With schools closed for the foreseeable future, and the nation having to adapt quickly to home education, parents are getting to grips with juggling their new home tutor roles - as well as managing their own workloads and coping with the day to day pressures of looking after families during this unprecedented period of lockdown.
We’ve seen many people keen to get involved with supporting efforts across the country with their home education programmes. From PE lessons with Joe Wicks and Music with Myleene Klass to J.K. Rowling’s launch of the Harry Potter At Home website, the UK’s education system is taking significant steps to move even more online with the help of some famous faces.
However, the publishing industry has long been one of the core pillars supporting education, and should continue to be, no matter whether learning takes place in homes or schools. Providing access to educational materials, whether online or in print, is the responsibility of publishing houses, now and beyond COVID-19.
The current crisis has brought to light the urgent need to shift our learning systems so that they can thrive online. With the digital revolution of the past decade bringing about this change at a somewhat leisurely pace, the current crisis has shown the need to step the digitisation of our education system up a gear. It has now become clear that we’re living in a time where the publishing industry will see some major changes, both in the short and long term.
Some admirable initiatives are currently emerging to help digitally support schools and colleges. Penguin Random House has discounted its e-book and audio book prices, as well as encouraging virtual story time or classroom read-aloud videos. Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Collins Learning have set up online learning platforms for teachers and pupils.
Similarly, at Bloomsbury Education we have made our digital resource, Bloomsbury Early Years, free of charge for the next three months for all educational institutions, as well as for parents, child minders and nurseries. Our authors are also busy helping to bring home learning to life with initiatives such as tips on home schooling from teacher Jon Tait, poetry workshops, podcasts and videos from poets Josh Seigal, A.F. Harrold and Matt Goodfellow, Rob Smith’s free literacy resources on The Literacy Shed, and more.
But of course, there's always room for improvement - especially when it comes to ensuring this open channel with parents and kids remains open long after lockdown lifts, and continues to be evolved by publishers. So what would good look like going forward?
Produce personalised programmes
In the short term, understanding the difficulties of home learning for parents should be the number one priority for any industry with links to education. With the internet fast becoming a minefield of supposedly educational resources, it can prove difficult to know what exactly will help and support children in their learning during this time.
At Bloomsbury, we've made the KidsBloomsbury Facebook page a central hub for family-friendly online resources, uploading fresh content four times every weekday. Both other publishers and parents are also creating social streams, websites and videos that collate recommended content. Then there's all the selecting and sharing that goes on unseen, in email chains and WhatsApp groups, as people sift through the noise to recommend the best material for particular age groups and tastes.
In short, both needs and expectations have changed. A few downloadable worksheets, or a confusing torrent of links, is no longer good enough.
And with the key role that publishers play in supporting the educational system, we should also actively continue to encourage publisher partnerships with schools. This could help to produce bespoke schooling timetables that are manageable in a home environment. Not only will this benefit parents, children and schools, but it will also enhance the materials and resources made available by publishers.
Put reading in context
Schools don’t just provide an environment dominated by the academia of books. Creativity, innovation and wellbeing must also be nurtured, so it’s important to adopt a hands-on approach when it comes to learning for all ages.
From our current lockdown state, we’ve seen the livestreaming of yoga classes, video tutorials in practical skills such as baking or gardening emerge, and newly released films made available at home, all of which are equally as important as reading.
Educational publishers can play in a role in this aspect of education too. For example, we've partnered with the National Theatre to make its collection of productions on Bloomsbury’s Drama Online archive available remotely, to pupils and teachers at state schools and state-funded further education colleges. Collectively, as an industy, now is the time to set our offering in the context of wider, multi-sensory learning. This might involve partnerships, commissioning additional content from existing authors, or establishing programmes putting more academic and book-based learning alongside more eclectic resources.
This could be our chance to dissolve the boundaries between 'boring, formal' education and 'fun, self-directed' learning once and for all.
Prioritise the tech
Looking more long term, with the nation fully engaging in working and studying from home, it’s clear that we need to put more provision behind the digitisation of educational materials. It’s not just about making them available online, but also available in a digital-friendly format that is easy to use, especially for children of younger ages. We've worked hard to achieve this ourselves with Bloomsbury’s Andrew Brodie educational apps, but it took real investment in a design and user journey that would feel truly accessible and engaging, rather than simply transferring content wholesale into a digital skin.
While books will of course remain the backbone of the publishing world, when it comes to education we need to approach today’s digitally dominated society with fresh eyes. It’s likely that when we return to normal life once more, this will be at the forefront of people’s minds, not only in publishing but in sectors across the board. There's a bit of a sense in publishing that the tech revolution never fulfilled its promise; now would be a good time for us to innovate harder, rather than fall back on what we know works.
Ensure access for all
We should see the challenges to education brought about by the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to think about how accessible education is for all children. While many will benefit from parents who will ensure schooling is not disrupted, there will also be a proportion of children that will not receive the same level of support.
At times like this we should think about how to help more disadvantaged children to continue their education – and to develop the essential literacy skills needed as part of that. And we should extend that thinking to adults too. In England alone, 1 in 6 adults (around 7.1 million people) are reported to have very poor literacy skills (OECD, 2016).
With this in mind, Bloomsbury has created a partnership with the National Literacy Trust (NLT). But there are dozens of other organisations, charities and projects out there that could do with a boost from a publisher partnership. And of course, it's not just a moral and social undertaking; it helps ensure a future audience for our mutual products.
To conclude, the lockdown in the UK – and the rest of the world – can bring about positive systemic change to take the industry forwards. But it will require us to invest, do differently, and move fast, if we are not just to survive but to emerge stronger than before.