We have been battling through this pandemic long enough to know precisely what the arguments behind the restrictions are and what effects we could end up facing if we do not stick to the current distancing measures: a healthcare system strained to the point of collapse and a string of ever-returning lockdowns bringing the national economy to its knees. At the same time, we know that the bigger picture is much bigger than this and that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on many more areas of life, one of the most important being education.
It is of course too early to draw conclusions as to what exactly that impact will amount to, but the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has already warned that the COVID-19-induced learning loss may lead to the “Corona-generation” earning up to 3% less in the future, as the months spent at home are correlated with reduced productivity, which, in turn, affects skills negatively. And money is not the only issue. According to a survey carried out by a team of psychologists from the University of Vienna, most pupils reported feeling better or slightly better upon returning to in-person teaching, the decisive factor in this evaluation being the possibility to interact with their classmates and teachers. Given that the next lockdown could come into effect any time, this interaction is once again limited, so we can expect new dips in the pupils’ state of mind.
The good thing is that we now know the drill, because we’ve already been there once. Challenges have been confronted head on. Lessons have been learned. But what kind of lessons?
In order to find an answer to this question, I had the pleasure to interview David Schalkhammer, co-founder of SchoolFox, Lydia Wazir-Staubmann, trainer at Teach for Austria, and Rosa Bergmann, co-founder of Vienna Hobby Lobby. They have helped me gain an understanding of what social impact in the field of education looks like when social distancing becomes the norm. Cue the drum roll…
Lesson no. 1
Quality over quantity is not just a saying. Least of all in education
SchoolFox is an online platform that facilitates regular and distance learning. The app was launched in 2015 by David Schalkhammer, Stefan Siegl and Julian Breitenecker. Back then, they had no idea that we would be living a time when education would – albeit temporarily – move to the online environment, so the first two pillars which the features of the app were based on were Communication and Organization.
“The system was very old-fashioned. We, as parents, were struggling to keep in touch with the schools and felt that some processes were not particularly transparent. At the same time, the teachers felt that they were wasting a lot of time every week trying to reach the families and plan events. Our initial solution was to basically bring features that we were already using at work to the school environment,” David Schalkhammer explained.
This included the possibility to chat, keep track of absences, plan parents’ evenings, translate messages into multiple languages and the like. Five years later, the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
“At the beginning of the first lockdown, we were shocked that homeschooling was happening, as this had been unimaginable before. At least in Austria. Luckily, we had already planned file-sharing in December, so we were quick to provide the feature. We also managed to incorporate a conferencing tool.”
This adaptability served them well, as the number of users opting for SchoolFox doubled, and 50% of all Austrian schools ended up using the platform. Even so, when asked if there were needs that the team could not meet during the pandemic, David said:
“Of course. This time we were fast with file-sharing, but it was a coincidence. If you are fast, the quality is usually not the best, so it is important to prioritize certain things. We now have a big community of teachers and parents, some of whom send very detailed emails explaining exactly what they need from us. We take their ideas into account, but in general, we plan at least one or two months ahead and try to make sure that the features we provide are relevant to the market as a whole.”
In other words: Flexibility, yes. Hasty improvisations to the detriment of the users’ experience, no.
Lesson no. 2
Digitalization is not a one-fits-all solution…
Seeing that SchoolFox was pretty much ahead of its time and the team behind it worked towards more efficient digital processes long before the majority of us even considered having all sorts of apps involved in the education system, I wondered whether David – the co-founder of a digital tool – believes that distance learning can indeed replace in-person teaching. His realistic attitude struck me once again:
“Going exclusively digital is not a good idea. We are social animals. We want to see and talk to other people. But it is a reality that learning and working don’t stop just because you leave the classroom or the office, so a tool like SchoolFox gives you the possibility to stay in touch remotely and be more flexible. That’s what we are aiming at, connecting people. We see education as team work, so we are teacher-oriented, parent-oriented and student-oriented.”
Lesson no. 3
… yet digital learning should be an integral part of teacher training
In order for the connection that David mentioned to work, the teachers also need to know exactly what strategies are best suited for remote engagement. This kind of knowledge can be acquired through targeted workshops, something that Lydia Wazir-Staubmann and I talked about.
