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Education Post-Covid-19

FUTURE SHOCK: 25 Education trends post COVID-19

By Sandeep Goyal


This Future Shock series is inspired by the Alvin Toffler book with the same name, first published in the 1970s. The book future gazed a rapidly changing world, propelled into newer and newer orbits by not just science and technology, but by newer political realities, sociological change and the emergence of newer opportunities, newer aspirations and newer lifestyles. But even Toffler had not visualized a world faced with cataclysmic change because of a pandemic, a metamorphosis triggered by a virus.

Most governments around the world have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 1.3-1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are affected by school and university closures. These nationwide closures are impacting over 72% of the world’s student population. Several other countries have implemented localized closures impacting millions of additional learners. Governments around the world are making efforts to mitigate the immediate impact of school closures, particularly for more vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, and to facilitate the continuity of education for all through remote learning.

School closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities. Their impact however is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized boys and girls, and their families. The resulting disruptions exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system but also in other aspects of their lives. UNESCO has put out many detailed, and learned, papers on the unprecedented current situation in the world of academics – one that has not occurred since the Second World War, though the scale and human impact of the current pandemic is far far larger than any war in human history. Closure of schools has a catastrophic impact on society, and the UNESCO studies summarize some of it as follows:

  • Interrupted learning: Schooling provides essential learning and when schools close, children and youth are deprived of opportunities for growth and development. The disadvantages are disproportionate for under-privileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities beyond school.
  • Poor nutrition: Many children and youth rely on free or discounted meals provided at schools for food and healthy nutrition. When schools close, nutrition is compromised.
  • Confusion and stress for teachers: When schools close, especially unexpectedly and for unknown durations, teachers are often unsure of their obligations and how to maintain connections with students to support learning. Transitions to distance learning platforms tend to be messy and frustrating, even in the best circumstances. In many contexts, school closures lead to furloughs or absenteeism by teachers.
  • Parents unprepared for distance and home schooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the learning of children at home and can struggle to perform this task. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.
  • Challenges creating, maintaining, and improving distance learning: Demand for distance learning skyrockets when schools close and often overwhelms existing portals to remote education. Moving learning from classrooms to homes at scale and in a hurry presents enormous challenges, both human and technical.
  • Gaps in childcare: In the absence of alternative options, working parents often leave children alone when schools close and this can lead to risky behaviors, including increased influence of peer pressure and substance abuse.
  • High economic costs: Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close in order to take care of their children. This results in wage loss and tend to negatively impact productivity.
  • Unintended strain on health-care systems: Health-care workers with children cannot easily attend work because of childcare obligations that result from school closures. This means that many medical professionals are not at the facilities where they are most needed during a health crisis.
  • Increased pressure on schools and school systems that remain open: Localized school closures place burdens on schools as governments and parents alike redirect children to schools that remain open.
  • Rise in dropout rates: It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen after closures. This is especially true of protracted closures and when economic shocks place pressure on children to work and generate income for financially distressed families.
  • Increased exposure to violence and exploitation: When schools shut down, early marriages increase, more children are recruited into militias, sexual exploitation of girls and young women rises, teenage pregnancies become more common, and child labour grows.
  • Social isolation: Schools are hubs of social activity and human interaction. When schools close, many children and youth miss out on social contact that is essential to learning and development.
  • Challenges measuring and validating learning: Calendared assessments, notably high-stakes examinations that determine admission or advancement to new education levels and institutions, are thrown into disarray when schools close. Strategies to postpone, skip or administer examinations at a distance raise serious concerns about fairness, especially when access to learning becomes variable. Disruptions to assessments results in stress for students and their families and can trigger disengagement.

I read somewhere long back that, “A school is not paradise. But school is a place where paradise can be created”. It continued in the same vein with the thought, “The classroom with all its limitations, remains a location of great possibility”. In the past few weeks, we have gone from Classroom to Zoom. From pedagogy to ‘panicgogy’. Much has been written about the hastily made transition. In the process, however, much has also changed. Perhaps never to return to whatever we knew of teaching and learning for generations.

