7 Oct 2020

Will the Covid-19 pandemic change the global educational landscape?

Daniel Kirk

The global community is working its way through a crisis that is unprecedented in the modern era. The spread and reach of the virus touch all aspects of human endeavor and is indiscriminate in its impact on communities and societies. There appears to be very few, if any, sectors that have not been altered in some way by the effects of the pandemic. Sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing, aviation, financial services, and global trade have needed to change and morph into new ways of operating to remain viable and competitive, some with more success than others.

The education sector, comprising pre-school, K12, tertiary and higher education institutions, both public and private, have been widely impacted by the wave of cases sweeping across continents. What follows in this paper is a futures-type approach to exploring how the global educational landscape has and continues to change to meet the challenges presented by Covid-19.

The education sector, and education practice, has traditionally been a slow-moving beast, with change happening incrementally and often reactively instead of being fast, nimble and proactive. Of course, there are exceptions to this model but these tend to be localized and on a relatively modest scale, such as the rapid increase in K12 school construction in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to meet a growing national demand, primarily driven by national policy imperatives and governmental support through favorable terms for private school operators. Before the pandemic hit, education was already facing several problematic challenges, particularly around increasing access to primary schooling levels in many parts of the world[1].  Prior to Covid-19 taking hold, a global financing gap to meet the United Nations’ goal around quality education for all was $148 billion annually[2], an eye-watering amount required to gain equity across systems and regions. Such a gap in funding adds to the impact of any unforeseen crisis, such as Covid-19, perpetuating and exacerbating issues that already exist.

So, what does the future look like for education through a pandemic and post-pandemic lens? Across the globe, 94 percent and approximately 1.58 billion formal learners were adversely impacted by Covid-19[3], primarily through national school systems and institutional closures. What do these learners have to look forward to? Are there fundamental process changes that will remain part of our educational landscape? What opportunities do the global crisis offer? There has been a great deal of commentary lamenting the state of education and how the pandemic will shift the way the education sector operates. This insight also explores some of the potential impacts, based on the three elements of educational policy, practice, and ownership.

Educational policy

Global educational institutions are trying to educate youngsters for sectors and positions in a future economy that is unknown. The jobs that will be created in a decade have not even been thought of or designed yet due to the rapid development of technology and knowledge production. This means education policy-makers need to consider current global trends and the economic and social ambitions of their citizenry as they set out the future agenda for education.

Policy-setting that fails to recognize the challenges presented to the global pandemic’s education sector will remain vulnerable to any future widespread negative impact, whether international or local on the scale. The notion of resilience as a key element of education policy has been neglected as part of the process. In recent years, education has begun to be viewed as an instrument of national security, and through such a lens resilience and sustainability should continue to be pillars of the policy-setting framework. In a post-Covid policy landscape, policy-makers anticipate that policy-makers seek out, put resources behind, and adopt policies that do not leave national education systems vulnerable to unanticipated crises and disruption.

Educational practice

Educational policy drives practice and the manifestation of national policy decisions within the primary, secondary, tertiary, and higher education sectors. In moments of crisis, adaptation becomes reactive. We have witnessed the Covid-19 educational practice’s impact, with systems and institutions seeking a response driven by public health policies, culturally acceptable, and politically palatable. As the pandemic continues, there is an opportunity to reflect on the reactive approach and seek more sustainable, proactive and nimble practices that meet educational needs from a greater nuance and locality level.

The immediate and time-based national level closures of schools, such as in England and Wales, is a case in point. As the pandemic spread, it morphed into phased and careful reopenings based on localized and granular-level understandings. Political decision-making has always been a component of educational practice.

One anticipated development with educational practice may be the emergence of greater pioneering new models of education, blending traditional delivery modes with greater online and virtual components.[4] Such a model and approach have many benefits for the education sector. Physicality in education is not as important as it once was. The notion of a “school’” as a physical, “bricks-and-mortar’” place-based endeavor is being rethought. Do we need schools with expensive, aging buildings and all the costs associated with maintaining and staffing such plant operations? If we do, we need them in the same number and locations, or are there models that reduce school operations’ physical plant footprint? In higher education, are large, complex campuses still appealing to both students and institutions, where delivery modes can be more fluid and virtual? Is the era of a traditional, residential campus experience over? What and where is the student demand? We see large online higher operators taking an increasing proportion of learners, such as the University of Phoenix and Walden University, in the United States, highlighting demand among adult learners. Will this model morph to increasingly meet the traditional undergraduate student, post-high school, and under 25 years of age?

