Is The Great Online Education Experiment Working? Q&A: Vikas Pota

Vikas Pota is a leading advocate of innovation in education. Whilst running the charitable foundation of Dubai-based billionaire Sunny Varkey, he launched the World Teachers Prize, giving a $1m prize to the winner on the basis that great educators should be celebrated at least as munificently as the stars of other, often less important, professions. When Driving Change spoke to him, he was building on a successful online conference, T4, attended by over 100,000 teachers, by launching World Education Week, October 5-9th, a virtual gathering focused on increasing access to a high quality education. We began by asking him to reflect on what he sees as the likely long-term consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, which shut many schools and gave millions of students their first exposure to online learning.

Vikas Pota (VP): You are right to say that COVID, as a phenomenon, has absolutely turned everything upside down. What’s really interesting about it is that it’s affected people from what you would call the Global South as much as it has the Global North. Therein lies, I think, a huge number of opportunities to look at how change can happen in education systems.

This has been a rare opportunity for a teacher in Nigeria to have an influence on a teacher in Norway, simply because there’s a commonality of experience. We’re all experiencing very similar things, whether it’s new inequity of various types or whether it’s to do with teaching and working out what works well. We’re thinking about how you engage with the process of homeschool, which many of us have been engaged with over this period. I do think that yes, there’s a huge amount of disruption and chaos. But we also see some incredible stories, which provide me with a bit of optimism about the future.

Driving Change (DC):  Now, the teachers you’ve given prizes to have all been just brilliant in the classroom. That’s what they were really getting recognized for. Yet for most schools around the world, we haven’t been in the classroom. So what have the best teachers been doing to actually deal with that challenge?

VP: Well, you’ve got to remember that the reason why countries and education systems don’t make the progress that they ought to — as evidenced in things like the PISA rankings or such surveys — is because not enough effort is made with regards to the teaching profession. Workforce is such an important part of the healthcare system, as well as the education system, but in one we absolutely seem to ride roughshod over.

If I look at teaching and teachers, we have had a huge crisis even before COVID came along to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education by 2030. In 10 years time, we need to have recruited sixty-nine million new teachers just to fulfill that target. So when you look at it in that context, you think, well, you know, teaching and teachers are not just about being in the classroom. Actually, the winners of the Global Teacher Prize demonstrated something even bigger than that. They demonstrated their heart for the community, their engagement with the community. They talked about the commitment towards learning and children. Then it goes beyond just the four walls of their classroom or their schools, as evidenced by Peter Tabichi from Kenya. You might recall Andria from London or Maggie MacDonnell from the Canadian Arctic. What we have are examples of teachers who go all out every day, in the service of learning and in the service of our kids.

DC: So what does that mean in terms of how we then think about what we do in the COVID environment, where it’s going to be hard to go back to school as we knew it?

VP: So, I recently hosted a conference call where we had over 100,000 registrations from teachers from all around the world. They’re all interested in how the profession is evolving, given COVID. We all ask the question about what the new normal looks like. It’s only natural given what’s happened. You have teachers asking, well, what is the new normal when it comes to education, given all of a sudden the mass adoption of technology in our lives, especially when it comes to schooling? The reality is that teachers now realize that they needed to grasp technology at many, many stages over the last decade. This has been a huge concern where teachers are not comfortable with the use of technologies, often with stymieing the classroom environment. Now they understand the potential.

I think there’s an opportunity, given the mindset change, that a lot can happen to harness the power of technology in education. What we see is not much has changed since the first Industrial Revolution. There’s a reason why. Now what we have is a situation where with personalized technologies, with productivity technologies, with online spanning distance technology, a lot can happen. I think teachers are attuned to that. And they see the potential.

DC: There’s been this debate about technology and education for a long time. It may be, partly, the conservatism of the teaching profession; that they don’t want to embrace the technology. But there are also concerns that maybe there was a kind of techno utopia around education, and that technology actually doesn’t really deliver. How do you weigh out? Are we now at a place where we can know how to actually use this technology to educate better?

VP: Actually, I think your observation is spot on. There is an issue regarding the efficacy of a lot of this stuff out there. The question that we ought to ask the providers of these software services or products and solutions is, what proof do they have, apart from anecdotal teacher quotes as to whether it really improves learning outcomes?