As we track future trends, we will address both myths, and realities, in the new emerging scenario. Suffice it to say that academic schedules have been radically disrupted, most students outside the metro-based middle class have limited computer access, Wi-Fi is kind of spotty and erratic, there is a lot of electricity outage and synchronous virtual classes are very stressful for teachers not used to working with technology. However, since there are not many options for the time being, the education bulwark so used to brick-and-mortar face-to-face interactions, is trying its best to adjust and adapt to the new normal. Many new learnings, new perspectives, new trends will emerge as we head into The Great Unknown:

1. Fewer kids will go back to school when schools re-open. Denmark eased its coronavirus lockdown on 14th April, by reopening schools and day care centres, but concerns they might become breeding grounds for a second wave of cases convinced thousands of parents to keep their children at home. There is actually a Facebook group called ‘My kid is not going to be a Guinea Pig’ with 40,000 members in a country as small as Denmark. An overwhelming number of parents are asking the inevitable question, ‘Why should my little child go outside first’ especially since the virus is still to be brought under leash. India is going to be no different. A lot of well-heeled middle class folks may prefer to delay the return of their kids to school or college. And of course, with so many livelihoods lost, many poor parents may not be able to in any case afford sending their offsprings back to school for a long long time. Linked question? Will this lead to home schooling? One, too early to say. Two, if the lockdowns re-occur soon, and frequently, home-schooling will become a distinct possibility with middle and upper middle families.

2. Fewer kids will go out of town, far from home, to study. The nightmare of kids stuck in Kota, Rajasthan, having to be rescued and brought back home is still fresh in the minds of most parents. Till the situation settles down somewhat, most parents will prefer to find workable alternatives closer home. Competitive exams are surely important, but safety of the young ones will take higher priority till the virus shows at least a visible downward trajectory.

3. Fewer kids will go overseas to study. Every form of international education is currently affected by the crisis and will be for some time, from study abroad schemes to staff exchanges and internships to transnational collaborative programmes. Universities have been closed and/or are delivering all education online. Every international conference in higher education has been cancelled or turned into a series of webinars. As governments are starting to reopen society and restart business, universities will also gradually reopen their campuses. Nevertheless, new modes of social distancing will continue to apply for quite some time, affecting on-campus learning in physical spaces, from the (international) classroom to libraries and on-campus student networking places. In the short term, international student mobility will decrease, including possible problems with student visas. International visiting professors could teach their courses online, continuing to provide some ‘internationalisation at home’. Once travel bans are lifted, in the medium term, student mobility will resume as it has so much become the DNA of contemporary higher education.

4. Social distancing, little or no sports. The fist-bump, the high-five, the warm handshake, the hug will be gone for a long time. The personal greeting, the smile, the intimacy, the bonhomie have all been subtracted from the class of tomorrow. The class will go from social to asocial. Friendships, social networking, campus bonding and huddles will be on hold for a while. Invisible walls will come up, diluting in many ways the fun & euphoria of campus life. Sports too will be in low gear for a while. Gyms, swimming pools, maybe even tracks & fields will remain shut for sometime more. And when they do open, competitive sports and tournaments will take even longer to be reinstated.

5. Two shift or three shift schools. The need for social distancing will mean lesser students in each class. So the need for most educational institutions to perhaps work two shifts, maybe even three, everyday. While this will put infinite more pressure on the teaching and administrative staff, it may actually be a boon in disguise for the taught. Lots of schools and colleges in India have far too many students packed into small classrooms. A sparser class may actually make for better teaching and class interaction.

6. Social distance may lead to some getting ‘socially distant’. As it is, equality in the classroom has always been a fiction. The inequality, sadly, will only widen in the days to come. Caste/family background, social status, economic well-being, the kind of school you attended has invariably shaped the student’s confidence to speak-up in class. The underprivileged would most likely always be the meek attendees who would feel afraid to say something wrong in class, hence would prefer silence over participation. Such inequities do exist. The classroom, with equal seating, with uniform chairs, kind of brought an unsaid democracy to teaching. Technology which allows one student to access class from an air-conditioned, hi-speed wi-fi home, while another may be trying to find a quiet corner in an overcrowded tenement with jumpy internet will further ‘socially distance’ the class. Now, that is surely not what was intended from social distancing!

7. Teaching versus learning, will need figuring. Oscar Wilde once said, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth learning can be taught”. Going forward, the role of the teacher will get redefined. The notion of a teacher or an educator as the knowledge-holder who imparts wisdom to pupils is no longer fit for the purpose of the future. With students being able to gain access to knowledge, and even learn many a technical skill, through a few clicks on their phones, tablets and computers, we will need to redefine the role of the teacher in the classroom of tomorrow. This may mean that the role of teachers will need to move towards facilitating young people’s development as contributing (and employable) members of society, rather than just lecturing.

