Schools, technology, and the COVID-19 response in Italy: a weak system but a resilient response
At the end of March, Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian. She started her article with: “I am writing to you from Italy, which means I am writing from your future. We are now where you will be in a few days.”
The following day, 29 March, Italy overtook China’s COVID-19 infection rate (86,498 to China’s 81,946) and became the country with the highest number of infections in the world.
I was born in Cremona, a city of about 72,000 people in Southern Lombardia. Cremona and its province were among the early COVID-19 hotspots in Northern Italy. The first Coronavirus patient was hospitalised on 22 February. On the same day, the mayor ordered the closure of all schools in the municipality. On 8 March, the whole of Lombardia was put into lockdown, followed two days later by the whole country (Prime Minister’s Decree).
The brief timeline shows that in less than three weeks Italy moved from having some confirmed cases of COVID-19, to hospitals in Lombardia rapidly becoming overwhelmed, to a countrywide lockdown and the sudden closure of schools, with approximately 4.4 million students in elementary and lower secondary and 2.6 million in upper secondary shifting to distance learning.
I am writing this mid-May and Italy has started its Fase Due (Phase Two) which involves a gradual easing of the harshest lockdown measures that have been in place for two months. Schools remain closed, but there is talk of end-of-year exams taking place in mid-June. I was interested to learn about how distance learning has worked out and how technology has supported it. I reviewed mainly Italian-language policy documents and news and also reached out to some friends who live in Cremona and work as teachers there.
COVID-19 hit a weak education system
The education system was not ready when the virus hit. It was as if it shot Italian schools into the 21st century and e-learning while they struggled with considerable institutional, governance and fiscal challenges. The OECD PISA report of 2018 found that on average 15-year-old students in Italy scored slightly lower than the OECD average in reading and science knowledge. Italy spends a lot less on education than almost every other western country. Spending per student (from primary school to university) equates to $8,966 per annum, compared to $11,502 in Sweden. OECD data show that in 2015 Italy’s investment in education was equal to 3.6 percent of GDP, while the OECD average was 5 percent.
Italy has the largest share of teachers over the age of 50 (59 percent) and the lowest share of teachers aged 25 to 34 years across OECD countries. Some 68 percent of teachers report that improving teacher salaries should be a high spending priority, but resources are scarce.
Italy ranks 24 out of 28 countries on the European Union Digital Economy and Society Index. Three out of ten Italians are not regular internet users, and more than half of the population lacks basic digital skills.
Teachers and students were the engine that made distance learning work
The Italian education system is weak. Resources are scarce but teachers have been very resilient during this crisis. The teachers I contacted said they had never had a discussion within their school or with local-level education agencies about possible crisis scenarios, such as COVID-19. In other words, there was no plan in place to move quickly into distance learning and the use of technology.
The Ministry of Education (Ministero dell’Istruzione) issued guidelines regarding school closers and managing distance learning. Some of the guidelines were slightly vague, in particular about end-of-year assessments. The government intervened twice with budget allocations of 70 million Euro in March and a further 80 million Euro in April to help schools acquire computers and tablets for students who had no access to these at home.
On 2 March, the Ministry of Education set up a dedicated page for Didattica a distanza (distance learning), with information and links to free-to-use digital platforms and apps, dashboards where teachers could share their experiences and suggestions, and webinars to provide teachers with suggestions and advice about distance learning.
One of the teachers I contacted said he relied on the Google Suite platform that he was already using. However, some of the students struggled at the beginning with the Classroom app. One of the schools took part in the Microsoft Showcase Schools programme and used Microsoft Teams for both teaching and teachers’ meetings. The system required about two weeks of fine-tuning for students to become used to it, but things have worked out quite well, with most of the students being active and engaged during remote classes. Students who did not have a computer or tablet at home received one from their schools. These platforms helped provide support for learners with disabilities. Docenti di sostegno (support teachers) communicated directly or set up dedicated online groups to assist learners with disabilities, which complemented their regular teaching.
The feeling is that despite the very high toll this crisis has taken on Italy, the many uncertainties about distance learning and the overall weaknesses of the education system, online teaching and learning has worked out better than expected. It is almost as if the experimentation that teachers and students had to go through has unleashed new ideas and creativity that were hidden before. There is anecdotal evidence of teachers feeling that they are better able to personalise teaching through digital platforms, and young students have helped their older teachers use these new technologies.
As one of the teachers I contacted said: “While it is important to have direct interaction in the classroom, this crisis is teaching us that it is not necessary to be in the classroom for all teaching activities.” Behind the crisis, new ideas and ways of teaching are emerging, no matter how weak the system is.