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Study or Torture: Doing General Schooling in the Era of COVID-19

Study or Torture: Doing General Schooling in the Era of COVID-19

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The pros and cons surrounding the migration of schools to remote learning amid policies to tame COVID-19 have been a site of starkly polarized debate since the very inception of the pandemic back to the spring of 2020. Stakeholders in general education – students, teachers, families, and institutional leaders – have all voiced their own and widely varying concerns about how K–11 schooling has been unfolding in the digital realm. These include fears over how well the learning process is being administered overall, a lack of adequate infrastructure and resources, disparities in how comfortable teachers and students have felt adapting to novel instructional and learning models as well as how they have been able to handle a surge in workloads, and growing unease over the quality of educational outcomes. Now that we are almost a year on since the COVID emergency took hold, IOE experts have set out to take stock of the lessons that we have learned so far from doing remote schooling in crisis times.

An Unexpected Alliance

Distance learning has obviously turned out to be an experience pretty challenging for everyone involved — students, parents, teachers, and school heads alike. Students have been more likely to experience weakened learning ability, excessive fatigue, and a lack of social participation. Parents are now exposed to twice as much physical and mental load as they work by day and explain their children large amounts of course material by night. School teachers have found themselves into an endless loop of speaking to students and their families about curriculum and classes. School leaders do their best to stay tuned and to act appropriately in each particular case, albeit they also report increased levels of fatigue and burnout.

Yet, there is also good news. If families and schools previously lacked effective communication, now they understand each other better. Whatever the case, there have been fewer mutual accusations of child neglect and more attempts at compromise. Everyone is trying to improve digital education, though everyone does so in their own way.

One way or another, the timid and uncertain remote education we saw in the spring is now more mature this autumn. That said, there is undoubtedly no substitute for face-to-face education, and there are many problems associated with its digitization.

HSE researchers study conducted a study in the spring, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools recognized for the first time the large gap in technology and digital skills that exists — from a lack of computers to the inability of some teachers to work online. Researchers interviewed teachers, school heads, and parents — everyone whom the fate of education most concerns. At that time, the discussion about distance learning technologies in the State Duma was still far off. But on the other hand, serious problems had already been discovered and solutions devised to address them.

School heads were interviewed, while parents and teachers were surveyed using questionnaires. The study involved ten schools from the Moscow region, 50 parents of schoolchildren (from Moscow and the Moscow region), and more than 500 teachers from different Russian cities. The sample of teachers was selected from participants of webinars on organizing education during the pandemic.

Teachers as Students

In the new reality, you will not get anywhere without digital literacy. But since online education had never been implemented on such a massive scale before, it turned out that the teachers lacked sufficient skills. This could be felt both during lessons and in the choice of homework. According to both parents and students, classes were often boring and homework was either very simple or too complicated.

‘It is necessary to get professionals involved so they help fine-tune the process,’ parents say. ‘Yes, it takes effort and time, but what is being done right now is a travesty. Poorly organized education will only discourage kids from wanting to learn.’

School administrators tested teachers’ competence in information technology (‘each teacher was given a checklist’) and tried to fill in any skill gaps. But they didn’t always manage to train teachers quickly and well. In many schools, there was a significant shortage of system administrators, and heads hurried to appoint technical support staff. But external digital education courses (webinars, master classes, video lectures, online conferences, and so on) were also often disappointing.

Heads who responded noted that advertising campaigns on the developers’ platforms ‘were a bit weak,’ and that they needed serious courses. ‘The current teacher training programs [...] do not even come close to touching on the forms and methods that can be effectively [...] applied in a distance learning setting,’ said one school head. ‘There is a lack of knowledge in the application of, for example, Google resources, in the use of virtual whiteboards in lessons, survey systems such as Kahoot! [a game-based learning platform] and Quizizz [a web-based quiz and test tool], which can allow a teacher to simulate a remote lesson.’ 

Learning for the Sake of a Checklist

Peer education of teachers has proved to be most effective. For example, IT teachers recorded video instructions for colleagues and posted them on a WhatsApp group, held classes, and demonstrated how to access platforms, work in Zoom, set up conferences, and make links. In some regions, volunteer student assistants helped teachers.

For the duration of distance learning, it is nice to have good ready-made materials on hand, the authors of the article add. Software courses that use real examples for distance education would be handy. But basically, teachers still have to sit down and be students themselves for a while as they learn how to use online tools — that is the reality.

The teachers themselves generally responded well to distance learning, although their workload increased. Many considered the new experience as an opportunity to expand their professional skillsets. At the same time, teachers did not think that their basic capabilities with online working would adversely affect their standing, and did not see any risk of dismissal due to non-compliance with the new qualification requirements.

‘One can assume that the low level of competition in education contributes to a lack of teacher motivation, and this could affect the quality of advanced training results and the quality of remote instruction,’ the researchers conclude.

Disparity of Education

School curricula are designed for face-to-face lessons. It is not easy to translate them to a distance learning format: though they are very dense, it is also wrong to reduce the material. In practice, it turned out that not all subjects can be studied remotely. What about chemistry, physics, or biology, when you need laboratory-based practical lessons? Physical education and the visual arts are also practical disciplines.

The material was also more poorly assimilated because students found themselves in different circumstances. Not all of them had their own computers, tablets, or even smartphones, especially in large families with lots of children. In large families, children often take turns using a single device. Not every family can afford to buy multiple devices. As a result, many received assistance from the schools in the form of laptop loans. Educational institutions should be prepared for this kind of situation (and should have a budget for it).