That, I think, is the challenge that we have to set ourselves to and embark upon. That being said, if I look at technologies like Microsoft Teams, or Google Classroom, these are connectivity, this is the tissue in the fabric of what’s getting us along. By using such online platforms, we’re able to continue education, which is a different type of technology use in that sense.

What teachers need to look at is how they incorporate technology in their teaching and in their function. Let me give you an example. If I look at a teacher’s core task, lesson planning lies at the heart of it. So every teacher, at least in the UK, where I live, will say that they spend between an hour and three hours every evening, planning the lessons for the next day. Now, when you think about the application and technology to that one toss, you can probably reduce that by half, and actually drive improvements in the way they plan the lessons and free up their time to do other things in the classroom. Teachers are now realizing those opportunities.

DC: So I’m just going take the big picture now, with regards to COVID. We were 69 million teachers short before we thought about getting to 2030 and achieving the SDG. Do you think it’s going to be easier or harder to recruit teachers now?

VP: One of the things that I realized during my last tenure had to do with the status of teachers. No one really wanted to become a teacher, because every time you think of a teacher, you start thinking negative thoughts about your kids in schools, and then little Johnny not doing his mathematics in school.

What COVID has done, actually, is reframed that discussion. All of us became teachers at home and therefore, understand and appreciate the role of teachers. Now you will agree that actually teaching is very, very hard. There’s a reason why people go through training to do it. Now you might say to your children, maybe you should consider teaching as a profession when you grow up because it is a very intellectually demanding profession.

I think that’s what’s required in education. There’s a long tail to everything. There’s no quick fix. We just have to incessantly work at it. The question I think you’re asking about, with regards to SDGs — we have 10 years left, is there something that’s going to happen that’s going to lead to us accelerating towards the SDGs?

When I look at this question, I think in terms of all the policy conversations that I have with people in institutions like UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank, Education Commission — I think they have a valuable perspective and insight — but what is often missed is what actually works and what actually happens in schools. That’s why on the fifth to the ninth of October, we’ve planned something called World Education Week. A hundred schools will harness technology and present on an area of expertise to accelerate the SDG. Teachers and schools around the world can actually learn, harness and imbibe in their practice.

DC: So one of the big parts of the billion dollar question for everybody is, can we get kids back to school for this next academic year? Does it really matter that we get them back? Can we do it safely?

VP: That’s a really great question. The one thing I can tell you that every single person on this planet is united on, is the fact that kids need to go to school. The learning loss that has occurred is so significant that the World Bank and other such institutions put the loss to an equivalent monetary value of billions of dollars, in terms of the future GDP growth that we stand to lose out. Putting that to the side, education also has a really important role in imparting values. Everyone signs up and agrees with that basic tenant. Where the disagreement lies is where politics enters the question. You have ideological differences in many countries. In the UK, the union’s pitted against this Conservative government. Likewise, in America it’s the unions pitted against Betsy DeVos and the administration.

The argument is: do you follow the science or do you follow the economic trajectory? But you know, in many, many parts of the world, this is a luxurious conversation to have. The reality is that the systems are so challenged, they have no choice but to think about how to bring together multi-stakeholder partnerships and approaches to make sure that schools can function.

DC: Do you think it is safe for kids to go back into school? Or is as you say, in parts of the world, they’re not safe at home, either because everyone’s in such crowded conditions. Obviously, it’s the crowding together that seems to be the most worrying aspect of getting them back in school.

VP: I’ll just use my example; I have an elderly mother who shielding from COVID in my house. If the kids go out to school and come back, they bring something that puts my family at risk. Not only that, but we also have to think about the health and well-being of teachers and the school workforce, who are adults. I live in London, where the government has been very straightforward in terms of trying to make sure everyone gets back out and re-energize with the economy, but the rate is shooting up. We have real concerns as to what will happen. At the beginning they said that September is most likely when schools will come back, while actually, I’m saying wait, wait. Watch this space. If the rate does ramp up, I don’t see how schools can open. In principle, everyone agrees, schooling is a very important thing.

DC: What will it take for you to feel confident to send your kids back to school?

VP: I think a combination of things. One is: actually look at the science, look at the evidence of what’s happening. If I see the rate go down, it fills me with a little bit more confidence than where we are now. I accept the fact that the vaccine is somewhere down the line and we can’t wait till then. But we have to do everything we can to stop the spread of this and make sure that we’re safe.

