Can the Covid experience reshape education?


After ORT schools and programs closed in March, almost overnight all our educational activities moved online.

But as the first small steps take place towards classes returning to school buildings, ORT’s senior educators came together to share their experiences, think about how the network can face up to the new challenges ahead and make the most of the new opportunities available to us all.

The Educators’ Forum brought together more than 60 senior educators from 17 countries, representing dozens of ORT schools, to consider the lessons we can take from the pandemic, and the ways education could be reshaped by this experience.

Tuesday’s forum began with four keynote talks that provided delegates with fresh perspectives, experience and wisdom, and inspired them to think optimistically about their mission and the potential of the ORT network.

In a thought-provoking address, renowned writer and education specialist Pierre-Antoine Ullmo said he believed the answers to ORT’s educators’ questions would come from within “the strength of your network”.

Addressing the key concerns of teachers during this period, Mr Ullmo said: “No one feared or imagined schools closing from one day to the other. What we have seen is the stubborn reality: we need school. School means daily basic care, it means food and shelter for many children. School closures deepen education inequalities.”

Despite the successes across the ORT network with the switch to remote learning, Mr Ullmo said “digital innovation” in general had shown itself not to have been ready for the change.

“Connecting with students is very difficult when you are only online. When you depend on homework to do schooling then you create more inequalities,” he said.

“How do we move forward? One thing does not change – teaching remains a two-way thing. We may dream of magical powers, like Mary Poppins, but teachers are not magicians. Teachers are trained to arrange things to the best of their abilities. They solve problems when they occur. This is what ORT does and it needs to do more.”

He said the answer to creating interaction and a sense of community among teachers and students while distanced was not technical but “common sense” and hinged on the capacity to foster a child’s ability to learn.

Mr Ullmo urged teachers to recognize the unique capacity of children to engage with essential problems. “In the way the school is managed, the role of young people should change,” he said.

Outlining an action plan for the future, he highlighted key objectives for all educators, including enhancing students’ creativity, helping students activate their knowledge in real-life situations, involving families in education and ensuring education projects are used as “transformation tools to empower students to investigate problems and design solutions”.

Dr Helen Schleckser, Adjunct Professor at University of Cumberlands in Arizona, United States, is an expert in change management and the use of technology in education.

Discussing new opportunities to learn online, she said she had heard from students who did not want to return to traditional classroom-based learning as they were making progress and focusing on their learning better through distance teaching and working.

“We know from the research that online learning is equal or better in outcome to traditional learning, but there is a misconception there, mainly because of all the challenges people are having,” Dr Schleckser said.

“But it’s an opportunity to exercise those really important and necessary 21st century skills. They are really necessary even in the workplace – being able to communicate online… understanding that information and media and technology literacy are really important in a corporate organization… the ability to be flexible and also to be productive online, instead of just one type of a static environment – this is all really important.”

Dr Schleckser said it was critical when setting up online learning opportunities to be well-organized, to give students clear direction on where to access information and assistance, to set expectations for both instructors and students on availability, presence and engagement, and to encourage a sense of community and shared purpose.

“Online learning is not going away,” she concluded. “This is not a temporary situation. Online learning has the potential to improve learning and not just maintain the status quo. We are in a really good position for that – we have frameworks and structures set up.”

Ariellah Rosenberg, lifelong learner and CEO of ORT South Africa, gave her personal insights into leading and managing in a crisis. She said it was easy to burn out by trying to juggle every aspect of the crisis. Her advice – to look after yourself first so you can look after others and make tough decisions – applied at home as much as in the classroom.

Senior figures from ORT in the former Soviet Union, led by Mikhail Libkin, national director of ORT Russia, gave an overview of how the region had coped during the pandemic, including practical and detailed information on adjusting to life after school closures as well as examples of ORT’s outreach in communities through adult training courses.

Breakthroughs in the breakout rooms

Participants then split into seven breakout rooms to discuss topics including early years and elementary education, lifelong learning, Jewish education, non-formal education and skills development.

These discussions highlighted a series of key challenges across all aspects of taking education online.

For elementary school children, in many cases learning from home required parents to be present to help students access classes because of technology barriers. For that age group there were substantial emotional difficulties and it was noticeable that attendances have started to drop.

Parents needed help to use the technology before being able to assist their children. Students have reported being initially excited by the new learning environment, but there was a noticeable decline in motivation as lockdowns continued.

For teachers and educators, the demands of corresponding with so many families and the stamina needed to continue doing so posed problems. In Ukraine, teachers started by leading live classes online but switched to shorter videos and exercises being sent as links.

Covid has increased the educational inequalities between students due to the gaps in economic backgrounds. Some families have been forced to prioritize basic social welfare needs ahead of schooling at this time. And for vocational students there have been clear and specific problems – there is no way for them to go out and get the practical experience they need.

The biggest concern – across almost all participants – was uncertainty for the future. Many students have benefited from the change – for example some shy students are making greater progress at home, while sociable students have actually gained more opportunities to collaborate with their peers outside the confines of the classroom.

Many educators commented on the respect being shown by parents who now better understand how teachers work. There has also been less focus on assessing students and more on ways to improve individual learning experiences.

There were countless examples of initiatives which helped both schools and students. For example older students being tasked with organizing online activities for younger pupils aided both sets of students while taking pressure off teachers.

Learning the lessons of Covid

All the participants in the forum felt the lessons learnt in the past three months should be incorporated into the future formal education scenario.

One participant, Dany Maknouz – a teacher at Milan’s Scuola Della Comunita Ebraica – said: “My biggest take from the forum is that it seems everywhere, everyone is facing similar challenges with the lockdown and its effect on education. Another thing that stood out for me is that we are all learning on the go and there seem to be no research that one can relate to and use as reference in this process.”

Dan Green, World ORT Acting CEO and Director General, said: “The key to ORT is the strength of our network – we all share the common language of a love of ORT and of education. We know how adaptable and innovative our schools are, yet it still amazes me how quickly this transition to remote learning happened – for the students there was no interruption their education.

“World ORT is the unifier and facilitator of this network. It is programs and initiatives like this where we come into our own – especially when we are working with our professionals, our teachers and our leaders in our schools and institutions. These are among the most important programs we run. We leave no student behind.”