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Increased emphasis on blended learning could be one positive to come from the COVID-19 crisis

1st April 2021

Author: Dr Paul Armstrong, The Manchester Institute for Education, University of Manchester

Dr Paul Armstrong

'Covid-19 isolation has had a detrimental impact on children’s education and welfare, particularly the most vulnerable.'

So read the headline of an Ofsted press release in December 2020, which summarised the findings of its third and final set of reports looking at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and young people.

The headline encapsulates a point that has no doubt become painfully clear to the education sector over the past 12 months: the closure of schools has been harmful to children – mentally, physically and educationally – and, crucially, it is the vulnerable who have suffered to a disproportionate degree.

This is not a surprise. Numerous studies over many decades have served to highlight the relationship between a child’s home learning environment (HLE) and their academic performance, with those from less affluent backgrounds typically having less favourable HLEs and their education suffering as a result. So, when schools closed and home learning took centre stage, this issue was exacerbated.

A recent report from the British Academy reflected on this point, stating: 'Covid-19 and the government response to it have impacted different people in different ways, often amplifying existing structural inequalities in income and poverty, socioeconomic inequalities in education and skills, and intergenerational inequalities'.

For me, however, the pandemic ought not to deter educators from embracing remote learning for fear of widening the affluency divide. Rather, it should encourage the industry to invest more resources and dedicate more time to considering how it can support and improve blended learning – that is to say, a mixture of in-school and at-home education.

Embracing blended learning

The old adage has it that necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic has underlined that: when their bricks and mortar premises closed, educational establishments had to suddenly consider how they could deliver tuition in a fully remote and primarily digital landscape. Subsequently, we have seen significant investment in technology and a restructuring of processes and systems to support students and parents in the challenges of home learning.

This digital transformation – a buzzword in virtually all industries – should be welcomed as a positive by-product of an otherwise harrowing crisis. Further, the progress made over the past 12 months to better support, invest in and engage with HLEs should not be reversed but built upon further.

By bolstering communications with parents and the community they serve, schools can better ensure children are able to learn effectively from home. When coupled with investment in hardware and software – tablets, laptops, online learning platforms, communications tools, and so forth – the embracing of blending learning methods ought to address the imbalance between more and less affluent households, levelling the educational playing field for young people across the UK.

The digital divide

In the discussion of the long-term benefits of blended learning, there is a pressing issue that cannot be overlooked though: the digital divide.

The digital divide spans infrastructure, devices and skills. If schools and the state cannot ensure all key stakeholders (children, teachers and parents) have access to the tools they need, then home learning will remain fraught with difficulties and, consequently, the blended approach will fail.

What are those tools? Reliable superfast broadband, for one.

The UK Government plan to bring full-fibre broadband connections to 96% of UK homes and businesses is an ambitious one, yet at present that figure is less than 20%. Accessing cloud-based electronic learning portals or streaming video content will prove difficult for those who do not have or cannot afford high-speed internet connectivity.

Moreover, a recent survey from the education charity Teach First found 84% of British schools with the poorest children lacked devices so pupils could study at home. The figure was problematic (66%) in affluent schools, too.

And thirdly, we must address the digital skills issue. Children, parents and teachers (we cannot forget the educators themselves in this equation) must all be comfortable with using the requisite hardware and software for home learning.

To tackle this digital divide, investments will be needed on a national and regional level, while individual schools will need to reassess how their already-stretched budgets may be able to increase support in the areas highlighted above.

Clearly, obstacles are still preventing blended learning models from achieving their full potential, particularly in primary and secondary education. Nevertheless, this remains a very viable option for tackling the longstanding issue of social inequality and its impact on educational outcomes. After all, a greater focus on home learning requires educators to engage with HLEs, and this should provide people from all socioeconomic backgrounds with improved foundations for learning inside and outside of school.

Author: Dr Paul Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer within the Manchester Institute for Education at The University of Manchester. The University is currently accepting applicants for its blended online MA Educational Leadership in Practice. Covering education policy, leadership of international schools, digital technologies and education research. The two-year part-time Master’s is designed to help educators looking to take their career to the next level and move into a leadership role.

Twitter: @wilfarmstrong