Is distributed education a stopgap, or a model for the future?

While there’s no replacement for in-person learning, the pandemic has brought us closer to a democratised future for distributed education, says Siobhan O’Reilly, UK manager of Dropbox

As the global pandemic started to spread and country after country went into lockdown, one of the biggest changes was the impact on education. At first, students might have felt a buzz of excitement at their schools being closed. But it soon became clear that, far from a short-term crisis response, we were in this for the long haul…

Embracing new tools

Educators have had to adopt new tools and are seeing some encouraging results. While some have used Zoom and other conference platforms to present their lessons and interact with students, others have embraced collaboration platforms. Using cloud-based tools in the classroom can drive truly great results.

For example, we spoke to Ezio Blasetti, a lecturer in the graduate architecture programme at the University of Pennsylvania. His class has used Dropbox Paper for agendas, assignments, and sharing assets and ideas. Whatever your collaboration tool of choice, there are aspects which imitate the advantages of a physical classroom. You can share, view your edit history and input your ideas, while the instructor can jump in at any time to give feedback, providing an even greater level of immediacy than in the classroom itself. Blasetti said, “We use it as a collector of many different ideas that work or maybe don’t work over a project cycle, and the jumping-off point for discussion.”

Innovative educators have taken to new formats, like filming YouTube lessons for people to access in their own time. Online lessons uploaded by English teacher Holly King-Mand have reached over 40,000 children worldwide during lockdown. Pupils have found her English lessons so enjoyable that she has even received fanmail from her enthusiastic followers. For families who maybe have one laptop between them, it’s essential to have flexibility and formats you can access any time. These assets that teachers are creating will not disappear after the pandemic – they’ll form a complementary body of tools for years to come.

“For families who maybe have one laptop between them, it’s essential to have flexibility and formats you can access any time”

Widening accessibility

New tools and formats have allowed education to continue as best it can in the short- to medium-term. But as we think longer term, what positives can we take from our distributed present into the post-pandemic future?

One answer might be that a hybrid model – with a blend of in-person and virtual learning – could lead to greater inclusivity. While physical learning spaces can lend themselves to the loudest people in the room, the virtual classroom can encourage more equitable contributions. This could also be game-changing for deaf or hard-of-hearing students, who find real-time classes difficult or even impossible to follow, or international students facing an uncertain travel climate and insecurity about when they’ll return to campus.

Of course, many people around the world don’t have access to computers or connectivity – in fact, just 60% of the global population is online – but if we prioritise the spread of technology and put the right infrastructure in place, there’s potential to scale and democratise education, with new models supporting distributed education in war zones, and enabling students to access multilingual lectures from leading universities.

A model for the future?

When we go back into the classroom, let’s take the positive lessons from this distributed education experiment with us. And for those for whom in-person education is difficult or impossible, getting distributed education right could mean increased access to lessons and opportunities like never before. When we all rush to get ‘back to normal’, let’s not erase the innovations and progress this global crisis has forced us to embrace.

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