Covid-19 will change our outlook on education and technology forever

Written by: Lord Jim Knight | Published:
Lord Jim Knight is a member of the House of Lords and a former schools minister

At the end of the coronavirus crisis, we will need to reflect on what we have learned about teaching and learning, technology and ourselves, says former schools minister Jim Knight

In the past three weeks or so, our primary and secondary schools have pulled off a feat that in ordinary times would have taken years to achieve.

By moving to remote and online education for the vast majority of pupils in the face of a global pandemic, school leaders and teachers have gone beyond the call of duty.

As we contemplate more weeks in lockdown, with very little prospect of a return to normality before the end of the academic year, there is evidence that the education system is now getting its head around the learning challenges – and opportunities – presented by these sudden and dramatic changes.

On Monday (April 20), the BBC is launching an impressive initiative with 12 weeks of online and broadcast programming for pupils of primary and secondary ages.

Smaller education technology providers are also responding to the challenge with great energy and creativity. There is a real appetite to share thinking about online learning across the education technology sector – a fact borne out by the enormous attendance of educators at an online summit that I helped to lead at the end of last month, and the decision to hold another one on June 4 (see further information).

This I think suggests the beginning of a shift in attitudes to online learning and that in the future we can expect to see a much more seamless mix of online and offline learning.

The details of how exactly that will work is for another day, after the immediate priority of managing this crisis has faded. At the moment teachers have a real challenge on their hands and they are doing brilliantly in very difficult circumstances, effectively learning how to fly a plane that they are building at the same time.

While it is important for schools to have a focus on delivering at least a skeleton curriculum for children and young people, I do think it would be helpful if all of us – schools, government and parents and the broader education community – could shift the balance of expectations and make this brave new temporary world more focused on social and emotional support and contact for pupils rather than just learning outcomes.

The education system in ordinary times has struggled to strike the right balance between the academic, the emotional and the social, and right now I believe that our first priority should be the emotional and social aspect of schooling. We are after all social and learning animals – we should be thinking about how we play to our natural instincts.

Of course, turning the focus to the emotional and the social will need to be manageable within already heavy workloads, but the technology does make it possible for classes to come together regularly so that there is a sense of leadership of learning from a teacher; of the class being brought together as a community. I know that there will be many schools across the country already taking this approach.

The implications for the future of education policy of this period will be far-reaching but it is still too early to predict precisely what they will be.

Technology is critically important right now because it is the only thing that connects us – but how it is used is still up for grabs. Ultimately, we need learners to be able to finish their formal learning having accrued skills in self-directed online learning, because these are increasingly important for the labour market. This time is an opportunity for that.

But at the end of all this we will need to reflect on what we have learned about teaching and learning, technology and ourselves. I am sure there will be debate about the validity of GCSE exams if teacher assessments provide an adequate solution this summer. We can expect the same discussions about year 6 SATs.

What is clear even at this early stage is that many parents are fast becoming experts in their children’s education; they are seeing first-hand what their children are doing, what motivates them and what they enjoy.

Parents of secondary age children may for the first time be able to see what sparks their child’s interest and what that might mean for their next steps beyond school; possibly a work-based pathway rather than a university place. Basically, parents are now in the classroom and they may in the future expect to have a greater involvement.

Finally, the education system as a whole might finally appreciate that technology is not quite as terrifying as originally thought and that a blend of online and offline is something that we all need to think about a lot more carefully in the future.

  • Lord Jim Knight is chief education and external officer at Tes Global. He is a member of the House of Lords and a former schools minister.

Further information

The second ed-tech industry collaboration to help schools and colleges deal with Covid-19 takes place on June 4 at 5pm. For details, visit


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