The COVID-19 pandemic has been responsible for rapid and drastic change across the world, impacting global markets and pushing entire countries into lockdown. In turn, it has also forced millions of students to stay away from the classroom and instead access education from home.

This represents a considerable challenge for teachers, schools, the internet and cellular networks, and, of course, parents. But what effect will this have on children's ability to learn, and their mental health?

Professor Harry Daniels of the University of Oxford has spent much of his career exploring these questions. He focuses on school design, distance learning, and the impact that exclusion from school has on children.

The rise of new communication technologies means that distance and online education is easier than ever, however, it needs to be done right.

Here are five insights from an interview conducted with Professor Harry Daniels by Jean Sung, Head of The Philanthropy Centre for Asia.

1.  The classroom can be a lesson in itself

There is a critical social element to the classroom experience. 

“It’s where ideas are shaped, refined, and understood,” says Professor Daniels.

Seemingly benign chatting and interaction amongst students is not only extremely important to how children learn, but also to how they build their support network.

Furthermore, students may find it difficult to reach out to their parents when they are struggling with school work. Professor Daniels explains that when you take away the classroom environment, students are often uncomfortable asking questions, which in turn means there is a risk that they begin to disengage.

A key factor when considering the value of distance education is the impact that social isolation has on children’s mental wellbeing.

“Mental health is both a precursor and an outcome of exclusion,” says Professor Daniels. 

Vulnerable children tend to be excluded more, potentially leading them to become more at-risk and to experience increased mental health difficulties. 

2. The impact will differ between rural and urban communities 

For many children, the COVID-19 situation has only minimally affected their education. Students in rural areas, miles away from other children, already receive much of their education online.

So will the sudden large-scale demand for better online education programs increase the overall quality of remote learning?

Professor Daniels believes that increased commercial competition in the distance education market may help rural students gain access to even better quality learning resources.

Meanwhile, the impact on unaccustomed urban populations could be more significant. And sometimes, the biggest challenges can be the simplest.

“Many families in Hong Kong find themselves unable to operate with online systems for reasons that are associated with physical space,” says Professor Daniels. 

In a small home, with minimal space for a work area, it can be hard to concentrate.

Professor Daniels points out that for young people in urban secondary schools, the issue of isolation from the classroom often sees children become not just disengaged but also disaffected.

3. AI can help make distance education better

So what can be done?

“There is a huge scope for sophisticated AI to support a diversity of approaches to learning,” says Professor Daniels. 

Remarkably, Artificial Intelligence (AI) instructional systems can now learn from how a student responds to tasks–and Professor Daniels believes this could be a true game-changer for distance education.

An oft-neglected aspect of the distance education experience is that children learn in different ways, and at different paces. Professor Daniels believes that it is profoundly counterproductive to assume that all students in a class will learn in the same linear progression.

In a classroom, a good teacher can recognize these differences, but online, it is often a different story.

These new AI technologies can provide a much-needed remedy to the difficulties faced by students who feel left behind due to their inidividual ways of approaching tasks.

4. This crisis may increase inequality of education outcomes

Inequalities between schools and between students of different socioeconomic standing may be greatly exacerbated by a reliance on distance education, says Professor Daniels.

While some schools and education systems have the resources and capabilities to offer their students a high standard of education mediated by advanced, cutting edge technology, it’s important to recognise that many cannot.

The impact of an alienated, disaffected generation should not to be understated. As Professor Daniels points out, massive social inequality can give rise to difficulties in terms of engagement and in turn the ability to meaningfully contribute to the workforce. Without that, an economy isn’t going to thrive.

As a result the consequences of this necessary shift to distance and online learning may last long into the future, and have the potential to impact more than just the academic world.

5. Treat students as people, not receptacles

All this begs the question: Do schools exist merely as spaces for instruction and nothing else?

“No”, says Professor Daniels, “they aid in the development of wellbeing, social order and matters of identity.”

A rise in mental health challenges in young students, Professor Daniels says, can be at least partly attributed to school systems that do not take into account who children are as people, but instead treats them as “receptacles to be filled up with knowledge”.

So how are matters of identity and belonging dealt with in distance education?

Professor Daniels’ key piece of advice for this period of isolation is simple:

“We need to actually listen to young people, and understand the kinds of anxieties and concerns they have,” he says.

This large-scale, but temporary move towards distance and online education is necessary to public health - but it will evidently have a profound effect on the lives of millions of learners across the globe.

Professor Daniels says that while maximizing education outcomes in this new era is important, we also need to recognize that we’re all human, and the anxieties and ongoing issues of children must be acknowledged and understood.

We’re here to help

Professor Harry Daniels and his colleagues will continue to use their expertise to investigate the impacts of missing out on education and exclusion from school and recommend interventions and best practices. If you would like to explore this topic in greater depth, please contact your J.P. Morgan team. 

Harry Daniels

Professor of Education

College Affiliation: Green Templeton College

Harry Daniels is Professor of Education. His current research interests are in school design and exclusion from school. He is interested in sociocultural and activity theory and Bernsteinian theory.