Rethinking Schools After the Pandemic: Meeting the Engagement Challenge

June 2021

The pandemic compelled educators to integrate digital tools into the everyday academic lives of their students like never before. With the return to in-person instruction, educators have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to further transform schools in ways that make the most of digital technologies while minimizing their negative side-effects.

By Dennis Shirley

Corona Schule Bildung Dennis Shirley Digitalisierung

Picture this: you are watching a TV program, and a character receives an SMS notification. All of a sudden, the written text pops up on the screen. Or envision this: you’re reading a novel, and the author inserts different text messages into the flow of the plot.

Sleuthing on the Internet reveals that the first bit of cinematography to use this trick of infusing SMS content directly on to the screen was a 2001 Japanese film called “All About Lilly Chou-Chou.” It was not until the BBC’s “Sherlock” premiered in 2011 that it started going mainstream in Western programming, however. Now it is omnipresent. Now you can see it all the time if you watch a popular TV series, like the UK’s “Ackley Bridge.” You see it in every young adult novel that hits the bestseller list in the US, like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

The pandemic accelerated the use of digital tools in education

These kinds of digitally mediated changes preceded the Covid-19 pandemic, though it has accelerated their usage. The presence of the new modes of communication is evident everywhere, often supplanting face-to-face interactions. Recently, at my university, colleagues and I deliberated upon whether we wanted to return to in-person department meetings in the fall of 2021, or whether we preferred to meet on Zoom. Not one person wanted to return to in-person meetings.

Why not? No one wants to lose time commuting to work when we are more productive at home. In addition, Zoom meetings seem more efficient than in-person ones. What used to take two hours is now accomplished in 90 minutes or less. The in-person department meeting, a staple of higher education for decades, is gone, presumably forever.

For educators like me, who switched to online instruction before the pandemic, the advantages are endless. In the fall semester of 2020, about a third of my students were Chinese nationals who were not able to travel to the US because of Covid-19 restrictions, yet they were able to participate fully in our class online. To the surprise of many of us who had been technology skeptics, our course evaluations improved with the transition to online instruction. It turns out that our students like the convenience of asynchronous courses, the ability to share ideas through film as well as expository writing, and the endless creative opportunities that digital tools provide.

Digital tools should not replace physical classes but complement them

What will this mean for education after the pandemic? Are traditional schools finished? Not at all! In spite of the benefits of online learning, schools are coming back. Young people have struggled with the isolation of learning at home. Skilled as they have become in digital communication, they still need face-to-face engagement with one another.

The return of physical safety, however, does not mean that we should go back to the ways that schools operated before the pandemic. As they traditionally have been organized, schools have often been exercises in drudgery. In one survey completed just before the pandemic, two-thirds of German students reported that they did not like going to school. In the US, just over half of students report that they are not engaged with learning at school, while roughly a quarter say that they are “actively disengaged.” These percentages are not at all unusual among nations. The ways in which schools have been run in the past have too often failed to motivate students. The time for a dramatic reconceptualization of schooling is long overdue.

Educators and students are primed to integrate online and offline learning

The good news is that, when given the chance, educators and students know how to engage with deep learning, with or without digital tools. A seven-year research project I conducted with Andy Hargreaves, director of Change, Engagement and Innovation in Education at the University of Ottawa, documented how students in rural schools in the US learned to conduct peer editing on key environmental and economic topics, like the rising use of drones in agriculture, in online communities formed with students in other parts of the country. In our study of innovative schools in the Canadian province of Ontario, we saw classes infuse the wise and judicious employment of technology into instruction to study burning social issues such as the global refugee crisis and the plight of missing Indigenous women. In Seoul, South Korea, my colleagues Deoksoon Kim, Stanton Wortham, and I are documenting how educators are overturning the traditional East Asian culture of schooling by freeing up students to experience “exam-free semesters.” These kinds of innovations open up new possibilities for topics that students themselves want to study, with or without digital tools. Students in these kinds of classes say that they are highly engaged, and their educators are pleased with their academic progress, too.

The more that schools evolve from islands of bureaucracy into hubs of deep and sustainable learning, the harder it will be to turn back to anachronistic practices that have outrun their utility. Our challenge now is to take digital tools like messaging apps, social media, and the Internet and to use their communicative capacity in ethical and educational ways that engage even our most alienated students. It’s time to get beyond digital aversion and digital distraction in schools and society alike. By blending technology into instruction where it makes sense, and leaving it off to the side where it does not, we can re-create the process of education so that it is more inclusive and meaningful for all. We can, and should ensure that the schools of the future are places of learning where all of our students can reach their full, God-given potential.

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Dennis Shirley is a Professor of Education at Boston College in the United States and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Germany. He is the co-author of “Five Paths of Student Engagement: Blazing the Trail to Learning and Success” published in June 2021, which he has written with Andy Hargreaves.

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