Learning and Researching Through Crisis

John Traxler and Helen Beetham

Learning and Researching Through Crisis

In recent work commissioned by the Edtech Hub[1], a team in the Education Observatory at the University of Wolverhampton explored two related topics, arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The first was digital responses that might maintain the continuity of education systems through the pandemic and into its aftermath. The second was how these digital responses might actually exacerbate existing disadvantages and whether that this could be mitigated. We explored the literature extensively, we ran multiple online Delphi sessions with groups of relevant experts, and we put out requests for case studies and examples but in the end, we trusted our experience and expertise, keen to make an original and worthwhile contribution.

What became apparent was the tension between sustaining educations systems, especially national or state education systems, and helping those already failed, ignored or oppressed by these systems. These are disparate and ill-defined group of people and communities, sometimes characterised as the ‘marginalised’, including for example, travellers, the Roma and circus folk; linguistic minorities, indigenous peoples and tribal societies; nomads, the homeless and the deeply rural; refugees and internally-displaced persons; the unemployed and the under-employed and girl children, especially in the context of forced marriages, and women, in more conservative societies. The unifying characteristic, cutting across distinctions between say the Global North and the Global South or urban and rural, was being at the periphery, a long way, socially, culturally, geographically, economically or infrastructurally, from the mainstream and the established of their countries and their languages, values and practices. So, our question was, would sustaining education systems just further disadvantage these marginalised groups?

The report will be published shortly on the Edtech Hub website. It will be part of the Hub’s rapid response to COVID-19. There was not sufficient time or resources to design and test solutions but the team’s response to both topics was to point to those technologies such as mobiles and social media and to those emerging pedagogies such as learner-generated content, game mechanics and self-directed learning that could underpin the development within communities of informal digital learning spaces.

In the wider environment of global EdTech, there is a blizzard of surveys, funds, webinars and communities, producing and consuming data, ideas and opinions, sometimes trying to fill gaps in what we know about the world as it was, sometimes trying to anticipate the world as it will be. As we begin to imagine – and to shape – the ‘new normal’ in education, we need every opportunity to learn from each other, and we need to learn as much as possible from those marginalised communities, who are usually, almost by definition ‘hard-to-reach’.

In this context, the Association for Learning Technology is supporting the Open Covid Pledge for Education, covering all forms of research, data and know-how that can support the COVID-19 response in education around the world.

Researchers in medicine and healthcare have from the start openly released their findings to build a shared knowledge base and save lives. Thousands have signed up to the Open Covid Pledge, hosted by Creative Commons: millions of valuable patents and datasets are now the public domain. We hope that an equivalent pledge for research and know-how in education could have a similar impact. Researchers in digital, open and online education could lead the way.

During lockdown, Open Education Resources (OER) have been critical for keeping students in touch with their learning. There are already several global initiatives to boost OER access and development, like the Open Door initiative hosted by the Commonwealth of Learning, and the OER Dynamic Coalition, launched by UNESCO in March.

But we need more than shared content: we also need credible evidence on which to base day-to-day decisions in practice and policy. We need urgent research into the experiences of teachers and learners. We need shared know-how, especially from experienced online and distance educators and learning technology specialists.

Education globally faces many challenges, not only for the people who work and learn in the sector but for whole organisations and modes of learning. Societies depend on education to improve lives, widen economic participation, and support civic life. Education will be critical to the long-term response to the pandemic crisis.

The Open Covid Pledge for Education commits people and organisations to sharing what they know, to support the world-wide educational response. Not all research will be shareable as open data. But whether fully open, redacted, anonymised, synthesised or combined with other data sets, data should be shared whenever possible. Not all evidence will look like formal research. But outcomes should be available to everyone who can use them – educators and students around the world, trade unions and stakeholder bodies, funders and policy makers. This is true of organisational research and evidence from practice as well as research that is funded and published more formally.

The Pledge has already been signed by representatives of many global open education initiatives. Thanks to them, much of the hard work of building open principles and processes has been done, and the Open Covid response in education is in good health.

But the hard work of understanding education in a time of pandemic is still ahead. Right now, we have a chance to make ‘open’ the default for that work – to make this moment an ‘open’ pivot rather than just an ‘online’ one. Please sign the Pledge here, and persuade other people in your organisation to do the same.

[1] The EdTech Hub is a collaboration between the Overseas Development Institute, REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge, Results for Development, Open Development and Education, Brink, Jigsaw Consult, BRAC, Afrilabs and eLearning Africa. Donor support is currently provided by UK Aid, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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