Like other European countries, Hungary decided back in March to close public schools and introduce remote digital learning in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even with some forced optimism at the beginning of the suddenly introduced changes, it was clear that students, teachers, and parents would face many difficulties; however, at the end of the period, it seems that it also had some positive effects on students, while teachers also gained some experience for the further implementation of digital education.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suddenly announced on the evening of Friday, March 13th that from the beginning of the following week, digital education would be introduced in schools and students were not allowed to enter the premises of their schools. Teachers, parents, and students alike only had 2 days to adapt to a completely new form of education. Although the Educational Authority (OH) published a guide for digital education a few days later, it was more of a list of recommendations rather than a well-structured framework for online learning. This caused a bit of chaos, as in many places students had to adapt to as many new digital platforms as teachers.
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Moreover, not only were a number of teachers inexperienced with digital tools and methods, but there were also huge differences in student’s digital skills and in tools available for online learning. Last year, a study revealed that a third of poorer families could not provide their own devices for children between the ages of 8-17, and five percent of students do not even have access to the necessary tools for digital distance learning, not to mention access to the Internet.
In addition, digital education has also created serious inequalities for Roma students. In many places, the main problem is not only the lack of digital knowledge, but there is no adequate space or even electricity for digital learning. In these communities, on average, only two-thirds of students were able to get involved in digital education. According to respondents of a survey, it is also typical that students cannot interpret the tasks and lessons independently at home. However, they also had positive experiences in the case of Roma students: dozens of schools reported that their relationship with children had been strengthened and that students were looking for the teachers, requesting their support.
However, according to one study, not only children from worse economic backgrounds, rural areas, or from Roma families, but also children with disabilities and special educational needs (SEN) and their parents were left alone in digital distance learning. The sudden changeover did not allow teachers to adapt the special educational needs curricula and materials to the new situation, as it was revealed in the online survey of Léphessenek Közhasznú Egyesület, which was completed by 770 affected parents.
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However, during the months of lockdown, digital teaching caused a serious challenge for many other families as well, since many parents had to work from home. In many families, there were not enough computers for the adults and all the children, not to mention that most parents had to act like teachers to help their school-aged children, on top of working their daily jobs.
Although digital education did have its shortcomings mainly because it was not as inclusive as teaching at schools, these past three months have produced positive results as well. According to teachers and parents, although in most places students were unable to complete the whole curriculum this semester, they developed new and different digital skills and competencies than in a traditional school environment.
Mainly digital competence, the use of digital tools, is what has developed significantly in recent months, and not just with students. Both teachers and parents had to learn all this to help and cooperate with their children during digital learning, while students also made a lot of progress in conscious internet use this semester. They were also able to practice independent work, while their task awareness also strengthened in the current situation. Miklós Kásler, Minister of Human Resources, emphasized last week that according to the information of the Ministry, students, educators, and parents have enjoyed the benefits of online teaching, and added that “there is a mass demand for such education to play a more important role in the future.”
Back in March, when he announced the switch to remote learning, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán acknowledged that despite the government’s already existing strategy of digital education and trained teachers, Hungary is far from ready for such a transition. Although the government has been planning “to build the infrastructure for digital education anyway,” they have “not yet finished this work; we have to start it sooner, so it might be slow-going, but it’s still much better to continue teaching with digital tools than to cease it completely,” Orbán emphasized. However, the months of digital learning have surely helped in developing the strategy further and to see the shortcomings of the present state of digital education.
At the end of May, Secretary of State for Public Education Zoltán Maruzsa announced on ATV’s program Egyenes Beszéd that a normal school year was scheduled to begin in September, but they would no longer return to the usual order: they would also use the experiences of this period’s digital education. He said that next year, the IT subject – renamed as digital culture – may be even more suitable for distance learning.
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In addition, last week, the outlines of the government’s new National Digitalization Strategy were presented at a conference. Attila Soltész, who heads the IT for the Society Association, which organized the conference, noted that the coronavirus pandemic had forced hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to acquire basic digital skills in a short period, while “breaking taboos” long held about online school instruction. As one of the experiences of remote learning was that a number of schoolchildren do not even have the basic digital tools or even internet for digital school instruction, it is also important in the future to develop this.
Deputy state secretary for digitalization Károly Balázs Solymár, said that the most important goal of the National Digitalization Strategy is to put Hungary among the top ten EU member states at the vanguard of digitalization by 2030, which will require scaling up internet connections to bring gigabit networks to 95% of households within the next ten years.
feature photo: Péter Komka/MTI