Education without schools: This year has been a challenge for students, teachers, and parents as the pandemic caused perhaps the biggest global disruption to education ever. More than 1.5 bn children lost out on valuable teaching time as schools closed, forcing education leaders and teachers to get creative with new technologies, and governments to accelerate investment in digital infrastructure to keep curriculums on track.
It’s not just the medium that may change: We’ve written a lot this year about how technology may make brick-and-mortar schools less essential to the learning process (see the entire October Your Wealth issue, for instance). But the pandemic may also encourage other fundamental changes to the education system, more indirectly influenced by technology.
Sami Nassar, a professor at the National Egyptian E-Learning University, says the crisis only makes it more important for policymakers to shake up the subjects we teach to our children. Speaking during a UN event (pdf), he called on Arab governments to place far greater emphasis on digital literacy and teaching advanced technological skills that will be vital to the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Teachers may face an identity crisis: Rising technology also means teachers will need to rethink their roles as educators as more students than ever access knowledge with a click of the button. Instead, teachers will need to teach children skills to navigate the huge amount of information they meet through skills such as critical thinking, debating, and responsibility.
There could be many left behind in a future of digital learning: Remote education requires things that may not be readily available in many families: access to a machine and suitable supervision, preferably in a quiet, undisrupted place. Technology is not equally distributed on a global or local scale and in many domestic situations parents might not be able to afford staying at home with their children. Although 2020 has seen a significant expansion of edtech in Africa, only 19 mn of the continent’s 450 mn children are actually using it, and the majority of these are watching TV shows. In Egypt, only around 8 mn people are subscribed to ADSL services out of a population of 100+ mn and many children in rural areas don’t have access to a laptop or tablet to attend lectures.
The silver lining: An increasing digital divide could put pressure on policymakers to increase spending on education, providing rural communities the digital infrastructure they need to access remote learning resources.
Let’s not forget the benefits of the classroom: Positives of distance learning aside, children are losing out on valuable social experiences that they would get in a physical classroom. Face-to-face interactions influence a child’s performance, morale, and productivity and sitting in front of a screen all day for education and leisure could have a negative impact on their development. “Distance learning can never fully replace the physical classrooms. Schools are much more than places for learning. They provide social networks, safety and well-being for children and youth,” says Finland’s education Minister Li Andersson.
The classroom isn’t about to become a relic of the past: This goes to show that, while technology may provide better pedagogical tools and easier access to information, it’s hard to imagine that schools will face an existential crisis any time soon. Rather, most of us are likely to settle into a new reality of blended learning, with technology playing a greater supplementary role to in-class learning.