There is, quite rightly, widespread concern about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the academic progress of young learners.
The rapid growth in digital learning provision over the last year has served to mitigate some of its impacts. Having spent the last 25 years developing reading programmes and educational resources for primary-aged children, I suddenly found myself on the ‘other side’ trying to teach extended writing skills and relative clauses and grappling KS3 maths equations.
Like so many parents, I did this while juggling a full-time job at my kitchen table; a job that involved supporting the shift to digital learning.
Almost overnight, OUP’s popular Oxford Owl platform became a lifeline for thousands of teachers, children and parents looking for high-quality resources. As publishers we had to rapidly rethink, recreate and redeliver our content and support services in digital form, while also learning how to use new technologies ourselves.
The enormously positive feedback we have received about our online learning provision shows that digital does have the power to transform some aspects of education. The availability of remote online training, for example, has put expert research and pedagogical knowledge into the hands of thousands more teachers than is possible in a physical setting.
And yet, it’s hard not to feel some concern about the impact of remote, digital learning on the wellbeing of young people. The insights from OUP’s latest report, ‘Education: The journey towards a digital revolution’ suggest that the shift to digital has raised concerns about pupil wellbeing. Seventy-eight per cent of teachers surveyed stated that digital learning had increased concerns around learner wellbeing.
This is no surprise given that these learners benefit most from the structures and routines of school and a much closer, more nurturing relationship with their teachers.
We must also remember that learners have missed out on social and emotional interactions and the opportunity to talk, play and run around – an essential part of early child development.
During the pandemic, the WHO issued advice that toddlers and young children should have no more than one hour of sedentary screen time a day.
Yet the reality is that most children will have spent considerable time sitting at screens in the last year. There are clear implications for children’s emotional and physical wellbeing that need to be addressed.
Finally, one thing that struck me both personally and professionally when I read OUP’s report is that, while digital is great for delivering content to young learners, it probably hasn’t yet evolved sufficiently to support interaction and communication around that content. Digital learning can be quite lonely.
And yet it is the interactions, questions and conversations in the classroom that make education vibrant and meaningful to young people and that ultimately help to embed learning. There is a long road still to be travelled on our journey towards a digital revolution.
The pandemic has highlighted both the power of digital to transform education and the risks that too much screen time pose to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of our teachers, learners and parents.
As an education community, we must ensure that while we strive to repair the academic damage caused by a year or more of disruption to education, the focus on wellbeing is not lost.
Andrea Quincey, director, Primary Literacy, Oxford University Press