Lydia works as a trainer at Teach for Austria, an organization whose objective is to ensure that all children receive equal access to education regardless of their parents’ financial resources or educational background. Her task consists of supporting TfA fellows to become better teachers and effect change, either in the community or the system as a whole. When discussing how Teach for Austria dealt with the sudden need to provide digital training, she said:
“We quickly put together training sessions on digital tools, which helped the fellows stay in touch with their students and give interactive assignments during the first lockdown. The challenge was to reach everybody, because many children don’t have suitable devices, they don’t have a quiet room at home and so on… It was important to mix up not just digital resources, but also things like handouts that the kids could pick up.
We also provided resilience training for teachers and interactive live classroom training in order to show the fellows different methods of holding the students’ attention. It’s one thing for me to sit with you and talk, but that’s not how you keep the students involved during class. You need to use the chat, online whiteboards, polls, interactive documents that all of the children can contribute to live and so on.”
However, acquiring such skills requires time, which is why Lydia believes that digital learning should be an integral part of the curriculum. Both at Teach for Austria and in ‘traditional’ teacher trainings:
“We need to be more focused on this component. Instead of having one or two workshops devoted to it, we should make sure it is a fixed part of the program, so that both teachers and students learn to switch back and forth.”
Lesson no. 4
Not everything went as disastrously as we may have expected…
Despite the added responsibility that teachers had to take on, the conflicting messages that they have received during the past few months and the stress the children themselves have experienced, Lydia says that the pandemic had positive effects too:
“We are more in the news. The gap is more visible, and the government has even provided schools with free equipment, which was never part of the conversation before. The fellows – and teachers in general – have also gained skills that they didn’t have before. That doesn’t go away. Not to mention that they were able to work in a more differentiated way and have more one-on-one sessions with their students, which led to some of the children blossoming.”
Lesson no. 5
… and one way to make sure of that is to never assume what children need. Ask them instead.
Education is not limited to academic performance. In fact, as Vienna Hobby Lobby aims to show, education should take place anywhere and everywhere. That is why the organization co-founded by Rosa Bergmann provides free leisure opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds:
“Most of the children come from families that cannot afford extracurricular activities. The parents work a lot and spend little time at home, so the kids are stuck in an environment where they don’t get to explore their passions. We try to help them learn by interacting with others. Communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration are some of the most important lessons we share.”
The activities meant to convey these skills range from kickboxing and street art to theater, drawing and yoga. They are also something that the most vulnerable children of all had to give up on during the lockdown. So how did Vienna Hobby Lobby adapt?
“We put together a Buddy system, trying to stay in touch with the kids and help them with their school work. We also had a drawing challenge and a sport challenge, where they had to send pictures and videos. But we quickly realized that the children didn’t want more online activities, so we just showed them that we were there and took the time to plan for the summer instead. I think a lot of people want to help kids, but sometimes they don’t ask them what they need and bombard them with things that don’t really make a difference. It’s important to communicate openly.”
Lesson no. 6
Even so, the idea that your education business is flourishing may not always be a reason for joy
Something that all of the ventures I brought together for these interviews had in common was the fact that they have grown or that their mission has received significantly more attention during the pandemic. This, in itself, is not a problem. After all, awareness is key, and the more people gain access to tools or organizations that can help them, the better. However, as Rosa passionately pointed out, this growth also shows that the issues which the education system is confronted with may have been overlooked for far too long and reached a much more profound level than initially suspected.
“During the past months, we have had a lot more time to focus on strategy and implement a pilot project in the 20th district too. At the same time, many parents spent time at home and realized how difficult it is to find suitable activities for their children, so we are now facing a demand that far exceeds our capabilities. People are paying attention. But it is difficult to see the kids struggling. Some of them are fine, while others have become shyer and more withdrawn. You can tell that there is fear and insecurity in their behavior, and we cannot help them as we would like to, because we have to keep our distance.”
The Future of Education
To sum up, the journey is far from the end, but the lessons we have accumulated so far are bound to make the road less bumpy. We can’t unsee what we have seen and unlearn what we have learned. Instead, we are pushing ahead – all the wiser.