Emergency Education

None of us expected it. Many of us were ill-prepared. It took the world completely by surprise. And sadly many have had to pay a high price. I’m referring of course, to the Covid-19 pandemic that we first began to hear about around the start of 2020.

From the outset, most of us, let’s be honest, thought little of it. We continued to go about our daily lives. And then the news reports began to get more serious, infections escalated, and the virus started to creep closer to our doors. Within weeks, the world was in turmoil, markets went into freefall and the health centres began to feel the effects. We went into lockdown across the globe.

The first wave of the virus peaked, and Covid-19 made many people very sick and sadly, some of our most vulnerable were lost. It didn’t recede for long. A second wave soon hit. Hospitals everywhere were overwhelmed and at the time of writing, the global death toll has exceeded 1.5 million and is still rising.

This is the pandemic of 2020. It has disrupted our entire world – our family life, our relationships, industry, economy, leisure, healthcare and education. In the latter, entire universities, colleges and school systems were suddenly thrust into a precarious crisis where entire curricula had to be forced online at breakneck speed. There was talk of ‘emergency education.’ Everywhere, teachers, lecturers and academics were scrabbling furiously to make sense of what it meant to teach at a distance, rushing to create content that was engaging, relevant and able to be delivered safely at a distance. Few were trained for this, or familiar with the technologies and how they could be leveraged into effective pedagogy. There were many failures, because of lack of knowledge and experience. Teachers discovered they couldn’t simply take what they had been doing in the traditional classroom for years, place it into a digital environment and expect the same results.

Those of us who work in education, especially those of us who specialise in distance and digital forms of education – could very easily have stood back and said – “we told you so”. My personal response to Covid was to create a set of six online courses that covered everything from methods of online teaching to digital identity, to be made freely available for teachers worldwide. Many have taken these free courses and I have received some great feedback, including ‘this is just what we need’. This is very gratifying. Teaching is nothing if it is not adaptable. And teachers can be very agile.

For years distance education has been viewed by many in the mainstream educational community as a ‘Micky Mouse’ solution, or a poor cousin of ‘real’ education. Personally I have had endless debates with colleagues over the effectiveness of technology supported education. I have met many skeptics, but I’m not sure how many people today are still in doubt about the importance of digital technology and the role it has to play in the future of education. If there are, they are strangely silent. Distance education in all forms has proved itself already – and has probably saved lives during this pandemic crisis.

Personally, our family was hit hard by Covid. Several of us, including my wife, my daughter and I, were infected and had to experience not only the nasty effects of the virus, but the trauma of not knowing whether we would recover. Both I and my daughter have lived with years from respiratory problems, and to be frank, catching Covid was a very anxious time for us during a few weeks. 

Six weeks on I’m still recovering from the virus, but I continue to teach, exclusively from my home office – using Zoom, Skype and Teams and a whole host of other technologies – as I engage with my students, try to inspire them to go that step further, and encourage them to express their learning and their creativity, all at a distance. I’m very thankful for my early research in the 90s into effective tried and tested methods of distance education.

I’m also very grateful for the huge amount of learning I have achieved through attendance at EDEN conferences, EDEN chats and webinars and other events, and through my engagement with my professional community over the last few decades. I may have struggled with my health during this present crisis, but I never once doubted the effectiveness of distance education, and I never once struggled to implement it effectively to keep learning going and sustain my student community during these strange times.

Today, there is room for plenty of optimism. There are new vaccines being deployed. Personally, I’m recovering steadily from the virus, and hope for a return to full health. Worldwide, there is hope that things will soon be back to ‘normal’. But perhaps we should all take a step back and think – what is normal? And do we want to go back to where we were before?

If there is one good thing to come out of this pandemic, surely it is our opportunity to throw away what hasn’t worked, and adopt some new and progressive approaches to education, especially those that have emerged as a result of the crisis. Stay safe and keep well. Here’s to a brighter future.

Steve Wheeler
EDEN Senior Fellow