The pandemic has driven a great leap forward in digital learning. Is there any point in looking back?
My 21-year-old goddaughter, a second-year undergraduate, mentioned in passing that she watches video lectures offline at twice the normal speed. Struck by this, I asked some other students I know. Many now routinely accelerate their lectures when learning offline – often by 1.5 times, sometimes by more. Speed learning is not for everyone, but there are whole Reddit threads where students discuss how odd it will be to return to the lecture theatre. One contributor wrote: “Normal speed now sounds like drunk speed.”
Education was adapting to the digital world long before Covid but, as with so many other human activities, the pandemic has given learning a huge shove towards the virtual. Overnight, schools and universities closed and teachers and students had to find ways to do what they do exclusively via the internet. Naturally there were problems, but as Professor Diana Laurillard of University College London’s Knowledge Lab explains, they essentially pulled off an extraordinary – and global – experiment. “It can’t return to the way it was,” she says. “The cat is out of the bag.”
Academics who think about education recognise that not all the enforced changes have been good. Covid highlighted how critical the social aspect of learning is, and that something extra happens when students and their teacher share a physical space. The experiment also played out differently in schools and universities, in part because the benefits of “co-present” learning may vary by age. The tension now is between those who see the pandemic as an opportunity to overhaul education and those who are impatient to return to “normal”.
“This is a time for schools and systems to reimagine education without schooling or classrooms,” says Professor Yong Zhao of the School of Education at the University of Kansas. Dr Jim Watterston of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia thinks the traditional classroom is alive and well, on the other hand, but that “education needs to be more adventurous and captivating” – and, above all, more flexible.
Earlier this year, Zhao and Watterston co-authored a paper in which they identified three major changes that should happen in education post-lockdown. The first concerns the content, which should emphasise such things as creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship, rather than collecting and storing information. “For humans to thrive in the age of smart machines, it is essential that they do not compete with machines,” they wrote. “Instead, they need to be more human.”
The second is that students should have more control over their learning, with the teacher’s role shifting from instructor to curator of learning resources, counsellor and motivator. This is where so-called “active learning” comes in, with a growing body of research suggesting that comprehension and memory are better when students learn in a hands-on way – through discussion and interactive technologies, for example. It’s also where the concept of “productive failure” applies. Professor Manu Kapur of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich argues that students learn better from their own or others’ failed attempts to solve a problem, before or even instead of being told how to solve it.
Zhao and Watterston’s third proposal is that the where of learning should change – “from the classroom to the world”. With lockdown all learning went online, but it tended to stick to pre-existing timetables, and it was this temporal rigidity that caused distress and disengagement in some students, they claim.
With digital tools it is no longer necessary for students to learn at the same time as each other. What’s needed, they say, is a mix of online and face-to-face learning – so-called blended learning or the flipped classroom, where students read or watch lectures in their own time, beyond the school walls, and solve problems in the presence of their teacher and peers.
That decoupling of learning time and school time means that the former can expand – something that is going to be particularly important for the recovery from Covid, says Laurillard. It comes as no surprise to her that students speed up their lectures, or that lecturers have begun dividing up their presentations into five- and 10-minute video segments, or that all this was happening even before the pandemic. “There’s a lot of redundancy in a 50-minute lecture,” she says.
But can you really acquire knowledge properly at speed? Woody Allen once joked about a speed reading course where he learned to read down the middle of the page and completed War and Peace in 20 minutes. “It’s about Russia,” was his summary. At the University of Waterloo in Canada, cognitive psychologist Professor Evan Risko has been testing people’s comprehension after speed-watching video lectures. Though it depends on the nature of the material, the student’s prior knowledge and the lecturer’s delivery style, his research indicates that an acceleration of up to 1.7 times has little negative impact and, of course, saves time.
These are, you might say, first world preoccupations. What of those who don’t have the luxury of digital tools? The digital divide is not a new problem, Laurillard says, but nor should it put a brake on change, “because the digital world moves faster in providing access than the physical one”. She points to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is to provide quality education for all by 2030. The only way this will happen, she says, is if teachers in disadvantaged areas receive tools and materials digitally – perhaps via massive open online courses – and then pass them on to their students in the traditional way.
If even the digital divide won’t hold back the coming revolution, it seems unlikely that the classroom will ever look the same again. As Laurillard puts it: “It took a global pandemic to drive home what we’ve been saying for 30 years.”
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark Mcdaniel (Harvard, £24.95)
Building the Intentional University edited by Stephen M Kosslyn and Ben Nelson (MIT, £22.20)
How We Learn by Stanislas Dehaene (Penguin, £9.99)