“Education is kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” — Socrates
“Kindling of a flame,” a well-known metaphor for education, implies that education should be anything but forced or top-down in nature. Unfortunately, global educational approaches have rarely adhered to this principle. Students across the world have attended schools day after day only to experience rote learning, oblivious to how their classroom learning connects to the outside world. Then came 2020, and these students faced an unprecedented crisis.
The pandemic exposed the existence of dramatic social and digital inequalities in the global education system. As the pandemic spread across the world, schools had to close their doors and move to remote learning to ensure continued education. Over 1.2 billion students globally were out of school physically by June 2020.
Yet, a substantial percentage of students in low-income countries barely had access to internet connectivity. There were huge racial disparities as well. Compared to 10% of whites, 40% of the African American students  and 30% of Hispanic students in the US K-12 education system had no access to online instruction. Moreover, little is known about the ability to cater to the needs of differently-abled or English language learners.
Digital inequities have long existed in the global education system. While it is critical to close this digital divide, it is equally important to prepare students with the skills required to succeed in an uncertain future.
The Need For Inquiry-Based Learning
Along with addressing broadband and device access limitations, it is important to recognize that individual student needs are complex. Not only does every child learn at their own pace, but their language preferences also differ. Under normal conditions, non-native English speakers have difficulties in receiving instruction in English. Now imagine these conditions in a remote-learning environment, with limited access to their peers for language engagement.
Globally, much has been said about the need for children to learn 21st-century skills and practices that go beyond traditional content and include multidisciplinary skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity, as well as softer skills like negotiation and collaboration.
To enable such comprehensive skill learning, educators will need to promote inquiry-based learning with the use of digital tools.
Inquiry-based learning combines students’ curiosities with a scientific method to promote critical thinking skills. Rather than just being “instructed to,” students can actively ask questions, explore various subjects, and create their own solutions. This empowers them, increases engagement, and allows them to take responsibility for their learning. The result is a deeper understanding of concepts.
So, how can educators enable this approach? Moreover, how can this strategy be implemented when students don’t even have proper access to resources?
EdTech Can Promote Equity And Inquiry-Based Learning
The silver lining of the pandemic has been that it has helped educators appreciate the benefits that digital learning platforms and EdTech have to offer for K-12 and higher education. With the right digital tools, schools can achieve their academic goals, while promoting educational equity and inquiry-based learning.
Enabling Access To Online Learning For All
The pandemic also highlighted the inefficiencies in the current educational system. About 6% to 12% of the people in a highly developed economy like the United States still do not have access to broadband networks. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2020 Broadband Development Report has been inaccurate in its numbers . Educational inequity is a systemic problem, and increased provincial and federal investment is needed to close this divide. This goes beyond just providing free laptops to needy students.
Prioritizing Equity In Learning Initiatives
It’s a given that education leaders need to prioritize financial and resource planning toward training, while policy decisions should be taken based on factors like race, geography, income, and first language, among others. In Italy, the majority of teachers didn’t know how to teach students online when the lockdowns were imposed. The pandemic emphasized the need for the development of digital skills for all citizens, teachers, students, and parents alike. Leaders and teachers now need to collaborate to identify technologies that can make a difference in student engagement and achievement. A good example of such an initiative is the multi-year technology-rich project between teachers and leaders in 20 American middle schools, supported by Digital Promise, in partnership with Verizon.
Investment In Digital Tools That Promote Inclusivity
The pandemic has been difficult for students from low-income households, with a survey revealing 40% of such children were able to access remote learning once a week or less. Digital learning platforms that offer offline access to content can make a huge difference in promoting access. Using a digital learning platform that offers offline Readers can allow students to download content and view it at their own convenience, even if there is no internet connectivity. Another tool is read-aloud eBooks with audio-to-text synchronization, which can help create multilingual classrooms and make learning easier for differently-abled students.
Effective Assessment Is Important In Inquiry-Based Learning
Traditional tests provide limited data on how well students are learning. Teachers need powerful online assessment tools to support adaptive and formative assessments. Greater use of formative assessments can help teachers provide timely, personalized feedback to enhance academic outcomes. Studies have also proven that gaming elements in inquiry-based learning strategies can lead to positive impacts in terms of conceptual learning and information-seeking strategies.
The Need For Robust Analytics To Help Teachers Drive Positive Outcomes
Both students and teachers are told, rather than asked, about their areas of interest. While teachers are bombarded with rubrics and frameworks, students have to follow rigid curricula. This is demotivating and distances young minds from exploring new things. Rather, teachers need to be encouraged to ask questions like:
- How can I encourage students to ask deeper questions?
- How can I engage students in the most fun way?
- Are my students really absorbing knowledge and integrating feedback?
- How are teachers in other districts coping with remote learning programs?
In inquiry-based classrooms, teachers and students both need time to plan, collaborate and assess. They have to be given a voice and autonomy.
Using Differentiated Instruction Strategies
Implementing inquiry-based learning activities requires the use of differentiated instruction tools to promote engagement and creativity. This includes methods like discussion and guided research through content in the form of text, videos, audio, and other virtual tools. Providing a range of content formats will allow teachers to address the distinct learning needs of students. Plus, tools for collaboration, such as discussion boards, can promote peer-to-peer learning and greater inquiry.
There are many benefits of inquiry-based learning, most of all promoting engagement among students, currently disillusioned with what’s happening around them. It is essential that educators address students’ emotions and hardships during this pandemic through proper teaching pedagogies. Inquiry-based learning, in many ways, will also help address the problem of the one-size-fits-all approach of the current education system. The right digital platform can make all the difference.
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