Column written by Verónica Herrera Fernández. Chilean designer and communicator, a specialist in virtual learning environments, with more than 20 years of experience in the fields of Education, Innovation, Technology, and Communication.
In 2020, the Coronavirus brought with it the brutal incorporation of technologies in teaching. Education institutions around the world were forced to react by moving their face-to-face classes “as is” to technology platforms to give continuity to their educational work. Given the above, in most higher education institutions this process was so overwhelming that it overshadowed the educational experience.
After months since the start of the pandemic in Chile, and when we are all a little “higher” in the adoption of technologies for teaching, we can see some effects of the actions that educational institutions took to face the emergency.
As is public knowledge, COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact in the educational field. On the one hand, it has made it clear that there is a huge digital gap in both access and digital skills, and on the other, during the period of social distancing, both teachers and students have suffered harsh effects from an improvised educational experience:
“From experiences of forced interruption of the school year, as a result, in the absence of an intentional and effective educational response, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to generate the greatest disruption in educational opportunities globally in a generation.” (Reimers & Schleicher, March 30, 2020).
In this context, I want to share the experience of an educational institution that reacted differently to the rest of them, and that has obtained different results. It is about Estudio Landscape, a Chilean landscaping school, which like most institutions was not prepared to transform its way of teaching from one day to the next and whose main difficulty in doing online classes was the practical nature of its discipline.
The interesting thing about this experience is that they had the insight not to act rashly: to react. They stopped to evaluate their conditions and identified their strengths and weaknesses to face this crisis, then, they chose to prioritize the care of their teachers since they were key agents of their educational work. Their strength was that they had a team of teachers who are experts in their disciplines, committed, and willing (a distinctive value of the School), and their weaknesses were that they lacked digital skills and adequate technologies to teach online classes.
With this background, they proposed to face this complex context by focusing on finding a way to replicate the educational experience that the student had to live in classes, an experience that was the most important thing they offered, and in turn, avoiding making the educational work more complex, by exposing teachers to learn technological tools in adverse conditions.
First, it was necessary to know how teachers were experiencing this crisis. They were brought together to share their uncertainties and fears, and show that they were all living the same thing. In this instance, also, the critical conditions in which work would be carried out from then on were openly discussed. Part of these conditions was the change from the (face-to-face) classes, which until then was a safe space for teachers, to a new and unknown environment, such as the virtual teaching environment.
Second, the way teaching-learning experiences are created should be adapted in such a way as to ensure that the meaningful interactions necessary between teachers and students are generated to achieve learning. And thirdly, with the conviction that it was key not to make the teacher’s tasks more complex, the logic that “less is more” was applied, that is, it was defined to use less sophisticated-complex technologies to replicate the educational instance, those that were more handy and easy to use, both for teachers and students. It was expected that the fewer communication platforms and channels the teachers had to handle, the greater the possibility of focusing on generating the learning situation. With these determinations, they went to work.
After a short time and almost without realizing it, the technology barrier was no longer such, but rather, it had become a factor that awakened the creativity of teachers, who took special care to check whether the experiments they did with their students gave the expected results. They discovered that this modality allowed them to have a more personalized relationship with their students, among several other advantages. In addition, they became aware that their materials needed to be modified and even that they should develop additional material with different characteristics to be able to meet all the needs of this online educational situation.
Once the teachers took ownership of the challenge, they began to test strategies to replicate situations that were trivial in the classroom and that are now much more difficult in the virtual realm. At the same time, they exchanged data and suggestions, telling what was best for each one to solve these new ways of teaching. Sharing good practices became a way of working. Over time, teachers improved their classes, materials, and interactions, adapted their content, and tested new technologies.
Although the practical work was and continues to be the greatest challenge of this School, it was possible to replicate some parts of the experience with the close accompaniment of the teacher, who, by guiding the student step by step in the experimentation, managed to live the expected situation. This has meant a breakthrough in practical work to some extent.
This health crisis that has forced them to change their way of doing things, which at first sight endangers the continuity of the School, over time became an opportunity to expand its offer and scope. Currently, Estudio Paisaje, as a result of its strategy to face the Covid, in the first place, has been able to continue giving 100% of the courses and the diploma as in the previous year, it has also opened access to students from other regions of Chile and Latin America. Second, the online modality has allowed them to triple the coverage and participation of both the talks and the seminars, and in turn, double the frequency of these, given the logistical ease: not requiring physical space or transfer of participants. For this same reason, they have managed to include more foreign exponents, which has added value to their events.
On the other hand, they have realized the opportunities that the virtual modality offered them and have been creating new educational programs with novel characteristics such as virtual international tours, educational tours, and pedagogical capsules, among others, which has finally allowed them to students live a more global experience and expand the scope and impact of the School by 500% in relation to a normal year.
In short, the implementation of an online educational program in an adverse context can be successful despite not having the appropriate technologies or digital skills, if it is possible to empower teachers and create the conditions for the occurrence of the instance of teaching-learning in an environment conducive to it.
Prioritizing the support for teachers and involving them in the construction of the solution is, in my opinion, the determining factor for this School to be able to successfully overcome the challenge posed by the pandemic. Another relevant aspect was to position technology only as a means to ensure the educational experience. This strategy has achieved that teachers do not have the trauma of having to get on a technology by force, if not, on the contrary, since the transformation of their classes and the adoption of technological tools has been dosed, almost Inadvertently, they have developed their digital skills and appropriated technology in such a way that they have dared to experiment and invent, which leaves them better prepared than if they had had to learn to use ICTs by force.
According to my years of experience, I have been able to verify that “less technology is more educational experience”, although technology offers infinite possibilities and can be very powerful in education, if it is not used with sense, with a purpose, and if it does not give the fair value for the function it fulfills in an educational instance, it can become a great barrier to achieving learning.
Finally, the most significant aspect was that the School had the lucidity not to act rashly. By stopping, reflecting, and making decisions according to its conditions, it managed to reverse the technology barrier and transformed this health crisis into an opportunity to reinvent itself, adapt to an uncertain scenario, expand its offer with the creation of innovative programs, and grow in its coverage
“The future of education passes through the identification and enhancement of those dimensions of teaching practice that are strictly human and that no virtual alternative can substitute.” Ainara Zubillaga Del Rio.