However, not only families, but also schools lacked computers and laptops. Teachers were forced to use their own hardware and home Internet, and some were even refunded for these costs (as they should be in theory). But not all teachers had reliable means of communication. ‘Many teachers lacked certain items: they didn’t have a camera, microphone, or laptop,’ says one school head. Some were loaned equipment but there was not enough for everyone, and families also needed help. The conclusion is simple: the school must have funds for equipment.

Finally, the quality of people’s Internet connections differs, and not all children and parents are advanced users. In this case, students can be offered an individual curriculum. In principle, there are many options for organizing distance learning. It is not necessary to have a computer. Assignments may be set by phone, mail, or other means of communication.

A Lack of Guidance

Some material is intended for self-study. But much of it is too complicated — adult help is necessary. However, parents are often overloaded with work and are unable to help their children with their lessons. There is no time, and you have to have some teaching know-how. ‘It would be preferable in this situation to have full-fledged online education, and not have to send assignments for self-study,’ says one respondent. One just cannot help wondering: Is it perhaps that the curriculum should have been adjusted?

However, no changes have been made to the scale and expectations of the curriculum. ‘Only the format was changed for distance learning. All the subjects are studied according to the approved schedule for the school year,’ one school head explains.

In the end, schools had do some maneuvering: some content was taught ‘live’, while other things were left to the families ‘to finish teaching’. ‘It was recommended that the most complex topics and tests be carried out online with the teachers, while simpler material and revisions be assigned for self-study on electronic platforms, with the aid of a textbook, homework, and self-administered tests, one administrator respondent says.

But if a test is administered online, then the question arises of how to assess the results. It is no secret that a lot of students cheat using the Internet — both for homework and on tests. And teachers have to mark them according to the rules of the game. Consequently, assessment becomes somewhat arbitrary. Traditional methods do not work remotely. It is necessary to change current methods of performance assessment and the way that we conduct final exams, researchers believe.

In Emergency Mode

With the transition to distance learning, an imbalance occurred: some school staff experienced a significant increase in their workload while others had nothing to do. What, for example, does a school librarian, psychologist, or social educator do with no students? The school administration had to figure out what work to give them.

On the other hand, teachers are often overloaded and the balance between classroom and extracurricular work has changed. Asking questions during class has become more difficult (students have technical problems), and more written work has to be checked. ‘In face-to-face teaching, the teacher does not address questions to 100% of the students in every lesson. There was a particular surge in the volumes of homework assigned as schools had just switched to digital instruction,’ a school head notes. One way that helps relieve the load to a certain extent is assigning tasks that are automatically marked by software.

The pressure has also been exacerbated by the fact that teachers have become counsellors. Parents and children have many questions about their studies and they want answers. As a result, teachers keep in touch with them constantly – by text messaging, in groups and in person, by email, and so on until late at night.

Now, a teacher’s daily routine looks like this: morning — distance learning; afternoon — marking submitted assignments, consultations for students and parents; evening — preparing classes and... endless correspondence, explanations, and instructions. ‘We established a rule that correspondence with parents and students would end at 5:00pm, including the submission of homework,’ the head of one of the schools says. ‘This didn’t work! Many parents help with the homework in the evening, questions arise constantly, and you need to respond 24 hours a day.’

‘The workload and having to sit at a computer have increased excessively,’ another administrator says. ‘[The level of teachers’] psychological wellbeing has become unacceptable.’ All of this affects the quality of education and reduces its effectiveness, he admits.

A number of schools eventually imposed time limits on teachers' work, including deferring responses to all requests received after a certain cut-off time until the next working day. And parents were informed of these rules.

It is also possible to change the start and end times of the working day (as was the case in some schools) so that teachers have time to rest. Meetings or other activities not directly related to distance learning should also be minimized, and under-worked staff should get involved in organizational activities.

‘A social studies teacher was asked to monitor at-risk children on the school website [for example, those who were not participating in education],’ a school head says. ‘If she has any questions, she contacts the teacher and the parents to get the matter resolved. The teacher conducts online competitions, flash mobs, and so on, and all information is posted on the school’s Instagram page, on ‘VKontakte’, and on the school website.’

Overloaded Parents

With distance learning, parents are more involved in the education of their children than usual. ‘The teacher does not work with the kids — everything is organized through the parent; you have to carry out the tasks of a teacher to the detriment of your own work,’ a respondent says. For fathers and mothers, the burden is increased: ensuring that their child takes a picture of his assignment and sends it to the teacher, passes online tests, connects to the online lesson on time, registers on the educational sites, etc. Many of them guide their children right from their office.

It is up to families to decide the extent to which they want to be involved in educating their children. For some, it is a burden, and for others, it is quite normal. They should not be blamed for neglecting their children. If parents cannot help their children ‘due to the level of their own educational attainment, or owing to a heavy workload, or they physically cannot manage to do so,’ this should not be considered a violation of parental duties, experts emphasize. A possible solution would be to create an individual curriculum for the child.

We’ve Made Contact!

In general, during the pandemic, many schools began working much more actively with parents, mainly through WhatsApp, Zoom, regional platforms, school web sites, e-mail and social media. School principals tried to take parents' views into account, and many held regular online meetings. They ‘provide an opportunity to ease tension’ and to debug the training process, an administrator says.

‘The District Methodological Centre helps us provide psychological support to parents’, says one school head. ‘They have developed tips for parents.’ The main source of tension has been removed, he clarifies, but families are still ‘waiting for their kids to return to school and continue their education there.’