Isn’t quality education our greatest challenge?

25 August 2021

Kamakshi Rajagopal is a senior researcher in instructional design and technology at itec, the interdisciplinary research group of KU Leuven and imec. She has extensive experience in developing technology solutions for educational problems in close collaboration with teachers. In the context of the i-Learn project, she researches school change in digital personalised learning and supervises the co-pilot sessions.

This is a personal blog post by Kamakshi Rajagopal, researcher at KU Leuven.

In these special pandemic times, many teachers and students look at school, teaching and learning with a renewed perspective. For our i-Learn team too, this period gave the opportunity to return to the essence of the i-Learn project: offering digital personalised learning in a high-quality way. But what exactly does ‘quality’ mean? And how can we make sure the i-Learn project offers lasting solutions that meet the practical needs of the educational field in Flanders?

With these questions in mind, we organised our first co-pilot session on the theme of quality education for digital personalised learning in June 2020. With nine of our co-pilots in three virtual sessions, we reflected together on the past period of distance learning, with the aim to draw lessons for the future.

In this blog post, we delve deeper into the co-pilots’ practical experiences with digital personalised education and place them in a larger scientific framework of organising quality education.

Finding solid ground in uncertain times

The biggest change that most co-pilots experienced in the past period was of course the necessary, rapid conversion to digital education. They indicated that for many of them it had been the first time that they had looked at the design of their lessons from a digital point of view. The support they found from and gave to their own colleagues was extremely important here. In addition, they experienced that during the period of distance learning, they could again fully focus on the heart of the matter: building on and working towards educational goals.

Teacher and co-pilot

We became makers of education again, instead of implementers of education.

Co-pilot at i-Learn

However, the co-pilots did not ignore the fact that for some colleagues the challenge was very big: many teachers felt a bit lost in the digital world.

The same was true for their pupils: for some pupils it was a relief to be able to work at their own pace; other pupils, on the other hand, lost the grip of their class. In addition, it was noticeable that there are big differences in the home situations of the pupils, which in turn has an effect on the whole learning process and the impact of distance learning. The central question for our co-pilots was therefore: “How do you, as a teacher or school, ensure that you meet your core task of teaching each pupil well?”

The uncertain times of the corona crisis brought to the fore how different people deal with (drastic) change in different ways. The experience of the co-pilots shows that this was also noticeable at school. During these changes, they tried to find support in the concept of “providing good education”. But what constitutes “good education” is also linked to a certain vision on education.

What should we understand by quality education?

During the corona crisis, the rapid changeover to digitally supported education accelerated changes that had been taking place in the world of education for years. What schools and teachers are up against in this rapid change is primarily the question of educational quality: external factors (digitalisation, education outside the school environment) are making the fixed value of “good education” questionable. The traditional view of what constitutes “good education” is no longer valid or feasible. As a result, there is a need to rethink what quality learning and teaching is. Every pupil, every teacher, every teaching team and every school has to redefine what they understand by quality education within the redrawn margins of corona education.

Quality in education is a difficult concept and the interpretation of quality is often subjective, namely depending on what the teacher or researcher considers important. Thus, quality in education can have the following meanings:

  1. The extent to which students perform in relation to stated learning objectives
  2. The way a school selects students, staff, learning materials or technology based on its understanding of quality
  3. The use of internal quality work processes that contribute to fruitful learning experiences
  4. The extent to which the actors involved are satisfied
  5. The extent to which the school has achieved a position and reputation within society
  6. The absence of problems or issues in the school
  7. The degree to which the school can adapt to external and internal changes, with a form of continuous improvement

These models highlight different aspects of quality, which can sometimes come into conflict with each other within a school. The authors therefore suggest using them as a broad framework to better understand and manage educational quality.

Quality education with technology

In recent years, technology has been seen as the greatest external factor necessitating change within education. Technology can in fact be disruptive in very different ways:

  1. Firstly, it has a major impact on the way we work every day. For individual students and teachers, the use of technology means changing their working behaviour in a very practical way. And that is quite a challenge.
  2. Secondly, technology blurs existing boundaries (time, space, place, roles). This creates many new opportunities (e.g. learning together with international partner schools, visiting museums virtually), but the disappearance of boundaries can also be experienced by some as unclear and uncertain (e.g. is school really over when the school bell rings?).
  3. Thirdly, technology itself is constantly changing, so that as a user you have to constantly adapt to the newest possibilities. For some this is a source of motivation and drive; for others it is stressful and frustrating. Teachers and schools are thus faced with a major challenge: how to use technology in a quality way at school.

In our co-pilot sessions, the impact of technology was discussed several times. For students, the impact is mainly on learning outcomes and individual progress. Technology can visualise how pupils are progressing and where they are stuck. It can support students to work independently at their own pace. Nevertheless, our co-pilots are concerned about the level of digital skills among pupils and how this can be better supported by the school.

For teachers, the challenge of professionalisation comes to the fore: how can you, as a teacher, use technology in an appropriate way? Moreover, during the co-pilot sessions it was also noted how much a teacher relies on the classroom environment to get a quick overview of what individual students can do, to assess whether students are ‘on board’, and to determine where they need support and how you can help them a step further. This aspect was, of course, made very difficult during the last period of distance learning. Finally, the co-pilots were also concerned about what you can do as a teacher if the technology does not cooperate.

Challenges and findings in times of corona education

In recent months, the physical classroom has been replaced by virtual classrooms. Teachers were thus faced with major challenges. For instance, at the classroom level, the search for a balance between social interaction and individual guidance came up regularly in the co-pilot sessions. The teachers among our co-pilots indicated that a combination of group instruction and individual independent work seemed to work best for their students (e.g. first explaining together, then practising separately, then dealing with questions together, then continuing to practise separately). For teachers, however, it is clear: every pupil should receive the challenge and support they need. At school level, our co-pilots see one big challenge, which is to get everyone involved and motivated during the change process.

The variety of experiences and work points that were discussed in our co-pilot sessions around the use of technology, show how big the challenge is to provide quality education in a changing society. Rather than small, inadequate changes, what is needed most of all is a new, broadly supported vision of “good education”.

Towards a culture of quality

Current scientific research is showing more and more interest in understanding how a culture of quality can be developed at school.

A quality culture is an organisational culture that strives to continuously improve quality. Such a quality culture is characterised by:

  • shared visions, beliefs, expectations and commitment of teachers, students, management, parents and other stakeholders
  • the use of well-defined school processes that improve quality and coordinate individual efforts.

Although there are no set guidelines for developing a culture of quality, there is a consensus as to what values are upheld in such a culture:

  1. A shared vision and goals among teachers, management and staff are a prerequisite for success.
  2. Educational goals are set together with parents, community, students and other stakeholders.
  3. Improving education is a long-term process.
  4. A school must strive to make continuous changes to improve education.
  5. Teachers must be actively involved in improving all aspects of the school’s operation.
  6. Collaboration is essential for an effective school.
  7. Decisions must be made on the basis of factual information.
  8. Quality problems are caused by a bad system and bad processes, not by teachers.
  9. Quality can be improved with the existing resources (finance, infrastructure,…).

To make a culture of quality possible, both leadership and visible participation of the board and management are crucial. Moreover, the involvement of all stakeholders in and around the school in establishing and propagating a common vision is also essential.

Want to know more about this topic? You can find some interesting references in this document (in Dutch).

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