Hello! This time I want to write about something slightly different. This is the English translation of an article I wrote for the next issue of Dodo – Rivista di politiche per la gioventù (click if you want to subscribe to this excellent magazine, in Italian).
I think there are some interesting facts on how this long pandemic is affecting the education and learning of more than one generation – and some ideas on how to influence the process. While – as it’s understandable – the public opinion and policymakers are most concerned with the immediate health and the financial danger posed by the situation, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will cast long shadows.
Here I try to investigate its medium-to-long-term consequences on education. I also include a few hints at how Non-Formal Education can be part of the solution. I hope you enjoy the read and it will bring some food for thought. I would love to hear from you in the comment section below.
The COVID-19 emergency caught more or less everybody by surprise. It shouldn’t have (there were countless reports, talks and even mainstream movies that should have at least prepared us), but it did. Experts and researchers looked first of all at how to limit the immediate threat, and the impact on people’s health and on the economy, but we are now almost one full year into the crisis (at least here in Europe) and we are starting to examine also other aspects of the situation.
In particular, many people (parents, teachers, the students themselves) start to have a feeling that this year(s) might have negative consequences on the learning outcomes, at various levels. The idea is that students are learning less, or worse than usual, at school.
Is it just an impression? How grounded is it?
To give an answer as much as possible based on facts, the European Union publishing office released a paper recently, titled: “The likely impact of COVID-19 on education: reflections based on the existing literature and recent international datasets” (Di Pietro, Biagi, Dinis Mota Da Costa, Karpinski, Mazza, 2020).
Let’s dive deeper into it. The research gathered data from various available sources (Eurostat, PISA, ICILS and others), and tried to understand the ways – direct and indirect – in which the virus and the measures implemented to contain it might have impacted students and their life.
In short: estimates indicate, on average, that there will be negative consequences. Besides, not all students will be affected in the same way, there will be short-term and long-term consequences, and they will extend beyond the cognitive sphere.
Among the reasons: first of all, evidence shows that students in quarantine simply spend less time engaged in learning activities. In other words, for various reasons, they study less. Besides, many report feeling anxious or stressed, and this reduces their ability to concentrate. Third, the physical closure of schools and the lack of interpersonal contact can reduce the extrinsic motivation to get engaged in learning activities. Together, it’s better.
Estimates made in Italy, Germany and France suggest that students have suffered a decrease in their learning results between 0.82 and 2.3% from standard deviation (to be clear: on a test where the expected average result would be 500, the loss due to the prolonged lockdown would be between 6.5 and 14 points, so this year the expected average will be between 486 and 493.5).
Furthermore, we need to talk about the difference between the offline learning environment and the online setting. This impacts negatively those students, in particular in primary and secondary school, who don’t have an easy time accessing digital tools. Existing inequalities will be exacerbated: the most vulnerable students (for example because they have a disadvantaged background) will suffer more from the consequences of lockdown. It’s easy to understand why: they will have less access to digital tools (personal computers or broadband connection); trouble finding a suitable environment to study (like a quiet space at home); or adequate support from parents or tutors.
Students coming from more favorable settings attend schools with better infrastructures, on the other hand, or with teachers better prepared to use the new technologies. While single-parents children or those in large families, with special learning needs or learning disabilities, will suffer even more from the new settings.
Lastly, the forced isolation from schoolmates and teachers can create social and psychological problems. Students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds have bigger chances to find themselves in a stressful family environment (for example for limited spaces at home, or lack of access to digital tools), while their parents will be more exposed to financial or occupational stress and may struggle to provide them adequate support.
The increased inequality that will result in cognitive (and meta) skills may have profound consequences not only in the short-term, but also in the long-term perspective. According to many studies, the cognitive and socio-emotional skills developed in the formative years are good indicators to predict future opportunities in life. Those students who will acquire less of these skills will face worse opportunities in their work-life, both in terms of access to employment and in generating revenue.
This means that there is a concrete risk that, without adequate support measures, the short term differences caused by COVID-19 will produce even bigger inequalities in the future.
To put it in a broader perspective: this will generate a loss in the available human capital – distributed in an uneven way among population segments. There will be negative effects on productivity, innovation, employment, and the capacity to generate revenue. For example, a preliminary estimate on the long-term damage for French students is given around 700-800 million euros – and this was counting only the primary school and the current, less than one-year-long lockdown.
These data must be taken in consideration by policy makers who will assess the resources to mitigate the long-term pandemic impact. This is not a sector where we should be counting the euro-cents, because the future is literally at stake. Those countries and communities that have managed to minimize the damage from COVID-19 will benefit from an even stronger competitive advantage in the near future. It’s a short list: Singapore, New Zealand, South Korea, some parts of Africa, maybe China for their early response.
