We're about to embark on a very different kind of school year. After months in lockdown and fears surrounding Covid still raw, the expectations, uncertainty and demands on our education system are overwhelming. Mitel's Stephanie Ford and Kelly Swindon met with Sara Truebridge, TED Talk speaker and author of Resilience Begins with Beliefs, on Twitter #MitelChats to tackle the greater issues and see what can be done to help everyone stay connected in the classroom and virtually.

How is Covid accelerating some trends in education while setting new ones in motion?

Before diving into the discussion, all participants took a moment to recognize the magnitude of impact that Covid has had on education. Everyone from teachers to administrators and parents to support staff have had to survive going exclusively to virtual learning overnight, without ever having done it before.

It's important to acknowledge that schools are just at the start of their digital transformation. The "new normal" has yet to be established and we as a society are really just on the cusp of figuring out how this new virtual learning environment will look. There are opportunities here—to take the challenges and leverage them for creative change.

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Video conferencing is the most prevalent tool being used globally. Yet, it is only one angle. And rather than pinpoint particular technology at this stage—or even teaching methods—#MitelChats participants wanted to focus on how schools can communicate with each other and with parents and students more efficiently.

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And, even so, with all the questions of when, where and how to teach, what cannot be forgotten is that not every student has access to technology. Sara said this is something that first needs to be addressed by local government, online providers and school districts. Kids need technology support for any of the ideas addressed here to work.

What are schools doing to adapt to the new reality?

Overall, this question produced a visceral response from participants, who sympathized with the overwhelming challenge schools now face. Before the pandemic, remote working wasn't really necessary. For that reason, in the early months of Covid, educators took on virtual learning without a real plan.

Yet, these challenges also highlight an incredible opportunity to evolve. "We have to recognize that we need to move forward and not build backwards," Sara Truebridge said. Mitel's Ryan Smith agreed, saying, "Use technology to create the future instead of rebuilding the past. We have such an opportunity to revolutionize work in all its form."

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And so we now see that instead of just talking about someday adopting technologies, schools are implementing them in a big way. Entering the new school year, we have teachers who are dedicated to virtual learning/virtual classrooms, and those will eventually lead to specialists. And there are new positions in administration and staff being developed specifically to support new technology options as well as connecting with students virtually.

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How do you bridge the communication gaps in remote and hybrid settings?

Finding ways to deliver consistent education when you now have both in-class and virtual learning environments is certainly going to be a challenge. But participants agreed that communication is key.

It helps to understand that there are three basic communication needs in education: between teachers and students, internal communications within the school environment, and between the school and parents. That must be stepped up even more to address distance learning needs. "(The) CARES Act in the US helps fund many of the needs of the students, but we know there are so many more areas that need help... for example, setting up a virtual office," wrote Stephanie Ford.

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All of it is putting the focus on additional ways to facilitate better communication. Kelly Swindon said that universities are "embracing new ways to communicate, such as web forms, social media and the user of chatbots... which can help reduce call volumes." Stephanie said there are several schools "using contact center licenses to allow for front office triage of calls, and communication to parents re: voice, text, and chat."

By implementing these communication methods, it will make things easier for overwhelmed teachers, so they can focus on what they do best. In all the discussions around. What's most important here, in any planning, is to make sure that teachers are consulted in any conversations around development. They are the first adopters and you want to make sure it will truly work for them.

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In all, there is opportunity to focus more on creativity and critical thinking vs memory and repetition. Education delivery has an opportunity to be reevaluated and adjusted to suit today's cultural and virtual needs. And "hybrid learning model with smaller class sizes (can) foster more individualized learning," said Mitel's Stacey Marshall (@S. Marshall McClure).

Stephanie said that with the question about communication comes some valid concerns about security and compliance. This is a critical factor as more information gets transferred and communicated online. She said, what's important is that universities get to understand exactly how their data will be kept secure and protected and in line with GDPR.

What will future learning environments look like in the next 5-10 years?

When educators are struggling to shape the next 30 to 60 days, looking even a year ahead can be difficult. Things are changing daily, and both local government and the schools are having trouble settling on a solid plan for the upcoming year. What they are faced with is a mix of remote, hybrid, in-class and even homeschooling students.

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What's clear is that the well-being of all involved needs to be the focus. Stress levels, creativity, ease of use, communication—these need to be front and center. More cooperation among technology providers would help to bring all the needs together in a way that works best for the schools.

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It's quite possible that we're at the very start of an epic shift in education. In any case, "we will continue to see an evolution in the "traditional" school environment," says Project Marigold. "Hopefully a more interconnected educational community will allow for innovation in the field and the very structure of schools."

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The conversation about education and virtual learning is only just beginning. Be sure to check back here over the next few months as we check in with our schools to see how thing's are going after the first semester.

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