This paper predicts that we will witness a global shift in how education is carried out, both at the school and higher education levels, toward multiple models that redefine the traditional place-based format that we have seen to this point. The change will be slow, incremental, and look different depending on the location and governance structure. An example of what this difference may look like could be the following example of distributed learning modes. A small semi-rural school district in a midwestern American state sees the benefits of a reduced in-person schedule for students and can deliver many online curriculum elements using relatively inexpensive technology and student learning outcomes are similar to those achieved in traditional face-to-face formats.

The district can reduce operation costs by  20 percent by lowering building and auxiliary service use and personnel, passing on the savings to offering enhanced technology provision[5] and lower local taxation rates. There are pedagogical and political implications of such a move, however these would be short-term concerts as the mode of delivery becomes normalized and accepted by those involved.

As an example, at the other end of the formal education spectrum, higher education has the potential to change in even more radical ways. Growth in augmented campuses’ development will gain traction and rapidly increase as global competition for students intensifies. University leaders and funders will continue the drive toward being on the bleeding-edge of innovation and technology, creating deeper and more braided partnerships with private sector technology companies and providers. Enhancing the university experience through blended learning, employing augmented reality, and artificial intelligence technologies and creating demand for ever more innovative approaches to learning will place universities and colleges at the forefront of change.

The Internet of Things (IoT) as a technology is already sweeping around the world, mainly focused on the manipulation of devices and hardware. However, the IoT will expand the conception of a “thing”, with learning becoming one of the domains of the IoT, moving from a tangible manipulation of technology and devices to a more nebulous notion of technology-infused learning. We will see a greater urgency around research and development, and funding, of true blended-learning models, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality formats of delivering educational provision[6], in concert with policy making priorities to ensure that the delivery is manageable and accessible through large-scale national and regional technology infrastructure projects.

Such moves will create a new pathway for higher education that will trickle down to school systems. The post-pandemic educational landscape will be diffused across the available bandwidth of a particular educational jurisdiction (such as a school district, university system, or national educational curriculum), blurring the lines between place-based learning and virtual instruction, and delivery. The change will be incremental, partly due to the enormity of the fundamental shift involved and the need for political support and public funds required.

However, public demand that the avoidance of any future similar disruption to education be avoided as much as possible may drive decision-makers to focus and drive such change forward. Such shifts have implications to the status quo, with successful changes reliant on several factors that will require a seismic revaluation of how we build, staff, deliver, and fund education systems.

Social and cultural ownership and impact

Education systems have always been closely connected to, and reflective of, the communities and societies they serve. Moving from localised reach and influence, education is increasingly a global commodity with the movement and transfer of ideas, resources, expertise, and people. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the role that education plays in social structures, and a greater awareness of the fundamental impact any disruption to these systems has. Globally we have witnessed an unprecedented displacement of students from formal education. As the pandemic spread, 94 percent of learners were affected[7], sending a shockwave into national economies and impacting families regardless of location, socioeconomic situation, or status.

Global drives to move learning from formal and traditional modes of learning to virtual, online platforms is a greater challenge than purely a technological one. Maintaining academic progression caused a scramble to seek alternative delivery models with little thought around the pedagogy behind such a move. It has been made very apparent that there are deep deficiencies within the education models used worldwide, with a lack of flexibility and resilience being key indicators of systems that have not been overhauled for decades. Post-Covid education systems will need to look at what the next 5-10 years could offer, and build back better, resilient and future-proof systems.[8] This reframing of systems that have been in place for decades, often hundreds, of years will require political will and support, resources, and substantial financial investment. This will perpetuate the inequalities that exist in global education systems; however, the protection and enhancement of education financing, increasing investment through higher percentages of GDP for sustained growth, must be a policy priority for all states.

Global pandemic, localized approaches

Although the spread of the COVID-19 virus ignores all national and regional boundaries, the education sector’s response has been very local, primarily at national or regional levels of intervention. This section examines a few examples of regional responses, highlighting future-proofing elements that are being designed into the systems to ensure resilience against future similar shocks to the education sector.

