Victoria Basma, Policy Development Officer at Qatar Foundation’s WISE, on why COVID-19 may be a wake-up call for the world’s education systems.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues, it has been painfully obvious as to how unprepared our current systems are for a crisis of this nature, particularly within the education sector.
As schools across the world grapple with ways to support their students following recent closures, chaos has ensued, and the majority of students have been left without a viable way to learn remotely. Faced with a clear need to reassess our education systems, how do we move forward and redesign them in a way that ensures resilience?
Globally, 26 countries to date have shut schools nationwide, affecting a total of 37.6 million students, a number set to increase to a total of 500 million as this crisis continues. While students are, of course, at the centre of this unprecedented disruption, schools and universities are also headed for huge financial losses this year, with Australia’s education sector alone facing a downturn of £4.1 billion, partly due to the travel bans imposed on their international students.
It is difficult to determine how we should have prepared for an event like this, but the truth of the matter is that we could have.
It is difficult to determine how we should have prepared for an event like this, but the truth of the matter is that we could have. There is nothing novel about coronavirus; COVID-19 is anything but an anomaly, but rather part of a recent history of health crises including Ebola, SARS, and now Lassa Fever. Despite this, alongside a growing migrant population and increasing number of climate-affected countries, our education systems have failed to evolve in order to meet the needs of a modern student body.
Of course, remote learning has been a panacea of sorts for a long time, and Bill Gates himself has spoken about the potential for online platforms to empower students, creating opportunities for equality and social development in places that need it most. But while there have been notable successes in delivering this promise, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other forms of online education have, for the most part, fallen flat. Learning remotely relies on a number of factors for success, from high levels of student-motivation to personalized, differentiated content, all of which are difficult to achieve without teachers and specialists dedicating their time.
The development of remote learning options has mostly been the domain of civil society or the private sector, with a significant lack of investment from other education sector actors and government entities. In lieu of their contribution to this space, the private sector, in particular, has gained enormous traction. Online tutoring, for instance, has seen an annual revenue of $38.5bn in China, and predictions for this market in the US see it reaching $7.37bn by 2023.
No matter how innovative technology becomes, learning is an experiential process and fundamentally rooted in human interaction.
With teams made up of tutors from some of the world’s top universities and resources that are often far more dynamic than those offered in mainstream schools, but with sessions costing anywhere between $40-300 per hour, students from lower income backgrounds are simply left out of the equation. There are also serious questions around how far these platforms can meet the needs of students with special needs or learning difficulties.
No matter how innovative technology becomes, learning is an experiential process and fundamentally rooted in human interaction. And, as the private sector has demonstrated, there is capacity to find a compromise between independent learning and personalised support. For us here at WISE, there are examples that have proved how vital partnerships are in helping one another adapt to these strange, uncertain times.
Whilst there is, of course, a huge sense of uncertainty at the moment, one positive outcome is that this time affords us an opportunity to reset.
For the founders involved in our Accelerator program especially, there has been a collective effort to enact change quickly and learn from one another on how to support their education systems. Last week, for example, Aldo de Pape, founder of TeachPitch, hosted the first in a series of webinars focused on how edtech companies can adjust to meet the new realities of the coronavirus pandemic. In Lebanon, Kamkalima, an Arabic language learning platform, is working with local schools to provide access to their resources for free until the beginning of the new school year in September. In Argentina, the team responsible for Wumbox, an adaptive learning platform with story-driven resources, delivered intensive training for new users in preparation for remote learning as the crisis begins to take effect across Latin America.
Whilst there is, of course, a huge sense of uncertainty at the moment, one positive outcome is that this time affords us an opportunity to reset. Education has often been presumed to be a sector that is defined by academic institutions and their inflexible processes. However, the last few weeks have started to disprove these assumptions. Stakeholders from across the spectrum have proved themselves to be highly proactive, collaborative, and open to radical change.
Whether it is simply by sharing advice on how to manage learning remotely, or working together to understand how systems can be changed to meet an evolved set of needs, the collective effort seen within this sector has been a small signal of what we can continue to achieve in the wake of this crisis.