The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping education

The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping education

On Sunday, Feb. 23rd, rumors started that schools in the Lombardy region of Italy—the country’s economic powerhouse—might close. Confirmed cases and deaths from the new coronavirus were soaring. The healthcare system was teetering, and Italy had to dramatically change course in a bid to halt the virus. By evening, the region was in lockdown.

Within 24 hours, Iain Sachdev, principal at the International School of Monza, had organized his teachers and filmed a short video clip for students, faculty, and parents. School would open at 9am on Tuesday, he said. Be patient, he implored. Taking a school online in 24 hours was a massive feat which would be messy. Everyone would be learning.

Five weeks later, the school is still running—unfamiliar in many ways, identical in others. Teachers teach via video conferencing every day. Kids participate using Padlet, a virtual post-it note system that lets students share ideas; and Flipgrid, which lets teachers and students create short videos to share. Students do individual work, group work, and confer with teachers when needed. Sachdev has overhauled the schedule from 50-minute units to longer blocks. Teachers no longer use email, but Microsoft Teams.

The International School of Monza is part of the world’s biggest educational technology (edtech) experiment in history. With 1.5 billion students out of school and hundreds of millions attempting to learn solely online, the experiment will reshape schools, the idea of education, and what learning looks like in the 21st century. The pandemic is forcing educators, parents, and students to think critically, problem-solve, be creative, communicate, collaborate and be agile. It is also revealing that there is another way.

“It’s a great moment” for learning, says Andreas Schliecher, head of education at the OECD.  “All the red tape that keeps things away is gone and people are looking for solutions that in the past they did not want to see,” he says. Students will take ownership over their learning, understanding more about how they learn, what they like, and what support they need. They will personalize their learning, even if the systems around them won’t. Schliecher believes that genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

“Real change takes place in deep crisis,” he says. “You will not stop the momentum that will build.”

But as tech connects people in their homes, its limitations for learning are on display for all the world to see. The crisis has cast a bright light on deep inequalities not just in who has devices and bandwidth, which are critically important, but also who has the skills to self-direct their learning, and whose parents have the time to spend helping. It is a stark reminder of the critical importance of school not just as a place of learning, but of socialization, care and coaching, of community and shared space—not things tech has hacked too well.

The pandemic is giving tech massive insights at scale as to what human development and learning looks like, allowing it to potentially shift from just content dissemination to augmenting relationships with teachers, personalization, and independence. But the way it is has been rolled out—overnight, with no training, and often not sufficient bandwidth—will leave many with a sour taste about the whole exercise. Many people may well continue to associate e-learning with lockdowns, recalling frustrations with trying to log on, or mucking through products that didn’t make sense.

“This may be a short-term commercial opportunity for some vendors, says Nick Kind, senior director at Tyton Partners, an investment banking and strategy consulting firm focused on education. “But for this to become transformational for teachers and learners, you wouldn’t have wanted to start this way.”

When the storm of the pandemic passes, schools may be revolutionized by this experience. Or, they may revert back to what they know. But the world in which they will exist—one marked by rising unemployment and likely recession—will demand more. Education may be slow to change, but the post-coronavirus economy will demand it.

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