Is online learning the answer to the Covid learning gap?

Is online learning the answer to the Covid learning gap?
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Education researchers rarely agree. But on one thing, at least, they are unanimous: the pandemic has widened the gulf in educational attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their privileged classmates and exposed deep inequalities in our education system.

A study by University College London’s Institute of Education found that during the first lockdown, while a fifth of pupils did less than an hour of schoolwork at home a day, just under a fifth regularly put in more than four hours. The study showed ‘substantial inequality’ between both regions and social groups.

Could online learning be the answer? After all, two-fifths of Generation Z – those who’ll reach adulthood this decade – have grown up with technology and say they are more interested in learning online than they were before the pandemic.

To discuss the question, The Spectator hosted a discussion about how we address the learning gap, sponsored by education company EVERFI, that brought together some of the country’s leading experts on the topic.

The mammoth task of recovery demands a ‘much more sophisticated approach’ to the one we have now, argued Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee. Rather than compare different educational technology platforms in terms of their numbers of views and visits, we should be looking at what impact they are having on pupils’ attainment and harnessing advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence. Martin Finn, EVERFI’s Executive vice president of global operations, agreed. The best educational technology – including that created and delivered by EVERFI itself – is based on evidence and can give teachers feedback on pupils’ progress. This leaves teachers time to focus on what they do best – supporting their pupils with much-needed face-to-face learning.

Meanwhile, Anne Longfield, who was until recently the Children’s Commissioner, set out her vision for the role of technology in education: building on schools’ central role in communities to develop them as ‘digital hubs’ providing resources and online learning for both pupils and their wider communities.

In terms of the learning gap itself, the panellists agreed that while academic subjects are crucial, it’s vital that we do not see the education children have lost over the past year purely in terms of traditional subjects. ‘We need to develop a rounded education for all young people and subjects such as work-related learning, mental health and entrepreneurship need a strong focus in schools, particularly for disadvantaged pupils,’ Finn said. Adrian Packer, executive principal of Core Education Trust, agreed and called for a greater emphasis on physical activity and the arts. He warned that education policymakers should think long-term and shouldn’t put ‘all our academic catch-up eggs in one basket’.

Schools have a monumental task ahead in terms of narrowing the Covid learning gap and this is not something they can do alone. Finn said it was now time for businesses that aren’t already engaged in education to step forward. ‘Whether they are small or large, they can help support non-core learning with employability skills, work experience, financial literacy and much more,’ he said. ‘All children need these skills for their future wellbeing and disadvantaged children will have least access to them without the support of businesses.’

EVERFI is an education company working with businesses, government and charities to deliver technology-based products and bespoke educational engagement campaigns. Its programmes help bring together organisations, schools and young people to address big social challenges such as career aspiration, financial education, employability skills and young people’s wellbeing.