With 290 million kids out of school, coronavirus is putting online learning to the test

LFH in Italy.
LFH in Italy.
Image: REUTERS/Yara Nardi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In late January, Priya Lakhani, founder of Century Tech, an AI-driven learning platform for schools, got a question from her team: Should they offer free access to Century—which typically costs thousands of pounds—to schools in China that had started to close as a result of the spreading coronavirus?

“Without hesitation I said yes, go for it,” Lakhani recounts. “This is why we do what we do, and if we can help we should.”

A little more than a month later, the British-based Century is giving training and access to its platform, which combines neuroscience and AI to individualize learning, to 50 schools in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and the UAE. Lakhani says anyone who wants it can use it (even in the UK).

Each school using Century delivers, on average, 565 lessons each week.

According to the United Nations, school closures in 13 countries to contain the spread of Covid-19 are disrupting the education of 290 million students globally, “a figure without precedent.” That has left millions of teachers, administrators, and students at the mercy of online learning, much of which is unfamiliar, and untested at such scale.

Teachers from Italy and Hong Kong to Kuwait and Bahrain are having to dive headlong into online learning, regardless of whether they feel confident using the tools, or whether they believe the tech platforms and tools are a productive way to learn.

Naima Charlier, director of teaching and learning at the Nord Anglia International School Hong Kong, says while the situation has been hard on everyone, she has also seen benefits, including a massive increase in teacher confidence around technology and e-platforms. “Across all our subjects and teachers, that has been a huge positive,” Charlier says. Teachers are trying and adjusting and sharing at warp speed what works and what doesn’t.

“There’s a massive energy about how to do this incredibly different and difficult thing as well as we possibly can.”

Lakhani says teachers are so dedicated to making sure that teaching and learning is happening that they will try anything, including using tech that might not have appealed before. “Some of those educators and teachers, who you can imagine in a normal teaching environment might have a level of skepticism, or a lack of confidence [about tech], they are running with it,” she says. “People are in survival mode,” and doing everything they can to “make sure they continue teaching and learning.”

Not so fast

Nord Anglia has the advantage of being well-versed in tech. But most of the schools and teachers in countries affected by the coronavirus are not. Many fear the impact on students at schools with fewer resources, and the potential of these unique circumstances to widen the already gaping divides in education.

Rose Luckin, a professor of learning-centered design at University College London, says there are many reasons to worry about the prospect of scaled remote learning across the UK: insufficient infrastructure (not everywhere has stable and reliable broadband connectivity); technology (not all schools have the tech they need or the technical support to make it happen); human resources (few schools have the teacher capacity to created well-designed online materials), and home technology: not all homes have the tech needed—hardware or software—to make it happen.

“Disadvantaged learners will be even more disadvantaged,” she says.

Even the most well-resourced and well-prepared schools face challenges. Ellen Mahoney, founder of Sea Change Mentoring, advises international schools on social and emotional learning, wellbeing initiatives, and mentorship. She says many teachers are struggling, as they work long hours to learn new tools and create new content, while also worrying about student wellbeing, something that can be very hard to assess online. “Some are not well-versed in online ed, so they are in crisis mode and trying to make do,” she says.

Iain Sachdev, principal of the International School of Monza in Italy, worked with his team to get the school up and running online within 24 hours of the announcement that schools in northern Italy were closing. He said teacher wellbeing had become a key issue. “As we move into week three in Italy, teacher wellbeing is now our number one reflection and adjustment point,” he said.

What are kids doing?

Schools and teachers can be notoriously slow at adopting new technologies, in part due to a lack of confidence, but also due to skepticism about their effectiveness. A lot of tech has come and gone, most with few results to show for it. Many edtech companies build solutions to problems that do not exist in a classroom. Teachers also know kids are social learners—they respond well to humans.

Nord Anglia is in week five of the all-online experiment, and was probably as well-prepared as any school to move online. It is only six years old and was set up with laptops, iPads and VR headsets. But moving everything online has been a massive undertaking for its teachers, administrators, students, and parents.

Students there are using a variety of tech tools,  including Nearpod, Firefly, Edmodo, Padlet, Flipgrid, Microsoft and Century. The emphasis is on making sure the learning is happening. That involves doing a lot of real-time assessment, while trying to keep it interesting.

Charlier says Padlet—a platform where teachers and students can share ideas, images, and videos to build a visual picture of learning—has been popular across age groups. “Setting it up in different configurations allows teachers to see answers to different categories of questions and color code responses so they can quickly give feedback,” she says. Students can see their classmates’ work, which allows them to collaborate. Nearpods lets teachers upload English content, ask questions in real time, and see answers as they come in. In this way, they can immediately assess who understands the content and who does not.

As an example, Charlier’s seven-year-old daughter, a student at Nord Anglia, had a drama class tied to a science lesson about life cycles. They watched a video of (real) lizards hatching and then, to the music from Planet of the Apes, had to imagine and act out on film the actions they would do to hatch out of an egg. “We enjoyed watching it,” she says.

Nord Anglia was already considering becoming a paying Century client before the coronavirus epidemic. The school accepted the offer to use its technology for free, with teachers attending online trainings and relying on the Century staff in London to help them get up to speed.

How Century works

Teachers can either access Century’s pre-existing lessons, or upload their own. As students make their way though the content, the platform learns their knowledge level, skills, pace of learning, and gaps. With that knowledge it can individualize learning pathways. Century says it can identify not just that a student is having difficulty, but why, and what to do to help.  Teachers get a dashboard with real-time information about every student’s performance.

Lakhani says she set up Century in response to two problems: bored students and overworked teachers. Education should not be one-size-fits-all, and tech  should definitively be able to reduce teacher workload.

At Nord Anglia, all students from year three to year 11 (ages 7-16) are using Century. Charlier likes the autonomy it gives children over their own learning, while allowing teachers to see exactly where every student is on every topic of a curriculum. The quality of the lessons is good, she says, as is the sequence (the order in which kids learn things is important). She watched her daughter get 50% on a lesson, before repeating it twice, and scoring 90%. ”Giving them a tool to let them take control of their learning and see where they are strong and where there are gaps is very powerful,” she says.

As we spoke, Charlier checked on how the entire Century group was doing. One had completed 10% of a math course that had not yet been assigned. “He’s chosen to do that,” she says. Another spent three hours and 40 min on another math course, completing 20%.

Learning science has established that the best time to learn something is right before you are about to forget it, and that it helps to switch between subjects as you study, and to space out study time. Charlier says Century’s artificial intelligence was developed with cognitive scientists, as well as curriculum experts, so that the learning materials are suggested to the students based on the best time to learn.

Long term effects?

How much of this headlong embrace of online learning sticks when everyone goes back to school is anyone’s guess. Charlier says that the biggest fear teachers face right now is knowing how much kids are learning since they are not “in front of us.” Tools like Century, she says,”help enormously” but the true effects will be measured when students are back in the classroom.

Lakhani believes this experience will empower teachers to decide what online learning tools work for them and their students. Mahoney agrees. “Down the line there will be interesting lessons from this. One is how to use technology and I hope it helps schools to be more adaptable and flexible.”

Charlier, who has long-embraced tech in schools, says the biggest lesson of the experience may be just how important being together in person really is.

“For those of us wondering if we can not have schools in the future, the question is answered,” she says. “We need the building, and to meet face to face, and to have quick fire, rapid conversations,” she says.  “We can do amazing things to help them learn and to have ownership, and as teachers we can be creative, but if we can do all that and be together in the buildings, that’s a powerful future.”