DC: If we don’t go back to school in September, what have we learned from this first phase of trying to do education remotely, that would make you optimistic that come September, we could deliver a much more satisfying and less economically disastrous education.

VP: I’m not optimistic in that regard. Even in the last three months, there’s lots of research and lots of reports that have come out about; the average number of hours a child engages in online learning is nowhere near a school day. Even if they have the technology these inequities haven’t been fixed, so what we’ll find is just the most horrific situation regarding the most disadvantaged parts of our society. For that reason, I think that’s why schools need to come back. Just yesterday, for example, there’s a report in the Guardian which talked about how child malnutrition has shot up massively over the last six months. Likewise, I spoke to a friend of mine, who is one of the leading special-needs educators in London. She’ll tell you about how vulnerable children are having a really tough time with their families. This is an untenable situation that needs to be fixed.

DC: So lastly, what are you hoping will come out of this big gathering you’re planning in October for World Education Week?

VP: Well, like I said at the beginning, I think the opportunity lies in that every single person engaged in education has an equal and fair chance to influence what happens in the education system. A teacher coming up with a novel practice, or an idea can probably have the same impact that a Minister of Education can have today, purely because they speak from experience at the frontlines.

That is the purpose of World Education Week, where we see the schools who did remarkable things. We want to scale up their practice in all these different areas we’ve looked at so a school Nigeria can have an influence on a school in another ecosystem. So far, we’ve not succeeded in actually accelerating towards SDGs. We’ve had policymakers, government figures, all those people, to try to grapple with this issue unsuccessfully. So that’s why I’m saying, throw the ball to the people that are actually delivering education, and say let’s hear from you now. That’s where I think we can accelerate.

DC: So the silver lining in this dreadful situation might be that we finally get a kind of bottom-up,  tech-orientated innovation revolution in education. That’s pretty exciting.

VP: It is very exciting. But I wouldn’t just say tech, I would say a teacher-centered approach.

DC: You mentioned how this lockdown has really given us all a newfound appreciation for how tough it is to be a teacher. I think it’s been my case, and I think lots of other people’s cases, that we’ve realized how useless we are as parents and felt rather overwhelmed by having the responsibility to help our child learn during these long days of lockdown. What advice do you have for parents, in terms of how they can do a better job, or at least not feel so bad about themselves in this situation?

VP: It’s a great question and actually one that I’ve been asked a few times now. The reality is that we feel the pressure because our kids are at home that we have to do things. Of course, the younger the child, the more attention must go in. That means that you yourself cannot attend to your day job, and so on and so forth.

My first advice is: don’t beat yourself too much about this, simply because it is an unfair expectation. We now realize that actually teaching and learning is silence, in many respects. And the one thing I’d encourage and implore all parents to do is to reach out to the teacher or their child or the school and take their advice, engage with them. These are the professionals we’ve invested in over time. They understand what best practices are, they understand your situation. Trust the process.

When we ask the question of how do we catch up for the learning loss, there’s an answer in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. There, he talks about this summer brain drain as the learning loss that traditionally happens with some vacations in the Western Hemisphere. Schools catch up, schools know how to do that. When our kids go back at the beginning of the next academic year, the first thing that teacher does in the first few weeks is see how much they can reinforce learning, in a similar way. Trust the process, trust the teacher, and engage with them to make sure that your child, you know, has the record required amount of learning.

DC: So when we finally feel we have to succumb to the child’s request to use the iPad, because we really have to do those business phone calls, we just say to ourselves, we’re not so bad.

VP: I can’t fault you, everyone’s done it. If you have an iPad or iPhone device, I wouldn’t beat yourself up about this. There’s a lot of actually emerging research that shows this whole obsession with screentime, is not accurate. So we just have to make sure that kids are gonna grow up with additional devices just as much as we have.

DC: Thanks to Apple for funding that research, no doubt.

VP: No, no, there’s actually some independent university academics in America. There has been fantastic research in this space. The thing is,they’re growing up as digital natives, and we have to make sure that we are conversant. Just because we feel threatened, we don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean that we put them in the same predicament. But you know, all these opportunities exist, and we as parents have to do our best.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context. Click here to listen to this article and hear more of our podcasts.

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