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As is almost impossible to ignore, in Spring 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic forced many educational institutions around the globe to suspend face-to-face classes and hastily replace them with online activities. Although disruption of educational provision is not a new phenomenon, this has been the largest in history, affecting 94% of the world's student population (Crompton, Burke, Jordan, & Wilson, 2021). The shift from face-to-face to online teaching, however, was not the culmination of a well-considered instructional design process inspired by the affordances of online education and rooted in a thorough needs analysis. Rather, it was an expediency mandated by a public health emergency whose spread was unexpected, exceptionally fast and poorly understood. The pressing haste with which many educational institutions moved to online education meant that they were not ready to harness the strengths of online learning nor deal with its limitations. In the new circumstances created by the pandemic, it was immediately clear that online learning was simply a quick fix adopted in “less-than-ideal circumstances” (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020).
In spite of the high hopes of getting quickly back to normal, schools’ and universities’ online activities lasted, in many forms and in many countries, much longer than initially expected. Physical distancing was adopted in many countries as the main strategy to counter the spread of a pandemic that was not showing any signs of relenting (Bozkurt et al., 2020). In many cases, online or hybrid teaching was seen, even during the 2020/2021 school year, as the best way to keep teachers, staff, students and therefore society as a whole as safe as possible in the face of the public health emergency.
The above events were followed and accompanied by intense public debate about the way schools and universities were dealing with the emergency, a debate which proliferated in the media and on social networks (Greenhow, Staudt Willet & Galvin, 2021; Rehm, Moukarzel, Daly, & del Fresno, 2021; Thelwall & Levitt, 2020). In these circumstances, “the temptation to compare online learning to face-to-face instruction” (Hodges et al., 2020) has, for many, brought about negative considerations along the lines that online learning is no substitute for the “real thing.” At the same time, for others, it has generated (perhaps over-) optimistic expectations that after this “great online learning experiment” (Zimmermann, 2020) our educational institutions and their teaching staff will be more willing than ever to make a permanent shift to online or blended learning.
Needless to say, the educational scholarly community also got involved in this debate, initially by viewing the events through the prism of previous research results from the online learning field (Hodges et al., 2020), but soon enough also by gathering evidence and analysing data collected at different stages during the pandemic. The number of conferences and academic journal special issues devoted to this theme testify to the interest it holds for academia. To confirm this, a quick search conducted on the Scopus database in May 2021 using the joint keywords "COVID-19 AND education” resulted in more than 11,000 records, and more than 6,000 for the same search on Web of Science. Also, a search focusing on literature reviews yielded 157 records. Hence, research in the field is advancing at a very fast pace, with implications for the complexity and depth of research designs, methods and results. Although the studies in this special issue were submitted to IJET by September 2020 and thus the research methods and results captured the initial stage of the educational phenomena linked to the pandemic, the issues they raise align well with the most recent debates around the lockdown, concerning technology access, digital and data infrastructures, teaching, evaluation and assessment methods (Carretero Gomez et al., 2021)
Broadly speaking, the aim of scholars’ efforts was to deepen our knowledge about issues of a methodological, technological, organisational or policy nature (as well as combinations thereof) that are related to what has been termed “Emergency Remote Education” (ERE) (Williamson, Eynon, & Potter, 2020) or “Emergency Remote Teaching” (ERT) (Hodges et al., 2020). Accordingly, research has focused on investigating the effects on society, educational systems and institutions, to improve understanding of ERE and lay the basis for proposals on how we might better address similar challenges in future. All learning contexts were dealt with school education (Boltz, Yadav, Dillman, & Robertson, 2021; Chiu, 2021; Giovannella, Passarelli, & Persico, 2020; Greenhow, Lewin, & Staudt Willet, 2021; Manca & Delfino, 2021), higher education (Johnson, Veletsianos, & Seaman, 2020; Marek, Chew, & Wu, 2021), informal learning (Greenhalgh, Rosenberg, & Russell, 2021) and, last but not least, teacher professional development (Hartshorne et al., 2020).
As might be expected, the conclusions do not all point in the same direction. For example, although the distance between the two poles seems shorter in the research literature, some authors see this emergency as a catalyst for change and an opportunity for educational innovation that should not be missed (Crompton, Burke, Jordan, & Wilson, 2021; Cruz & Grodziak, 2021) while others are much more cautious and raise a number of objections to (simplistic) claims that educational technologies are a ready-made solution for the current crisis (Williamson, Eynon, & Potter, 2020; Giroux, 2021). However, a worry that seems to be shared by most is that the crisis has been acting as an amplifier for some undesirable effects of ICT uptake on a global scale: to mention a few, inequalities in access to education due to social, economic, personal and family conditions (Beaunoyer, Dupéeré, & Guitton, 2020; Manca & Delfino, 2021; Nguyen, Hargittai, & Marler, 2021). Such inequalities are not merely due to lack of digital connectivity: there is a wide range of factors involved in ease of access to educational provision that may be exacerbated by the move to distance teaching at all school levels (Greenhow, Lewin, & Staudt Willet, 2020). However, there is a bright side: “Social, educational, health and digital inequalities have never been clearer. Perhaps now is a time to make a more decisive set of significant social and digital changes” (Williamson, Eynon, & Potter, 2020: p. 111). Now that it’s recognised that the “emperor has no clothes” (Gewerc, Persico, & Rodés-Paragarino, 2020), policy makers cannot disregard problems like the lack of digital competence in teachers and students, the lack of access suffered by marginalized students and the inequalities that derive therefrom. Moreover, there are new, emergent concerns relating to learners’ data travelling from the sphere of public educational institutions to corporations offering public educational institutions free digital services, such as access to and use of online learning platforms (Williamson & Hogan, 2020). As a matter of fact, the European Commission’s "Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027" (2020) addresses two areas relevant to these issues, namely educators' digital competence and digital infrastructures for learning. These two topics include the above-mentioned concerns about data flows, data privacy and security. In this same vein, a working document published by UNESCO (2020) proposes nine “ideas” to support public education during the pandemic, including the use of open source software and open educational resources: “Education cannot thrive with ready-made content built outside of the pedagogical space and outside of human relationships between teachers and students. Nor can education be dependent on digital platforms controlled by private companies” (p.6).
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