One of the seismic shifts that occurred was the move to online delivery formats, which happened at different paces dependent on region and level of education. As Figure 1 below highlights, the shift to online education delivery was greatest in Asia and Europe, primarily driven by the advanced infrastructure for high-speed internet in these regions, compared to Africa. The numbers starkly demonstrate the much-discussed “digital divide” that exists around the world, with those who invest heavily and strategically into information technology infrastructure well-placed to switch to the use of technology as a buffer to respond to shocks to the system, as felt through Covid -19. Regions that do not have such robust infrastructure in place, generally those with lower GDP levels, have had to use older technology to meet their youth’s learning delivery needs. For example, at the primary level of education, Africa, as a region, only managed to deliver 51 percent of educational provision through online format instead of around 70 percent using radio broadcasting, tapping into existing technology and communication modes.[9]

Country Percentage of Online Delivery During School Closures

Source: UNESCO-UNICEF- World Bank joint database, May-June 2020,

http://tcg.uis.unesco.org/survey-education-covid-school-closures

With more than 1 billion children being at risk of falling behind due to school closures[10] or learning delivery format that are not as effective and traditional models of schooling, many in low-income countries, many governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to think about resetting what education “looks like”, primarily based on a will to ensure resilience and a realization of the importance of a stable system to the economic stability and national security of nations.

One such example is South Korea, a nation with advanced technology infrastructure, with a little over 90 percent covered by 5G high-speed data technology[11], meaning that delivery methods can be effective, fast, and fairly reliable. However, the issue moving forward is ensuring stability and security on the network, meaning that governments need to retain integrity in the systems that could be open to cyberattacks from a non-friendly actor. This issue was highlighted in the recent withdrawal of a contract between the United Kingdom government and Huawei,[12] the Chinese technology provider, based primarily on system integrity and fears over foreign access to data streams.

A final look ahead

The global disruption to education caused by the rapid spread of Covid-19 highlighted the weakness and lack of resilience in systems throughout the world. Those decision-makers and policy-makers who oversee schooling at primary, secondary, tertiary, and higher levels must now take an innovative and alternative view of education’s role and place within their societies. Governments will continue to seek ways to avoid any negative impacts of the pandemic on education or any future unanticipated disruption to the system. The government of the United Kingdom was roundly criticized in the summer of 2020 for its response to managing the national examination system of England and Wales[13].

This example of a poorly thought-out policy coupled with public concern fed by the pandemic’s uncertainty will drive decision-makers to seek ways to future-proof the system. Key factors that must be considered, and that have been neglected in various ways up to this point, are the shift from a reliance on place-based learning, student choice and (virtual) mobility, funding models that support e-learning at much higher levels, providing the resources to overcome the digital divide and more closely aligning the outcomes of education with the labor market needs of counties and regions.

What is not in dispute is that the educational landscape has altered from January 2020 to the end of the year in a way that had not happened over the preceding 50 plus years. Change continues to move forward, and there is a global scramble to build back capacity that can flex and bend to external threats. As a pillar of national security, education has been a growing theme over the last few years. The pandemic is shining a light on the understanding that disruption in education has broader implications for social stability and cohesion, economic success and development and broader public health concerns. Although the future of education will look very different depending on the context in which it exists, what is clear is that change is happening. Those who embrace the need for a radical rethink of what education is and how it is done will be global leaders and reap the benefits to their nations and societies.


References

[1] Education during COVID-19 and beyond. United Nations, policy brief, August 2020

[2] The impact of COVID-19 on the cost of achieving SDG 4, UNESCO, GEM Report Policy Paper 42, forthcoming

[3] Education during COVID-19 and beyond. United Nations, policy brief, August 2020

[4] The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Clayton, M Christensen & Henry J. Eyring, Jossey-Bass, 2011

[5] How will COVID-19 change our schools in the long run? Douglas N. Harris, Brookings, 24 April 2020, accessed online at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2020/04/24/how-will-covid-19-change-our-schools-in-the-long-run/

[6] Academia Next: The futures of higher education, Bryan Alexander, 2020, John Hopkins University Press

[7] Education during COVID-19 and beyond. United Nations, policy brief, August 2020

[8] The COVID-19 Pandemic: Shocks to education and policy responses. The World Bank Group (Education), May 2020

[9] UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank joint database, May-June 2020, http://tcg.uis.unesco.org/survey-education-covid-school-closures

[10] Education and COVID-19, UNICEF, accessed online at https://data.unicef.org/topic/education/covid-19

[11] South Korea takes global 5G leadership, ComputerWeekly.com, 8 June 2020, accessed at https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252484299/South-Korea-takes-global-5G-leadership#:~:text=About%2090%25%20of%20the%20South,a%20leading%20local%20supplier%20ecosystem

[12] Huawei 5G kit must be removed from UK by 2027, BBC.com, 14 July 2020, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53403793

[13] UK exams debacle: how did this year’s results end up in chaos? The Guardian, 17 August 2020, accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/17/uk-exams-debacle-how-did-results-end-up-chaos

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