8. Teaching will go tech. But just Zoom isn’t e-learning. To enable remote learning, technology will kick in big time. The mechanics of remote instruction, however, are not necessarily inclusive or equitable. Remote instruction requires that students have access to both capable computing technology and reliable internet service (and in our country perennial electricity too). Which is not always unfortunately guaranteed in India. Also, Zoom deployment in itself isn’t going to equal learning. There will be need to do more. There are already educationists working on taking a lot of science lessons, even geography, to 3-D. A detailed world map in 3-D, for example, for a Class 6 student would surely be so much more fun. Also, a 3-D view of the heart. Technology will enrich teaching, but for that teachers and technologists both will have to persevere and innovate.

9. Technology in education alone will not be the enabler. If you want to see a true crisis in education, one has to look at our government-run schools, or at least the remote ones where a young teacher in an isolated village who has only received perhaps a basic college degree tries to teach 60+ children in a dilapidated, multi-grade classroom where books are scarce and many of the students (and even more of their parents) are often functionally illiterate. While talk in some elevated places of learning, at Harvard or even our own IIT/IIMs, may be about how new technologies can help transform education, in India it will first have to be about how such tools can help education systems function at a basic level. Change is on the way but those in pivotal positions will have to ensure that its benefits percolate to the benefit of all.

10. Technology will be about the content, not the container. It is possible to become so enamoured with the technology (and so distracted by device-related and delivery related questions) that insufficient attention is then given to how to use whatever devices are eventually deployed to their full effect. As we move to a greater proliferation of devices, combined with the fact that we will be accessing more content from multiple places, a greater value will be placed on the content, and how that content is used, rather than on any one particular device. Viewed from this perspective, the future of education is in the ‘content’, not the 'container'. It's about more than just content, of course -- it's also about the connections and the communities (students collaborating with each other, teachers supporting other teachers) that technologies can help enable, catalyze and support as well in the future.

11. Matthew Effect will have to be anticipated and mitigated. A Matthew Effect in educational technology is frequently observed: those who are most able to benefit from the introduction of technology (e.g. children with educated parents and good teachers, who live in prosperous communities, etc.) are indeed the ones who actually benefit the most. Just because investments in educational technology use are justified by rhetoric claiming that such use will benefit ‘the poor’ doesn't mean that this will actually happen. In fact, the opposite many well occur.

12. The US $100 laptop and One Mouse Per Child. Now that technology is finally entering the classroom, a US$100 laptop, one for every child, may actually no longer be Utopian. Perhaps more do-able in the ‘connected’ basic classroom of tomorrow, is 'One Mouse Per Child', an initiative born from an ongoing relationship between Microsoft Research Connections and Miguel Nussbaum at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. The ‘One Mouse Per Child’ project is a broad spectrum of experiments in the education space around games for learning using Single Display Groupware and multiple mice, a collaborative learning of activities which improve the way resources can be used in under-resourced schools and foster personalized learning with individual feedback.

13. A lighter school bag may become a reality. On an average, an Indian school kid carries somewhere between 3-8 kilograms of weight every day to school, depending on the age and the class he/she is studying in. In addition to the books and notebooks, they carry a lunchbox and a water bottle. Digitisation and technology may help in shedding some of this weight. Homework too may move increasingly onto the net. It was already beginning to happen at the better quality schools. Expect it to become more ubiquitous. It may take time. But it will happen for sure.

14. FOBA and Bulldozer Parents will intensify. Generation Z in our colleges and Universities today, is a generation that has grown up in a truly globalized and connected world. These Gen Z, 25 years old or less, faced with cancelled exams, shortened school terms, postponed sporting events and even delayed graduations will be troubled by both FOBA (Fear of Being Alone) and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Education in the days ahead will have to address the loneliness of remote learning as well as the distress of lost opportunities. We will also see emergence of more protective, more pushy ‘Bulldozer Parents’ who will try to propel Generation Alpha (Gen A) -- the children of current millennial parents – moving all obstacles out of their way to create a clear path for their ‘entitled’ kids, making out as if nothing really has happened in the world around us.

15. Distance learning courses may not be considered inferior. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) compared educational systems of developed countries and administered the international PISA, a test that involves 15-year-olds across 31 nations, some years ago. OECD found that students who used computers had both lower reading and math scores. The Reboot Foundation released a similar study in June 2019. They too found a negative connection between each nation’s performance on the PISA and their students’ use of technology in school. The more they used computer screens in schools, the lower the nation’s rank in educational achievement. Well, with most learning headed to go digital, shedding of some of these biases may actually define the new normal. My father could rattle off maths tables upto 50. My generation barely managed upto 20. My daughter’s classmates are happy to know their tables till 10. Their calculators are ever-handy for more. Going forward, some old skills will be shed, and newer learnings will take their place.

