Covid and Learning Environments

The period of lockdown, that has encouraged the now-clichéd adjective, ‘unprecedented’, is, at the time of writing, into its second week. It seems apt to echo the famous stage direction in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes…”. While lockdowns are giving parts of the planet some welcome environmental breathing-room (literally), they have also forced many to climb off their respective hamster wheels, and, like Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, to reflect on the meaning of their lives—and on many related aspects of their lives.

As the lockdown in New Zealand seemed to become a likelihood, there was increased activity across universities (such as my own) to gear up for a fully online environment. The Ministry of Education was thinking along the lines of a mass closure when it canvassed schools. Lockdown came suddenly to pass, and even as I write, there will be teachers across the country (and indeed, globally) trying to further develop ways they can support their students at home.

The idea that we remain confined to home is perhaps best understood not only as an effort to ‘flatten the curve’ (another new cliché) but to be a way of protecting the vulnerable in the population. Keeping your distance and washing your hands—the complexity of life has been reduced to some quite simple practices, in order to preserve life. Little wonder then that some may feel they now inhabit a parallel universe.

Away from these existential musings, the image of multi-million-dollar educational property infrastructure investments comes to mind. In trying to imagine (as may commentators are) what a post-lockdown period (not to mention post-Covid) will look like, the image of 60 or 90 students and their multiple teachers working in close proximity to each other in large, shared spaces also comes to mind. Or, more accurately, the challenge of social distancing in these spaces that must be front of mind for both the teachers working in these spaces, and the leaders of schools with flexible learning spaces. When schools are able to re-open, the rules about social distancing are likely still to be enforced, at least until a point is reached when it can be safely asserted that Covid has been controlled and even eradicated. The challenge of developing ways of collaborating and working in teams and groups, the staple form of practice in flexible spaces, in a regime of social distancing, may be as significant as developing forms of distance learning.

Finally, that a virus can bring entire economies to a virtual halt almost overnight, with the manifold ramifications of that slow-down, may sound like science-fiction, yet daily the economic fall-out is obvious. So too are the various state interventions to ease the pain. Aside from wondering where all the money is coming from, an obvious question must be how the ambitious educational capital works planned by the current administration will be able to proceed. Scenarios include their halt, a reduction in scale and ambition, or to proceed as planned. It may be expected that many of these intended works will provide for impressive new builds and modifications that, in the main, conform to the concept of flexible, loose-fitting, future-proofed designs. Ongoing concerns over student and teacher health may, however, require – or prompt – further discussion on the suitability of large, shared spaces.