Dr. Mehool H Sanghrajka, MBE, Founder and Chief Executive, Learning Possibilities Group

Dr. Mehool H Sanghrajka MBE is a serial entrepreneur in education and has over 20 years’ experience in start-ups, in public companies and in charities. He is currently the Founder and CEO of Learning Possibilities, a global social enterprise focused on improving learning outcomes using education technology. He has started and built SMEs that have worked with governments in the UK as well as in developing and emerging markets. These have been leading-edge businesses with disruptive and transformative solutions for education, the last two being acquired by FTSE250 companies.

Estimates of 3bn people or more globally in lockdown make the speed and depth of this pandemic unfathomable. Even when the virus became public knowledge in January, there were no indications that life would cease as we knew it.

Since then Governments have stopped people commuting to work, family gatherings have become virtual and schools have closed. Education reformists have, for at least the last 20 years, talked of the need to develop ’21 century skills’, and enable school technology to allow self-paced learning, online collaboration and learning from home.

All attempts so far have struggled because the exam systems rarely look for these skills and teaching to the test is still the norm in many parts of the world.

It is well known that digital learning both engages learners and provides skills necessary for employment. However, connectivity, devices and classroom management all pose real-world challenges in developing and emerging countries. Even in developing countries, the utopia of every pupil having a device is still some way from being a reality.

The COVID-19 virus may yet be the catalyst to make this an eventuality. Cambridge University’s announcement in May that it will conduct classes online only for the 2020-21 academic year is significant as it signals the real timelines for this pandemic.

Most of us have been living with the hope that by the summer, or September at the latest, we will be back to the ‘old normal’ that we knew at the start of this year. What Cambridge’s announcement does is move this timeline from weeks and months to years.

We now know that the virus is here to stay, and schools will need to replace the ‘sticking plaster’ they hastily applied to their learning with a mixture of free digital services and content, with longer-term secure strategies. These will need to include content, learning platforms, devices, and connectivity as a minimum. Whilst there are many free digital solutions on the market from tech giants such as Microsoft and Google, there is a need in schools for wider considerations. The emerging reality is that schools will have to become like workplaces, many of whom have realised that employees working from home will become the norm.

What are the considerations that schools will need to consider specifically? I thought it would be useful to list my top five below, before discussing my predictions for education following COVID19.

  1. Data Security

Security of learner data is paramount, regardless of the solution. Wherever your data come from (SIS, MIS, LIS, spreadsheets, databases etc), it needs to work seamlessly with your digital platforms, providing learners with correct access to classes and the right user privileges. Equally important is where your platform data is stored. Do you know who has access to it? Can it be used by others for marketing or advertising? Does it meet legal and other security requirements?

  1. Which platform should I choose?

There are many digital platforms, it is important to pick the right one. Distance teaching and learning is one of many potential uses. Content management, assignments, collaborative projects, testing and communications are some of the many functions of a good integrated platform. It should also consider local needs with multiple languages, interfaces for different ages, strategies for poor connectivity (or offline learning) and ease of use for the teacher. It’s important to build CPD strategies and develop areas that are important to your school and appropriate for your infrastructure.

  1. Efficacy

Until the Corona Virus outbreak shut schools, remote teaching (in most schools) had been largely a theoretical phenomenon. Schools saw clear benefits in learners accessing work from home, submitting assignments or contributing to projects, but these were largely supplemental to the work that happened in class. A good solution must have proven efficacy, be easy to use and give the teacher a range of tools to suit different teaching styles. This will encourage both platform adoption and skilling-up for teachers.

  1. Stakeholders

Apart from the teachers and learners, there are many other important stakeholders. Direction from the leadership is critical for any digital project to succeed, let alone one that needs fundamental change management. This should be at government, regional and school level. Equally important is the training and support teachers receive, as well as the availability of devices and connectivity.

  1. Hurdles

In my experience, all digital projects face similar hurdles. Policy funding is usually critical, as it an understanding of ongoing funding requirements. Likewise, there has always been unjustified fear that technology will replace teachers.

In the ‘new normal’, as our planet is now widely being called, our radical departure from last year’s education model will become the reality for many years. Until there is a viable treatment for this pandemic, social distancing will determine how teaching and learning can continue, which means schools and colleges will have to learn to operate in new ways.

The inability of students to travel on public transport or even aeroplanes means that the economic models of many schools and universities will now be tested, and I suspect many will struggle.

In the drive to find viable solutions, many education establishments are realising that their current education technology has been procured on the basis that its there to support classroom teaching. The new normal requires technology that also supports learning from home.

This is more the case when we consider that the current global issues of population growth, environmental destruction and rising temperatures; as well as the social issues of growing human inequality, inhumane farming methods and regional conflicts continue to prevail and therefore it seems to be very possible that such pandemics will also sadly become more regular.

In this ‘new normal’ I have made fiver predictions on the direction of travel we will all need to take to get schools and colleges operating again.

  • Firstly, schools will have to develop hybrid models for many months or even years. A combination of learn at home with some face-to-face teaching.
  • Secondly, this means that teachers will need support to become more familiar with technology, and in teaching learners remotely.
  • Thirdly digital skills will become even more critical; not just for learning from home, but in the new economy where working from home will also become the norm.
  • Fourth our current exam systems, which were the first casualty, early in this pandemic, are unlikely to survive the pandemic and will need to be re-evaluated.
  • Lastly, focus in education will move towards platforms, content, devices and connectivity as governments consider how to support all their learners.

Of course, these outcomes may develop as we get firmer timelines for COVID treatment. It’s more likely that they will become the foundations of the ‘new normal’.

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