How COVID saved the classroom

When tech threatened to make the classroom redundant, the pandemic demonstrated their mutual dependence

In the throes of school closures, proponents of edtech still felt the classroom was an outdated model. “It’s long been pointed out,” Rohan Silva reminded us, “that a Victorian schoolteacher could have fallen asleep in his or her classroom, woken up 150 years later and found little had changed.” Silva, a former policy advisor to No.10, repeated this familiar mantra in his article for The Times in June. Fast-forward to September, when children returned to the familiarity of their classrooms — what came of edtech’s stance?

As technology connected the world, the classroom limited learning, containing the exchange of ideas between students and teachers from local catchment areas. But edtech found ways for learning to transcend the local. These new edtech tools create substitutes for the classroom space, accessed anywhere through laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Edtech limitations

With their schools closed, nine million students put these tools to the test throughout the first lockdown. By summer it was clear they had limitations of their own, restricting access and constricting communication. The digital divide cleaved class groups apart. In some schools, like Surrey Square Primary School in south London, headteachers found one in four of their students ‘effectively offline’ due to device shortages or inadequate internet connections. Those who could log in found that device-based interaction necessitates one person speaking at a time – failure to adjust results in the chaos we have all experienced with colleagues and family on Zoom.

As student engagement withered, defences of the classroom proliferated.

They were a panacea: a learning environment where everyone in the class can participate and interaction flourishes as students move between different conversations happening at once. In August, the PM branded the return to school a “national priority”, and students began their new academic year back in classrooms.

Collaborative AR

Let us not make the mistake of choosing between classrooms or technology. There is a third way: combining the two to address the limitations of both. Collaborative augmented reality (AR) offers a truly spatial technology, creating the illusion that people in other places are actually in the same space as you. Virtual peers from anywhere in the world could join your classroom, unmediated by screens. Collaborative AR would harness the global reach of the internet to overcome the geographical limitations of brick-and-mortar classrooms. It would overcome the limitations of device-based communication by integrating virtual peers into the classroom. It would ensure disadvantaged students aren’t excluded from digital education.

This year, the co-founder of Spatial, an AR pioneer, said they have had interest from 25% of the Fortune 1000. They have announced their first wave of customers, including Mattel and Nestlé, and secured funding from the seed investors for Uber and AirBnB. The hardware required to create the illusion of virtual colleagues or classmates is very familiar in school environments: projectors. The other hardware requirements are similarly commonplace: image and sound capture and a good internet connection. Existing classrooms could easily be retrofitted and standardised installations could rapidly build a network of collaborating schools.

Allowing interaction to flourish – Image concepts Hugh Gatenby, image visualisations by Alex Pringle

‘Challenging the norms of educational design’

Collaborative AR challenges the norms of educational design. Michael Gove banned curves in schools in 2012, but forward-thinking universities have cutting-edge ideas about educational space: NTU Singapore conceived their new Learning Hub as a challenge to the traditional format of box-like rooms linked by narrow corridors. Instead, flowing forms promote collaboration, leading students to novel encounters, and opening into spaces for pauses and gatherings. Organic design was once prohibitively expensive, but new construction technologies like 3D printing deliver curved forms as cheaply as boxes. We can even 3D print buildings with earth dug up on-site.

A teacher who fell asleep in his or her classroom a year ago would now waken to find that everything has changed. The pandemic has shown us an unprecedented opportunity for education, combining the classroom and technology.

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