16. Blended learning & personalized education. There will be, going forward, a great opportunity to develop new forms of blended education (that will be in much demand). ‘Pre crisis’ there was already a growing demand for more flexible and blended forms of lifelong learning beyond initial education in order to address the need to upskill and reskill for the digital economy. Mature adult learners in the future will be more and more interested in micro-credentials which allow them to acquire specific knowledge and skills. The demand will be for more work relevant courses or learning paths and learning experiences that prepare students for AI, AR, VR, ML, Blockchain, Big Data, Cloud, data analytics, voice deployment and more. We will see a significant thrust towards experiential learning too. We will see the emergence of top-of-the-line MasterClass formats taught by best-in-domain in every field, digitally delivered. A lot of this will be self-learning, that too self-motivated and self-funded. Adult learners will also spend more on ‘passion’ learning – hobbies or skills they always wanted to acquire but had no time for. With lesser travel, lesser likely socializing, and greater work-from-home, there will be more time for such learning indulgences.

17. Learning Outcomes versus Informed Citizenry. A vigorous debate has already been ignited on what online instruction means for learning outcomes, student satisfaction, instructor convenience, the cost of course delivery, and more. This debate, however, has been narrow and has unfortunately sidestepped discussion of the equally important implications for in-class pedagogical improvisation, student capacity to organise and express dissent and how to build courage amongst students. With the shift to online and blended education likely to continue beyond Covid-19 and become permanent, it will fundamentally transform the structure of the education system. At stake will be the monumentally important issue of the very purpose of an education system in society. Should its role be restricted to solely enhancing ‘learning outcomes’ and creating a cadre of skilled professionals? Or should it have a more expansive obligation to deepen democracy by producing an informed citizenry that is aware of its rights and possesses the capability to exercise the tools of democracy for societal progress? Time will tell.

18. Student debt crisis. This is more pronounced in the West. In India too lots of students (more their parents) are taking education loans. If the employment market does not pick up, student debt could become a serious issue.

19. Reskilling & Upskilling will gain momentum. Often during recessions, enrollment in higher education surges as more people lose their jobs and/or face a lack of job prospects. Even those employed often see economy downsides as an opportunity to enroll back in school if they were already in lower-paying jobs. Those graduating might also want to stay back in school to get a post graduate degree like was seen in the Great Recession. Courses to be pursued will surely be in technology; but vocational courses may also see a significant uptick. Except that colleges and Universities are not geared to cater to these domains, and the private sector is mostly opportunistic, shallow and expensive.

20. AI will personalise learning. The opportunities — and challenges — that the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) could bring to higher education are significant. Today’s colleges and universities face a wide range of challenges, including disengaged students, high dropout rates, and the ineffectiveness of a traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to education. But when big data analytics and artificial intelligence are used correctly, personalized learning experiences can be created, which may in turn help to resolve some of these challenges. With a personalized learning experience, every student would enjoy a completely unique educational approach that’s fully tailored to his or her individual abilities and needs. This could directly increase students’ motivation and reduce their likelihood of dropping out. It could also offer professors a better understanding of each student’s learning process, which could enable them to teach more effectively.

21. Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Cloud Computing will enable MOOC. MOOC – massive open online courses – empower teachers and students in remote areas to learn and furnish themselves with the latest knowledge. While a definitive objective is mass customization, different applications and projects will help this grow in reach and impact. Tutoring applications will be modified, with their lesson structures relying upon the execution of a one of a kind user profile. Increased data crunching will make testing an increasingly interactive marvel. AI and machine learning will be used to outline a student’s qualities and shortcomings. Individual learning rates and records will be contemplated and computed. These tests, intended to support students’ confidence in zones they exceed expectations in and challenge them in regions they don’t will become holistic methodologies to enables students to stay encouraged and motivated.

22. Examination & grading will undergo a change. AI will help teachers deal with assessment, evaluating, paper setting, making mark-sheets and tracking the performance of each student with less tedium. With these tasks made simple they will be able to concentrate more on course improvement, teaching quality and aptitude development. Artificial intelligence frameworks will also move examinations, and scoring sytems, to go increasingly digital with the role, and discretion, of the examiner reducing.