For everybody else, including Europe and the Americas, now it’s the time to enact effective relief strategies, which can be of at least two types.
First, interventions are necessary to guarantee that the most vulnerable students manage to absorb the potential loss of future income. This should be done with swift and effective actions, as soon as possible.
Secondly, it is necessary to design and implement effective systems of alternative (digital) teaching and learning. This presents a number of challenges due, as said before, to the profile of students and teachers, school curricula that must be redesigned, and even the physical spaces for learning (schools) which in many cases are not up to the new needs.
The research highlights these priorities of intervention:
to guarantee internet access at an acceptable speed and that computers, laptops or tablets are available to all students;
to adopt Virtual Learning Environments, VLEs: so students may have access to educational resources, network and get in touch among themselves and with teachers, and in general facilitate their learning processes;
to rethink the role that last-gen educational broadcasts (radio, video) may have: these can be useful complements to online programs and may reach also those who don’t have access to the internet all the time;
to facilitate access for students with special needs and / or disabilities to the technologies that may facilitate their learning;
to support teachers, who should learn how to adapt their role to a situation where they can only communicate online and in which their traditional relationships with students, and their motivation, may vary. It is crucial to boost the digital competence of teachers of all ages, and ensure they are adequately trained in the most up-to-date educational approaches, including online and blended environments;
to support parents, fully including them in the way educational strategies are developed and in their implementation. A fundamental characteristic of an online educational strategy is regular and detailed communication between teachers, school and parents.
What can Non-Formal Education (NFE) do?
And here we come to what, in my opinion, can somehow be considered good news. NFE excels by its very nature in those contexts in which flexibility is more needed, there are specific objectives to reach in a short time, and learning is focused on complex competence areas and “soft skills”.
If the goal is to strengthen learning in the socio-psychological and meta-cognitive areas, activities based on non-formal learning are perfect. And here comes the interesting point: non-formal learning can also happen online.
It’s true that we have become accustomed in decades of practice to visualizing a circle with chairs, marker pens and sticky paper notes on a flipchart board, groups of people meeting and hugging and activities based on physical contact – but hese elements are not strictly needed to reach the educational objectives we are talking about. Important, not indispensable.
Experiments such as Citizenship Reloaded (December 2020), funded by the Italian National Agency for Youth (and co-run by yours truly with Michele Di Paola and Jan Lai) are useful to make the first step in this direction: online learning does not necessarily mean long frontal sessions, and “asynchronous learning” shouldn’t be limited to a digital version of doing the homework. There is so much more to explore.
Characteristics such as interactivity, the playful nature, the emotional involvement of participants in every learning experience and the emphasis on group and self-reflection can be obtained with a few tricks, the right attitude, an appropriate choice of methods, and a general re-design of our approach to sessions.
Furthermore, with its emphasis on smaller groups and flexible methods, NFE can be useful to reduce the risk of exclusion and the inequalities of access to learning opportunities.
I know this may sound counter-intuitive. After all, tech resources and tools such as smartphones and tablets are expensive and may seem like exclusion factors at first sight. But are we sure? To take another example, even books are a “technological tool”. Older tech, sure, but still tech – right? Let’s talk about books for a second.
As reported in this excellent article by Mangiavacchi and Piccoli on “Atlante Treccani” (December 20th, 2020),
“We know that there are huge differences in the learning achievements of students coming from families with 100+ books at home and those from homesteads with less than ten books“.
But we would never blame books for these inequalities. And we would never advocate limiting access to books, or forbid the use of books in education. It’s still, just, technology. Whoever maintains that digital tools create inequalities is a victim of this fallacy. Tech tools, if anything, reveal inequalities that should be addressed.
In this sense the final Declaration of the Third European Youth Work Convention can be helpful too. It’s the highest political document signed by all the member states of the Council of Europe (larger than the European Union), recently signed in December 2020, and includes strong pleas to invest in non formal education and youth work in all member states, in their recognition, and in strengthening their implementation strategies, the digital dimension and the environmental awareness.
In summation, the digital dimension cannot (and should not) replace human interactions “in presence”. Don’t be afraid, Cyberpunk is not now (not yet). But it would be wise to consider that these massive changes in our lifestyles and habits will, at least in part, remain.
When a new technology (more extensive, far-reaching, more effective and cheaper) appears, the previous ones become obsolete and get relegated to a niche, never mind their qualities. How many of us still go to work on horseback? Or read our news on paper? And this, despite the fact that paper smells better than a tablet, or horse riding has health benefits and is definitely cleaner than using a car, or train.
It is definitely opportune to explore the benefits that digital learning platforms can offer, and not only their critical aspects, in order to be at the forefront of this massive global change, of which at the moment we see but the beginning.