Digitizing K12 Education: Capturing the COVID-19 Experience and Imagining the Future

Naz Bilecik '22 SEAS
September 16, 2020

On July 1st, 2020, Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul and Columbia Global Centers | Nairobi organized a live webinar titled “Digitizing K12 Education: Capturing the COVID-19 Experience and Imagining the Future.” The keynote was delivered by Dr. Detra Price-Dennis, Associate Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; followed by Saliha Aslan' 15TC, Head of School at Üsküdar SEV Schools and Mary Muriuki, Regional Representative of Cambrilearn.com. The event was moderated by Dahlia Hamza Constantine, doctoral candidate in Curriculum & Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools all around the world had to turn to emergency remote education. This situation revealed gaps in pedagogical knowledge and infrastructure to support the use of technology for instruction. Since it is thought that virtual learning will likely be a permanent part of education going forward, this webinar gathered education experts from the US, Kenya, and Turkey to provide insight into how we can move towards a more sustainable online learning experience for K12 education.

Some highlights from the talk include the following:

Over the past few months, we have seen a global increase in engagement in online spaces, and educators had to expand their instructional strategies to engage in remote learning. Dr. Detra Price-Dennis pointed out that many of these educators have not received sufficient professional training in online teaching. Professional development opportunities before the COVID-19 pandemic failed to create an infrastructure to support K12 educators in developing curricula that center on digital tools as a means to mediate and amplify equity-oriented approaches to teaching and learning. Dr. Detra Price-Dennis stressed that at this moment, we desperately need a paradigmatic shift that merges conversations on technology and pedagogy to more fully understand how teachers can move between face-to-face and online instruction.

Dr. Price-Dennis offered some tools and a conceptual framework that could support shifting practices from face-to-face to online learning in ways that promote creativity, self-directed learning, and criticality. She mentioned that research that focuses on equity has taught her a great deal about engaging students in academic learning from different cultural, racial, and linguistic backgrounds. When developing syllabi for online courses, she draws on literature rooted in critical theory such as black feminist thought, critical race theory, critical literacies, and anti-racist pedagogy. She does so because these theories serve to counter the structural and educational inequities that students from marginalized communities experience in school.

Dr. Price-Dennis identified five elements that provide a framework for educators to begin translating face-to-face learning to a virtual context: Reimagine, Engage, Examine, Create, and Assess. She explained that starting with reimagining allows the instructor to question what instructional practices are possible for online learning. Afterwards, the instructor needs to look for what tools are available to support online teaching and learning to engage students. Educators should make sure that online education creates space for students to examine social issues and engage in critical inquiry. Every tool is available for students to create during remote learning, so all approaches should be multimodal, promote criticality, and serve as a creative space for inquiry and production. Last but not least, teaching online should have lots of access points for students to get feedback on how they make sense of the content. The types of assessment used should take ethics, privacy, and data management seriously and offer transparency about how the analytics from the platforms are being used to assess learning in the course.

Mary Muriuki shared her experiences with online learning in Kenya. Mary is a home educator, and she homeschooled her children from kindergarten to high school. She became a consultant and mentor to other parents who want to homeschool their children. Mary mentioned that there has been an upsurge of interest in online learning in Kenya over the past five years. Many parents homeschooling their children have been asking for online programs instead of importing books from the United States. During this time, Mary started working with Cambrilearn, an online school from South Africa that took the IGCSE British curriculum and digitized it for consumption by home educators. This program enables the parent to be a guide or facilitator for the child's learning as Cambrilearn provides pre-recorded lessons, simulations, and assignments online.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in Kenya created emergency online platforms depending on how much access they had to online tools. This created a significant disparity between students because a small portion of schools was able to provide online education. Others were forced to completely shut down due to connectivity issues, the absence of digital tools, and lack of knowledge on how to implement remote learning. Students in public and local schools were affected mostly because their schools were not able to digitize. Kenya’s Minister of Education tried to develop a nationwide solution by providing learning opportunities for children through broadcasting educational programs on the radio and television. Mary highlighted that, unfortunately, there are children who live in very remote and rural areas who do not even have access to a TV or radio. She explained that these families created learning opportunities for their children by incorporating them into their farm life and business. Children are learning how to farm and take care of animals. Although this is not a typical curriculum for school, Mary still interprets it as homeschooling. She believes that homeschooling is a broad concept, and it includes any piece of knowledge that a parent can pass on to his/her children.

Mary also talked about parents' concerns about children spending too much time in front of a screen. She recommends parents use a blended-learning method to limit the time that a child is spending in front of a screen. She advises parents to turn off the screen after the children learn the content, and then discuss the content with them, create activities that can be performed outside, read physical books, and have the children practice lots of handwriting.

Saliha Aslan gave insights into primary and secondary education in Turkey. There are 18 million students, 24% of Turkey's population, and 1 million teachers at the K12 level in Turkey. Since K12 age groups are still dependent on their families, not only the students but nearly two-thirds of the population was affected by schools shutting down during the pandemic. Saliha mentioned that when the pandemic started, almost all private schools in Turkey took immediate action and were able to adapt to online teaching using commonly known apps such as Zoom or tailor-made learning management systems. For public schools, the Turkish Ministry of Education immediately put a new program into action in March through an established system known as Education Technologies Network (EBA) for remote learning. EBA was widened using the national TV network to reach remote regions of the country and people with limited access to the internet. This was a practical solution because only 60% of Turkey's population has access to the internet, whereas 98% has access to a TV. Using EBA, all public school students were able to access educational content at home. This method was used to decrease the gap in access to education.

Saliha also drew attention to the social and emotional development of K12 age groups. She mentioned that young learners especially need interaction with peers and teachers since they cannot generate a real-life classroom environment in their minds through a screen. Urban life provides socialization for children only at school. The Turkish Ministry of Education introduced a program called "Remote Reaching – Close Follow Up" to provide social and emotional support to students, teachers, and parents during the pandemic.

When talking about the future of education, Saliha argued that hybrid education, which combines physical presence and remote learning, will likely become widespread because physical contact restrictions will be kept in place, and remote learning will provide flexibility as the pandemic continues. Saliha mentioned that flipped learning could also be considered. Students can watch lectures before attending class, and class time can be devoted to applied learning activities or higher-order thinking skills that develop the child in a more sophisticated way. Differentiation, which is tailored teaching based on the children’s learning abilities, is also possible because remote learning enables a better and easier approach to individual differences. Educators can use artificial intelligence to prepare materials that are tailored to individual students and age groups.