Lessons from forced digitalization

When writing this, Sweden belongs to the countries with the highest Covid-19 infection quotes in Europe. Covid-19 is haunting us. But here, the Covid-19 pandemic has influenced only parts of society. For most people, daily life has been going on almost as usual for quite a while. (Especially since toilet paper and hand sanitizer is easily available, again.) Hardly anybody wears a face mask, we keep our usual social distance, probably a little more than usual, but anyway no less. The elderly, though, are expected to live in voluntary isolation. While the death toll in places like Stockholm and Gothenburg is frightening, most parts of the country feel rather untouched by the whole thing. People here are expecting to be able to travel again, soon. And most folks seem to expect that the pandemic will be over “after summer, or probably in September”.

Sweden has not suffered from any Corona-hysteria. This is related to the fact that Swedish authorities did chose to avoid lock-down measures. Instead, the authorities appealed to citizens to “act responsibly”. As long as gatherings of more than 49 people are avoided, everything goes. This meant that restaurants, pubs, shops, services, cultural institutions etc could be kept open, even through the Covid-19 high-peak season of March-May, 2020. Concert halls, open air festivals, fairs and other major events were cancelled, though. Public unrest was avoided by simply not conducting mass infection tests. Thus, for some time the Swedish infection statistics were pretty comfortable reading in comparison to other European countries.

Now, everybody is aware that Covid-19 is spreading violently even here, but trust in the authorities (and fate) is still strong. And business is almost as usual, probably with the exception of all these Zoom-meetings so many of us are having since March.

There are some exceptions to the general rule, though.

For a period of time, long-distance journeys within the country were forbidden. Even in Sweden, most offices went in an early stage over to home commuting and cloud meetings. Upper secondary schools and all institutions of adult education and higher education were closed down entirely.

Kvarnby Folk High School started online education on March 16 – we made this decision collectively, as students and teachers felt it was uncomfortable to just proceed with business as usual. Obviously, this was the right decision to make, as the government decided to close down all adult educators on March, 17. While we had the opportunity to prepare ourselves and went online with preparations made, the lock-down decision came rather unexpected for many of our colleagues.

Thanks to this, we avoided chaos, but of course we had some initial troubles when going online. While some courses managed well from the beginning, other courses faced major problems. For those teachers who had used digital education tools before, the process was much swifter than for teachers who had not used these tools. And the same applies, of course, to students whose digital competence skills were of very varying quality, not least due to class factors.

Our experiences from the period of forced digitalization are interesting.

We managed to adapt rather quickly, and all teachers expressed a feeling that the experience was (and is) very useful. In the future, we will be better when it comes to use digital tools in our ordinary education. We learned that all-digital education favors certain groups of students, while others do suffer from it. While students with functional variations, e.g. students who do have problems focusing in class, gain better access to their class materials and their teachers, other students did not well.

We discovered, as expected, that there are students who are not living in digitalized homes. The possibility to loan a computer from school helps here, but these students are usually unskilled users of digital tools. In addition, we have students who do not have homes where they can study undisturbed. And we have, unfortunately, students who are homeless. For these groups of students, the process of studying online was very hard. Which ultimately let to the decision to start opening up for physical lectures at school, again. In groups of 1-6, our Swedish classes and our classes at secondary school level started to have classes at school, again.  

To summarize, we learned a lot from the process, and we are now much more aware than before that digital competences – and digital infrastructure – are essential for the welfare of our students. To become a better school, we have to invest: In the education of educators, and in digital tools and hard ware.

Henning Süssner Rubin
Malmö, 2020-06-12