PATRICIA EDGAR. Education and Entertainment after COVID-19

Apr 8, 2020

COVID-19 has let the genie out of the bottle. Education and entertainment will not return to their traditional forms.

Young people have forged their own way: we have tried to hold them back but small children, not capable of putting words together, can access digital content on phones and tablets. By seven to ten, they can create content by commenting on friends’ posts and by sharing personal photos, videos, stories and memes. These children bear very little resemblance to those I used to teach who were expected to sit passively in class accepting school routines and being exposed to life’s experiences incrementally as parents and other adults thought fit.

There is a strong tendency to romanticise the past, ‘the good old times’ with ‘social gathering and intercourse’, ‘busy doing nothing’ without the malign influence of online media. I used to wonder, as a child, when adults told me I was ‘living the best years of my life’. I hoped not. I didn’t like being told what to do all the time. I felt as Hilary Mantel did: ‘Much of what happened to you, in your early life, was constructed in your head’. (Weekend Australian, March 21-22, 2020). Today, life is different.

Social media has brought young people together in myriad ways, opened their eyes, giving them freedom to explore information and knowledge beyond the experience of earlier generations. They can indulge their energy and curiosity online. They seek a challenge, they love to engage, compete and share; they love to laugh, and they have advice for us about their needs and interests. They now expect to be involved in decisions affecting their education and entertainment; they are a new breed as a result of digital media.

COVID-19 will change forever both the way we teach them and the way we entertain them.

With education, young people are pretty well-prepared for this watershed moment. As universities, colleges and schools struggle with new platforms to teach online, students and staff are working together to solve the technical challenges involved in conducting interactive lectures, tutorials and laboratory classes. Time and experience will change dramatically how teachers interact with their students.

As classes have transitioned online, students have much more time available for they don’t commute for hours each day. It’s easier to skip a lecture or tutorial when you know it’s recorded and available at any time. It’s also possible on Zoom to hide behind a blank screen and mute your mike, showing only your name and asking no questions. To avoid teachers being deluged with personal emails, questions must be posted openly and discussed in the class.  Like most things in life, you get back more if you put more in.  Those who try will do best. ‘This world is for taking’, an 18-year-old told me.

The traditional classroom will be a thing of the past. Since I began my career in the 1960s the education system has been reluctant to introduce technology of any type into the classroom. Now diversity, innovation and creativity are coming to education. My grandson took part in his first Chinese language tutorial in the back of a car on his phone while being driven through the city. It went well and he thought it was ‘cool’.

While ‘pracs’ can’t be replaced and are currently being deferred – you can’t dissect a frog online –  it is now only a matter of time before augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will make digitally-delivered education pervasive and superior to face-to-face classes. You do have to wonder what will happen in future to all those buildings on expensive properties as education becomes home-based.

COVID-19 will reinforce the fact that kids are in charge of their own entertainment: that has been happening anyway. While they can’t socialise face-to-face, they know how to communicate with multiple friends, how to play games, share projects, drawings, paintings, music, videos, jokes and to party online. They watch Netflix and YouTube, play with Tic-Toc, go on Facebook, Instagram, create their own podcasts and videos.

Children’s television producers have been scrambling for some years now as young people have deserted scheduled television in droves and audiences for their quota programs have plummeted. Public broadcasters, including the iconic BBC, have been unable to stall this collapse as kids have swarmed to the internet. Australian producers have called for quotas across all platforms, ignoring the fact that a higher volume of programming means lower budgets and reduced quality.

The aim of the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) and government funding subsidy for program production, established 40 years ago, was to develop little by little a diverse resource of the highest quality programming which could endure and build up for subsequent generations. This system of regulation worked initially, but we learnt that the model was failing, as far back as the year 2000 when the Australian Broadcasting Authority released a study evaluating the ‘20 years of C’ – the programming made under the CTS from 1979-1999.

Although promulgated with the best of intentions, increasing quotas in 1995 had resulted in less program diversity, fewer producers working in what had become a lucrative business rather than a service to children, as well as a decline in the proportion of the budget raised locally. That meant co-productions became the norm, or local producers ‘fronted’ for foreign broadcasters allowing them to originate programs and plunder Australian subsidies.

By contrast with the children’s television production industry, the gaming industry understands kids and their business has grown exponentially, for kids generally love the challenge, the engagement, the fun and the social connection. Games provide well-established learning opportunities for children, so the challenge for parents and teachers should be to recognise that games can teach children skills and strategies while they socialise and collaborate. If purposely and creatively designed to meet each stage of child development, games are a potential massive education resource for pre-school and beyond, but commercial companies have been left to reap the profits. With kids now isolated, games will be going great guns and educators have to come on board.

Child advocates, many of them predictors of fear and doom, have worked to delay and erode technical innovation and interactive educational reform. Wary, or ignorant of the potential of the internet and all forms of social media, they recommend banning phones in school and limiting screen time. They claim digital media incite bullying, damage their brains, cause isolation, obesity, postural problems, sleep deprivation and a host of psychological problems including depression.

Like the research I have been involved with, on the effects of media violence, there is no unequivocal scientific data or research that backs up these claims. There are always broader social issues that have a much stronger influence on effects than the technology or the content itself.

Every invention which has expanded communication, from the printing press onwards – comic books, movies, television, gaming, the internet and the smart-phone – has led to claims such media are contributing to the decline of civilization and the destruction of childhood.  Like cars on the road, which if misused can be dangerous, media need to be managed and used for a good purpose.

COVID-19 has let the genie out of the bottle. Education and entertainment will not return to their traditional forms.

Of course, there are problems to be solved and this is where our attention should be focused. The digital divide is a major issue.  Safety online is paramount and there has never been a better time, or opportunity, than now, to have such discussions within the family. Possibly, there are predators trying to join the kids as they Houseparty online. But, talk about that issue rather than try to implement bans, because kids are better off with the parties. Media literacy programs are crucial for children of all ages and we have never taken this matter seriously. Now is the time. It should go without saying balance in all aspects of our lives should be the goal.

Technology offers the entertainment industry creative and economic benefits and offers the education sector greater appeal and effectiveness for teaching and learning. Perhaps COVID-19 will be the tipping point which can bring about collaboration between the media industries and schools for the future of children and 21st-century education. This social and online revolution might just help us solve the problems threatening the viability and sustainability of our planet.

Patricia Edgar is an educator. She was the architect of the Australian Children’s Television Standards, the founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation.

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