Will COVID-19 Reshape Education?
By Sangeeta Doraiswami

The first global pandemic of this decade has had an unprecedented impact upon all sectors of activity, including education. Today, educators and students around the world are grappling with the extraordinary effect of the spread of an as-yet untreatable Coronavirus that has no vaccine. The disease has caused all public congregation points including Schools and Universities to be closed as part of a unique effort to minimize the spread of the disease by resorting to mass quarantines.

In other words, the consensus of policy makers appears to be that the only way in which our networked and globalized world can deal with this challenge appears to be to temporarily de-globalize, and to call a pause on the human instinct to congregate. Such an approach immediately impacts education, as risk-mitigation decisions by Governments have led to millions of school and university students being forced to be schooled from either their homes or their hostels.

Therefore, with this policy approach promoted by governments, educational institutions more or less globally have temporarily shut doors and sent students home. It is unclear for how long such closures will last, since the contagion rate of the disease continues to rise exponentially. It seems safe to predict that until there are signs of the disease receding, or being brought under control, educators and education service providers will need to consider reworking their current models in a way that enables them to ensure the continuity of instruction, facilitate virtual interaction with students, and manage credible learning assessments such as tests and assignments.

The way the education community and policy makers adjust to this unique situation will not only define how we ensure the continuity of instruction to students right now, it may also define modalities for delivery of education in future. While it is too early to pick winners among the current trends, it can be said that there is a strong probability that the education sector will be lastingly transformed by the Coronavirus pandemic.

And perhaps this pandemic is the proverbial ill wind that has some unintended positive effect: after all, there has been good reason to lament the slow pace of introduction of innovation into the process by which academic instruction is conveyed globally. The broad mechanism of delivery of knowledge and information has not changed very much in centuries–it still involves formal sessions of collective attendance by students listening to lectures from an educator. In other words, absent the changes of dress and language, the system would have been completely familiar to our ancestors several centuries ago.

In that sense, the COVID-19 pandemic could be used as an opportunity to catalyze rapid adoption of innovative solutions by educators worldwide. Precisely because there is no alternative to offering instruction through different modalities, students have already started learning at home, through interactive apps on their smartphones or tablets. They are receiving learning material through live television broadcasts or podcasts, and they are using online learning tools (such as Google Classroom), face-to-face video instruction, and even virtual meeting rooms offered by service providers like Skype, Zoom Cloud Meeting, EyesOn, where real-time interactive sessions can be scripted by teachers for upto 30 or more users at a time. Traditional in-person classroom learning will be complemented with new learning modalities – from live broadcasts to ‘educational influencers’ to virtual reality experiences. Learning could become a habit that is integrated into daily routines – a true change of lifestyle. And the expansion of communication technology bandwidth, for instance, to 5G, could turbo-charge what is now only a gradual shift to a ‘learning anywhere, anytime’ concept of digital education.

The contrary inevitable argument is that young people tend to be distracted easily especially when they are on their own and unrestricted by the ‘structured discipline’ of a classroom setting. Indeed, being in the comfort of their homes or hostel rooms could only increase the scope for distraction. And since instruction will require the use of a TV or a laptop and the use of the internet, the temptation for students to tune out from the instruction is higher than ever before. Surely then, this is an equally-strong argument against virtual classrooms, which should lead us to work hard to get brick-and-mortar classrooms up and running urgently?

Or is it? Perhaps the conclusion that internet use interferes with learning is itself an artefact of the classroom model. Consider: How do we know that freedom to browse interferes with learning? So far, we have always believed that learning is assessed by giving students examinations under supervision, and their answers are graded and the resulting scores are recorded. While the single end-of-term test  model is declining at the college level, written examinations of some sort remain the standard for determining classroom performance. Therefore, if a student has not been able to pay attention in class, that student’s exam performance would reflect this. But is that correct? After all, we are then saying that our contention that the internet interferes with learning is really a reflection of the view that it causes students to perform less well on tests

But before we resign ourselves to acceptance of the stereotype that there is a general decline in cognitive ability fostered by the internet, let’s consider what results such as these don’t tell us: how well young people who are glued to their screens will perform at tasks involving memory and cognition when aided by a digital device. That’s the sort of world the technological revolution is training our young. Those who find this vision attractive are unlikely to see the traditional classroom model as anything but a hindrance.

Perhaps the future lies in models where teenagers decide for themselves how to spend their time. There are no teachers, but there is plenty of space for undirected play, much of it with tools aimed at helping them learn. Young people are free to use computers and phones as they wish, because, after all, both will exist in the outside world for which our education is preparing them. Experiments seem to suggest that students do as well as or better than their more traditionally-instructed counterparts.

Or perhaps the future lies along a different path –  a path away from the traditional model. The authority of the classroom teacher will see a decline, as students question that authority, or more appropriately, the source of it and its logic. It’s not uncommon to hear young people in college and professional school wonder aloud why they need to go to class at all. Why can’t they just read the assignments and take the test, they ask? As technology and our current quarantined global context suggest, why indeed?

To which of course the answer is: maybe they will soon… as soon as right away, since that time may already have arrived!

After all, not until recently, the inertia of classroom teaching proved more than sufficient; the traditional teaching- learning models and practices were continuing to deliver, and we had no reason to change. But for the last decade and more, the digital revolution is pushing education hard in the other direction, increasingly insistently. It may not be possible to resist this technology driven change indefinitely, or even immediately, in the current Coronavirus-infected world.

It may well be that the traditional classroom model will not vanish completely: there will be communities and contexts where it is still the only option. But right now the whole world has little choice but to experiment with a different method of online instruction, and that experiment is bound to drive further innovations, with unquantifiable further impact on education as we currently know it.

Preparing for the future requires us to recognize that the more serious challenge that a technology-driven revolution in education may throw up is the different levels of access to technology across our unequal world. In other words, the digital divide could widen rapidly, both now during the current crisis and later on as well. For the present, schools in pandemic-affected areas can only offer alternative options for learning depending on the level and quality of digital access. While virtual classes on personal tablets may be the norm in developed countries, that too in their urban areas or university towns, students in less developed economies will lag behind as they will need to rely on packaged educational material sent via social media or email. Here too, the less affluent or less digitally empowered communities will see their young learners left behind purely on account of inequality of access. If classes transition online entirely, children with less or no digital access lose out because the cost of digital devices and data plans may be beyond their means. This implies that the gap in education quality, and thus socioeconomic equality, will be exacerbated.

Since the process of technology-driven change is unlikely to be deterred merely by reasons of equality of access, it is critical for societies in general and educators and technology firms in particular to start thinking of ways in which the dynamic opportunity offered by this current transformative moment  also leads us to find solutions that will not exacerbate the existing digital divide.

For this eventuality, and indeed, to contend with the rapid spread of COVID-19, there is a need for much more cooperative planning effort by educators worldwide, as well as an effort to build resilience on a war footing. The common objective of planning, cooperation and resilience-building must be to increase the capacity of the education community to face various threats, from pandemic disease to extremist violence, from climate insecurity to, yes, rapid technological change. The pandemic is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the skills students need in this unpredictable world such as informed decision making, creative problem solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability. To ensure those skills remain a priority for all students, resilience must be built into our educational systems as well.

If we invest extra effort today in planning for this uncertain present and the dynamically-shifting future, we will have used the opportunity provided by the current health crisis wisely.