23. Chatbots will provide personalized help and guidance. Recently, The University of Murcia in Spain began testing an AI-enabled chatbot to answer students’ questions about the campus and areas of study. As this chatbot was rolled out, the school’s administrators were surprised to discover that it was able to answer more than 38,708 questions, answering correctly more than 91% of the time. Not only was this chatbot able to provide immediate answers to students outside of regular office hours, but university officials also found that the chatbot increased student motivation. All of these benefits were achieved without the need to change the structure of the staff. One additional benefit of having chatbots at universities to answer students’ questions is the large volume of big data that would be obtained regarding students’ concerns and areas of interest. This data could be analyzed to help enable universities to create innovative new services and programs to further improve students’ educational experiences.

24. Executive education will witness a sea-change. The global university-based executive education market was worth close to $2bn in 2019. But this has come to a juddering halt in 2020. Wharton Executive Education is one of the largest providers of in-person and online executive education in the world. More executives choose to learn with Wharton than any other elite business school in the world, with upwards of 12,000 attending programmes in person and over 50,000 completing online certificate courses in 2019. The decline in business caused by coronavirus at Wharton has been significant but has been partially offset by an uptick in online enrolments and by converting some in-person programmes into online courses. Be it Wharton or B-schools in India, competition is emerging from elsewhere: Israeli tech venture Jolt, for example, which runs short skills classes and specialises in live video classes led by expert tutors is seeing massive traction. Universities will need to reconfigure their approach significantly to stay relevant.

25. AR will make visualization, annotation and storytelling better. Augmented Reality (AR) is a powerful visualization tool. It allows one to bring an object or concept into a reality that is otherwise imagined, inaccessible or difficult to grasp, and can even help to make the invisible visible. All 185 first-year medical students at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) are using HoloLens and HoloAnatomy, an award-winning AR app by CWRU and Cleveland Clinic, to learn from their own homes in the lockdown. HoloAnatomy helps students learn about the human body in ways not otherwise possible. With access to the minutest details of the human anatomy in 3D, students’ learning is not limited by the availability of cadavers for dissection or 2D medical textbook illustrations. Annotation with AR helps guide through with the completion of a task, helps navigate a new environment or even provide real-time descriptions of what’s happening around. London’s National Theatre is using AR to help make its performances more accessible for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. When wearing a pair of smart caption glasses, users see a transcript of the dialogue and descriptions of the sound from a performance displayed on the lenses. AR makes new modes of storytelling and creative expression possible with experiences unfolding in real time. Introducing new and alternate perspectives, it changes the way we tell, share and even remember stories. The National Gallery of Prague is using haptics (virtual touch feedback) to help people who are blind and visually impaired experience artwork with Touching Masterpieces by Neurodigital. Wearing a pair of haptic gloves, users are able to “see” 3D virtual sculptures like Michelangelo’s David through a series of touch vibrations to the fingertips, palms and hands.

Will all this happen in education? Happen soon? My guess is perhaps not all of it. Not perhaps in India. Not for now atleast. But the more affluent West will surely see a lot of AR happening in teaching.

One can continue to discuss trends. Seemingly unimportant ones like the shift to more and more digital will kill the skill of handwriting. Even drawing by hand. Digital teaching may kill books. And that howsoever we may use technology and AI, students of science will still need labs to do experiments, medical students will still need cadavers…

Lots has to, and will, change in the field of education, and learning, in the weeks, months and years to come. One thing is for sure. We are never going to go back to the ‘pre-crisis’ era. That is now behind us. We will have to let go of the syllabus as it existed before; we will have to somewhat re-learn the ‘normal/expected’ order of classroom teaching; we will have to re-think contact hours; we will have to re-visit the notion of everyone having to do the same thing; we will have to re-examine assignments that invite cheating; we will have to recalibrate control and authority; we will have to question assumptions about what students want; we will have to tone down suspicions about student integrity; we will have to huddle together to discuss “covering the content” and “content delivery”; and of course we will have to correct perceptions about students’ access to technology and teachers’ relationship with the same.

Concurrently, educationists will have to latch on to caring for students as whole people; fostering community and connections that facilitate learning; working to understand each student’s context; collaborating with students on their learning; learning from students; responding with flexibility; engaging in conversations about the ‘difficulty of now’; challenging students to learn, not just ride out the semester; avoiding isolation and collaboration within faculties; and using students and teaching colleagues as resources and sounding boards.

Tomorrow will be a new dawn. What we make of it is entirely in our own hands. Change is desirable; change is inevitable. Change in fact has been forced upon us. Whether we use the opportunity to advantage or let it pass us by will decide whether the future will shock us or we will create shock-absorbers that will in fact use the impact to cushion us in our journey to a better tomorrow.



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