After so many months of isolation, what do we do to re-enter the new normal?

While the pandemic has jolted schools to shut down, and take on online classes, multiple things are developing. Brick-and-mortar institutional brands are no longer the gods of the space. The first preference of some is to have what they are used to but packaged in digital content. For others, it is about accessing the best even if it’s free. The traditional education funnel continues to evolve. Edutech platforms, independent of old-school schools are mushrooming. But is technology alone going to have the kind of impact great teachers do? One good teacher is all it takes to transform a student’s life.

Over the past year, there has been a loss of learning, anywhere between the whole two pandemic years to 0.9 months, depending on the vulnerability of students and the inequities in the school system. When students eventually return to school, stakeholders need to define how that is to be done. From the health and safety precautions to adopt, to the role of screens and physical classrooms, and the trauma students have suffered.

Students with high levels of self-motivation, independence, and agency have fared well in the past year, but others have suffered. The COVID year has potentially hurt a whole generation of learners. The idea of student success and achievement needs a makeover. The WHO released guidelines that the closure of school should be “considered only if there are no other alternatives.”

A theory of needs

Education is supposed to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of children in the short term while taking care of other needs in Maslow’s hierarchy in the long term. And classrooms are essentially conversations that help students understand and realize these needs for themselves. If there are no other people to really talk to, then what is the point?

While technology has opened up possibilities in the education sector, digital divides have exacerbated the flaws in the delivery of education and inequities in the social systems. From the study environment to access to technology, the internet, and quality education, these issues have larger implications for the overall performance of the education industry and economy.

Sustainability, equity, and diversity are more than pipedreams in the digital world. The screen can be an equalizer that blurs the lines between the personal and political, the home and the classroom, the student and the teacher. There has to be more to the plan than physical learning spaces, personalized experiences, and self-directed learning. Lockdowns and quarantines have impacted different students differently. Education needs to be both effective and affective this time around.

Recommitting to core needs

Socio-economic contexts

This would include everything from core skill development and instructional design for K-12 and beyond. Teachers need to be equipped for the transformation to remote and hybrid models of learning. Stakeholders must be careful to fix performance measures and contexts based on student interests, capabilities, and ambition. Can schools also extend to bridge political and economic inequalities? With the right partnerships and innovation, best-in-class schools can roll out remote learning to less fortunate neighbors.

Education systems

The education systems re-structure centuries-old policies. Some schools in Australia are shifting their school calendars to catch up on the learning loss. Other schools are obliterating entire grade levels to promote mastery-based learning with personalized smart technologies. Several edtech platforms are replicating the best of both online and offline worlds, through group study sessions, peer-to-peer learning, healthy competition, challenges, leaderboards, etc. Industry-grade data security is of utmost importance and we navigate this transition.

Reimagining social structures

Educators

Along with the integration of technology, educators need to understand that traditional learning needs to be complemented with real-world practice. Many education systems fall short of qualified, equipped teachers for lack of teacher training and development. Technology is a great opportunity for scaffolding, upskilling, and reskilling of teachers. Why cannot there be more linkages between teacher training and schools like those between med schools and hospitals? There is a vast white space that can be explored here.

Reinventing success

Student progress

While digital technology may or may not be second nature to this generation of students, schools must navigate the space for holistic childhood development. Student success today reaches beyond academic performance, it encompasses grit, socio-cultural intelligence, mental health, leadership, team play, and other such higher-order cognitive process. In a digital world, contrived classrooms are transformed into shared screens, and the opportunity to learn, interact, organize and work are endless.

Reinventing career paths for the future of work

Workplace automation is here to stay. Reduced costs, safety protocols, rapid digitization are likely to change the avatar of workplaces. Coding and internet safety needs to be in the curriculum from primary school levels. IBM for example announced the debut of a new program in response to the pandemic. Young learners can register individually for courses in cybersecurity, AI, or anything they want. The students of today are going to need digital literacy and other core skills like computer programming. Marketplace communities like CleverX, Upwork, and Fiverr are going to become increasingly popular, and increasingly beneficial for both organizations and workers.

In conclusion

The education industry is built on guessing what students will want to become years in advance and serving it up to them before they even realize they want it. Math helps you code, reading and writing help effective communication, knowledge helps innovation, and so on. But this year, the industry has an opportunity to reinvent an age-old system that is not working anymore. As we navigate the transformation, it is crucial to ask: What is the official purpose of education? What are the needs of learners in the digital world? What are the new kinds of jobs that are evolving? What is the way forward in this confusing space?

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