motor car first began in Germany in the 1880s but mass production of automobiles was only developed 30 years later in the USA by Ford. Disasters (human made or natural) can act as a catalyst for seizing the full potential of new technologies. Will we see the same resulting from the global disaster of Covid19?
Email became widespread in the late 1990s. Interactive Whiteboards became popular in schools from the early 2000s. Likewise, Bluetooth audio devices became more common place in the first decade of this century. Smart phones were launched worldwide in the late 2000s and tablet devices quickly followed early in the last decade (2010s). But how much of the full potential of these technologies (prior to the pandemic) have we used in our classrooms? For example, how many interactive whiteboards (not just in schools but in offices around the world) are just used as expensive projectors?
The pandemic has made us adopt technologies that already existed but were hardly used. In 2019, video conferencing tools were rarely or never used in the workplace, restricted mainly to those who had to communicate globally across different time zones (and even then it was common place instead to fly to meet people face-to-face). The same is true of our leisure time. For many years, quiz competitions have been a popular pastime in the UK but they were almost exclusively face-to-face events. Few of us ever imagined we would settle into habits such as a weekly Zoom quiz competition with friends and family.
Schools have got good at distance learning. This improvement has been rapid, challenging and at times painful. We now hope that we might be approaching a ‘new normal’, in which the unpredictable Hokey-Cokey dance of schools ‘in-out, in-out’ is replaced with students returning to sustainable face-to-face campus-based learning. However, this might be wishful thinking and many of us are thinking hard on how to deliver high quality hybrid learning. In other words, we are now striving to get equally good at ensuring great learning for students in a classroom simultaneously with peers who are still at home.
Just as disaster can cause radical technological developments, it can also change the parameters of previous debates. Covid19 could and should (but in the short-term probably won’t) transform the moribund EdTech debate in the UK. This is one of many education issues in the UK in which everything is reduced to simple adversarial binary positions, where some combatants are more interested in point scoring than considering the many possible nuances. The ‘traditionalists’ appear at times to argue that all digital technologies should be kept out of the classroom while the ‘modernisers’ seem at times to argue that new technologies are a panacea for all of education’s ills.
Hybrid learning should challenge the thinking of both the proselytising progressives and the die-hard traditionalists. If hybrid and distance learning are a long-term key part of effective schooling in a pandemic world, then the traditionalists should surely learn to love the new technologies? Perhaps though the progressives should also learn to love traditional teaching approaches because they are more easily adapted to hybrid learning? It could be reasonably effective to stick a camera with microphone at the back of the room if teachers adopt a more traditional lecture-style approach. Effective hybrid learning will be particularly challenging if you believe that good learning is often enquiry-based, with lots of student talk and with students commonly working in groups. Simply sticking a camera at the back of the room won’t work. The students in the classroom will need devices (tablets or laptops) to collaborate with their peers who are at home. Audio-visual equipment will be necessary to facilitate plenary discussions of all class members.
And so this article ends with where it began: a disaster is forcing change upon us. It’s reasonable to assume that Covid19 will have some lasting impact on how technology is used in education but we don’t yet know to what extent and in what precise ways. Previous disasters have at times led to paradigm shifts in thinking and behaviours, and rapid changes in how existing technologies were applied. Have we reached a tipping point where the technological innovations of the turn of the last few decades are finally unleashed to radically transform education practices? Are we in a moment akin to when schools stopped using slate and adopted paper, or even when the printing press replaced copying all texts by hand? Or will it just be that we have a few more video calls instead of travelling to a meeting?