COVID-19: challenges, opportunities in education

Written by Sterling Content
May 29, 2020


Written by Sterling Content
May 29, 2020

A panel of education and training experts joined a British Chamber of Commerce in Japan webinar on May 26 to give members and guests insight into how the education sector is operating during the COVID-19 crisis.

The session outlined the wide-ranging situations of schools and training providers. While some have made the shift to online teaching and are focusing on effective delivery, others have still to overcome barriers that include lack of technology, equipment and know-how.

Most Japanese schools have had limited success in going digital, said Robin Skipsey, academic manager at the British Council Japan, whose work supports public schools. Efforts have focused on supporting pupils with existing online resources, such as NHK programmes, as well as posting worksheets and videos.

Data from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sport, Sports, Science and Technology shows only 5% of state schools have provided live lessons since the state of emergency was declared. Reasons given include uncertainty about whether pupils would be able to access online lessons were they to be available, as well as a lack of computer literacy among teachers.

Tech-savvy institutions, meanwhile, have been able to go digital “largely overnight,” said moderator Kirsten O’Connor, founder and director of Quest Tokyo, adding that the crisis had given them “momentum and purpose” to do something long discussed.

Richard Straughan, corporate business development manager at Rosetta Stone Learning Center, shared that his corporate clients also shifted online effortlessly. Rather than technology, their challenge was to make their home environment conducive to learning.

At The British School in Tokyo (BST), too, students and teachers are online, using platforms like Pear Deck and Google Classroom, said Nora Yamada, director of external relations.

The diversity in practice extends worldwide, according to Matthew Knowles, director of the British Council Japan and cultural counsellor at the British Embassy Tokyo. Any excitement about the potential of new technology to “level the playing field” in education should be “tempered by the reality of inequality around access,” he said.


Delivering lessons

The panellists agreed that online teaching poses complex challenges for teachers, students and parents. 

“Online teaching shines a very harsh light on materials and the way of teaching,” said Skipsey, adding that the clarity of instructions and explanations becomes even more vital when teachers cannot easily read facial cues. This means more time is needed to prepare for lessons.

O’Connor agreed, adding that “teachers now have to re-equip their toolkit very quickly” to ensure they continue to engage children in learning.

These steps are critical because it is the teacher who shapes and ensures the quality of learning, explained Knowles.

“While Google Classroom can nurture a more discursive, highly tailored learning experience … you can still end up with a traditional, linear model [of teaching],” he said. The answer, he continued, is teacher training and evaluation of successful teaching methods and practices, rather than simply relying on the features of digital platforms.

In the corporate setting, too, trainers need to gain not only technical skills but also soft skills like flexibility and adaptability, said Straughan.


Add social time

As an important part of learning is interaction, teachers should build it into schedules as much as possible.

Yamada pointed out that pupils normally teach each other a lot during school. She suggested educators use Zoom’s breakout rooms to give pupils opportunities for engagement and peer learning. Parents can contribute by allowing the child to become the teacher; simply explaining a topic can crystallise learning.

It’s important, she added, to ensure pupils “remain part of a learning community.” O’Connor agreed, adding that “for children, being able to be together is almost as important as learning. School is about learning to be a person in the world.”

The BST is trying to recreate social settings online, including a homeroom and breakout rooms for individual teacher–pupil conferences. Such activity also allows teachers to watch out for problems between pupils, such as cyber bulling, although Yamada admits it is “more difficult to care for children in an emotional way online.”


Embrace positives

Despite the difficulties in delivery, online teaching does have some advantages, including democratisation of the class. Teachers can begin lessons by asking questions to all pupils, thereby establishing if everyone has the same grasp of the topic, shared Yamada. This allows teachers to move away from gauging understanding by raised hands and busy activity.

“If teachers are able to continue to give prompt, precise, frequent, short bits of feedback—via less essays and more paragraphs—then that momentum, the power of the teacher’s relationship with the child will be sustained [during the crisis],” she said.

In schools, online learning can be an escape from peer judgement, which could help introverts perform better. In the workplace, too, it can lower inhibitions, allowing staff, particularly in firms with a strict hierarchy, to speak more comfortably, said Straughan.

Long-term, online learning could pick up the shortfall in specialist teachers by allowing them to be shared across schools and allow children to continue their studies during weather-induced school closures.


Moving forward

Skipsey, who has been working on an online training course for assistant language teachers on the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme since 2018, suggested more organisations will start to produce better online resources for teachers and pupils across Japan in the coming months and years because of the failings that the crisis has exposed.

The panellists agreed that investment is also likely in software, hardware and training.

In the meantime, parents can play their part in helping teachers and students enjoy more effective online learning.

“Parental involvement has a central role in education. Be curious, be interested in what your children are learning,” said Knowles.

In an online learning environment, parents will need to work harder than usual to show that interest, added Yamada.

When schools reopen, O’Connor noted that anxiety or other psychological issues might present in children. Kindness and empathy will be critical.

“Children’s trust in adults’ ability to solve a problem has been shaken,” she said. “We have to reassure children that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe [at school],” she added.

COVID-19 has forced the education sector to change apace, allowing little time for reflection. The panellists suggested that educators evaluate their activity since moving online and glean as many learnings as possible. That experience can then be brought back to the physical classroom when the time comes.