The future of learning is… teachers

Tuesday 28 April 2020
Home-schooling. The importance of human teachers. Little-and-often lessons. We talk future learning with the international teacher-guru and presenter of the BBC’s the learning revolution, Alex Beard
Student learning remotely


If it’s possible to “have a good crisis”, there’s a high probability that the providers of e-learning platforms will join supermarkets and loo roll-makers in seeing out this pandemic in finer fettle than they entered it.

While other companies are fearful for their futures, FTSE100 learning specialist Pearson said last week it would pay out a £100m dividend to investors and dismissed any need to furlough staff because of the coronavirus.

“When the threat of the pandemic eventually eases, it will be even clearer that the future of learning is increasingly digital,” said its chief executive, John Fallon.

Just two months after the first UK cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, business organisations and employees across the economy have entered a “new normal” and settled into routines that previously were unthinkable. The British Chamber of Commerce reckons that seven out of 10 UK firms have furloughed staff. Almost 60% of UK employees are thought to be working from home.

Some of the biggest changes are in how people are spending time online: traffic for business and learning sites have risen the most, according to Cloudflare, a network-infrastructure firm.

During lockdown, households are locked on learning. Academic institutions — from local primary schools to Oxbridge — have moved their teaching and learning methods online. Instead of teaching my postgraduates in a Newcastle lecture theatre this afternoon, I’ll be meeting them on Microsoft Teams as they log-in from their homes in India, China and the United States.

These trends could reverse once lockdowns are lifted — however, we may not wish to turn back the clock. After months of technological immersion, learners of all ages will have raised expectations about how they want to engage.

Last year, before I’d heard of a place called Wuhan, I spoke with former teacher, Alex Beard, about the future of learning. Beard had embarked on a field trip around the world – from Singapore to Silicon Valley – to discover what a 21st-century education might look like and how we might all learn to learn better (see Seven Radical New Ways We'll Learn in the Future).

When I spoke with him again last week, he admitted that the pandemic had prompted some last-minute editing of his three-part documentary, The Learning Revolution, that’s currently airing on BBC Radio 4.

“Through this experience, we’re learning the absolute importance of the humans in the education system,” he tells me. “With so many parents having to home-school their children, we’re seeing a fresh appreciation of the profession of teaching as one of the most valuable in our society.”

The internet and ever-advancing AI can provide us with facts, but without human teachers, would we still know which facts to look for, and what to care about? And who better than humans to teach us the empathy, compassion, emotional intelligence and care that have proved to be the critical skills of the last few months?

But of course, this crisis has also given us better sight of a tech-enabled future for learning. Yes, we’ve realised that good online education is easier said than done. (“OK, now I can see you, but I can’t hear you … there’s a little microphone button at the bottom of the screen, did you click on that? Can everyone who isn’t talking put themselves on mute, please?”) A copy-and-paste of traditional methods into a virtual environment is not always successful. In my own context, we’re discovering that a little-and-often approach is most effective online: offering bitesize chunks of teaching, followed immediately by opportunities to check understanding and take questions before moving on.

However, thanks to Covid-19, it’s now possible to imagine a world in which children aren’t in school all day, students are more independent learners and workers are free to pursue learning and development opportunities at a time, place and format that suits them best.

Beard thinks we’re catching a glimpse of how we can turn to technology to deliver more of the routine, often repetitive teaching processes, leaving space for human interaction to deliver the more personalised and tailored teaching we need. Through technology, workplace learning can become more collaborative, more engaging — and maybe even more human.

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