Education: the importance of balancing what’s smart and what’s necessary

Technology provided an emergency way to keep students learning in the past couple of years, which has had both benefits and drawbacks. How do you find the right balance of digital and in-classroom learning to make it sustainable moving forward?

In my last blog article, I wrote about smart education and technology in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region. It generated some interesting feedback from readers, not least from parents who have undergone a challenging couple of years in terms of their children’s education. They typically believe that technology needs to be used to a certain extent in learning, but not too much.

It’s something that has to be considered when discussing the evolution of e-learning, because for want of a better term, in this case, children are the customer. Or end users, if you like. So while it’s true to say that video tools enabled remote learning as an emergency measure over the past couple of years, it’s critical to get children back into classrooms and interacting with their peers and teachers. According to UNICEF, nationwide lockdowns impacted the education of over 110 million young people in MEA, by far the biggest disruption to the region’s education system in recent history. Furthermore, MEA’s parents and children, particularly those living in rural areas, simply didn’t have access to the resources they needed for online learning. According to Microsoft, one in five MEA students did not have access to the Internet or a device to support them during lockdowns.

Pros and cons of remote learning

Online schooling became an enforced practice a couple of years ago. Education establishments and parents had no alternative but to adapt quickly and make the best of a difficult situation. Technology enabled online learning, much as it did for remote working. It’s something that simply wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, as the technologies and tools just did not exist then to make large-scale online learning a reality.

Many parents cited comfort and convenience as a benefit of home-schooling, with less stress of a commute and school run. Parents also reported enjoying more time with their children, time that was more flexible through them both being at home. Online learning was also reported to encourage self-discipline in children, with pupils learning personal time management and organization earlier in life than they perhaps would normally. Some parents and teachers reported children becoming more confident during online lessons, feeling more empowered to volunteer answers to questions over a shared video call than they might be in a classroom.

That said, after several months of home-schooling and online learning, many parents began to find their patience tested. Many reported children becoming more distant, with lack of social interaction with friends and other students in class being a major problem. Peer interaction can help pupils be more stimulated and engaged in classes, and it can help them establish emotional bonds with teachers and other children. With these interactions removed, some students began to feel isolated.

The long-term impacts of enforced online learning are difficult to forecast. Young children don’t always make the best survey respondents, and parents have naturally been eager to get their kids back into some kind of normality. That said, the World Economic Forum did release a report that talked about a potentially tangible aspect of continued school closures: students risk losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings, or around 14% of today’s global GDP, because of COVID-19-related school closures and economic shocks.

Hybrid work, hybrid learning?

There are many things in common between remote working and remote learning, and the impacts of both practices on adults and children are similar. So perhaps one of the ways forward that enterprises have embraced could apply to education, too: a hybrid model.

Recent times have seen many children engage in hybrid learning models without even knowing the term. Hybrid learning is the educational version of what parents are doing in the workplace: some are there in person, some are still joining in remotely using videoconferencing and collaboration tools. Hybrid classes can be a mix of online exercises, pre-recorded videos, and other educational materials that support in-person classes. And done right, it offers the combination of the best aspects of in-person and online learning and gives students and parents the choice of what type of learning suits them best at that moment in time. Hybrid learning might fit some, it is indeed a challenge as it will not always be perfect for some children.

Many of the same technologies apply in hybrid education as in hybrid working. Cloud-based infrastructure and use of managed mobile and video communication and collaboration systems can help education establishments keep students connected and participating. Cybersecurity applies equally in remote learning as it does in remote working.

According to Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education, “Hybrid learning is here to stay. The challenge will be the art of combining technology and the human factor to make hybrid learning a tool to expand access to quality education for all.” I very much agree with this and see a hybrid model as a positive way forward that accentuates the positives of remote education while addressing the things parents and students did not like. Education establishments will need the expertise and experience of technology providers to help guide them along that journey.

If you would like to talk about smart education, how digital tools enable it, or anything else about digital transformation in MEA, please contact me on: sahem.azzam@orange.com.

Sahem Azzam
Sahem Azzam

Sahem Azzam is VP Middle East & Africa at Orange Business Services. He is an experienced senior business leader with extensive experience in the Middle East region and emerging markets and a strong track record of achievement in the information technology and services industry. Sahem has developed special interest and expertise in business and sales management leadership, partner management, go-to-market strategy development, infrastructure services, IoT, Big Data, Smart Cities, Blockchain and IT service management.