Education in post-pandemic times


By Dr Jorge Grünberg,  Rector of Universidad ORT Uruguay. 

The original article was published by El Pais in Spanish.  (El Pais account registration required).

All societies ponder the nature of a post-pandemic world. The way out is likely to be a lengthy and convoluted process. The change in the education system is one of the most significant given the way it will change everything else.

We might be heading towards a more digital, more unstable and potentially more unequal society. It will become more digital because we will have to live with restrictions on physical mobility and large gatherings for a long time. By and large, production, trade and interpersonal relationships will continue to be conducted via digital platforms. Pre-existing trends in intelligent automation are expected to accelerate since it will be safer and cheaper to work with fewer human workers. Governments, organizations and companies will be compelled to adapt their technology and working methods to prevailing health conditions. These fast-moving, large-scale changes include remote working, videoconferencing, widespread e-commerce, automated customer service and computerized logistics. In this new context, people will have to refresh their know-how with increasing frequency in order to remain employable. Education systems will have to prepare their students to cooperate or compete with intelligent machines.

Constant technological development generates constant change in social and economic life. The pandemic amplifies this instability since the health situation can lead to unexpected variations, restricting entire sectors of activity in a matter of days. For this reason, the daily national statistics on new positive cases or tests performed have come to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Education must prepare citizens to deal cognitively with this instability and furnish people with the skills required to adapt to the oscillations of the economy and the health situation. This will pose a strong challenge for schools. Historically, our educational approach has been focused on certainty and permanence rather than doubt and instability. Schools and teachers are symbols of certainty, the doubts of teachers are seen as demerits and the knowledge they impart is expected to be immutable.

Social and economic inequalities may deepen in the emerging post-pandemic society. Before the pandemic, this trend was already apparent through the increased appreciation of the value of knowledge in response to the automation of routine human jobs. Schools, colleges and universities now partially teach online to continue educating, but not all students can benefit equally. Students from families with less educational capital, connectivity problems, lacking their own computers or without adequate space in the home, all face greater difficulties in achieving quality online learning. These educational inequalities are bound to have long-term consequences which will be very hard to correct later in life. Those with less training will find high barriers to accessing stable and well-paid jobs and may instead find themselves forced to work in low-skilled or manual jobs.

The quantity of learning will not be the sole determining factor in the development of citizens’ opportunities. The quality of learning will be just as important, or even more so. Education should emphasize extra-curricular dimensions, like strengthening the ability to continue learning independently or to perform critical analysis of contrasting data and opinions. The current pandemic has brought us face-to-face with the vital importance of being able to shape our own opinions, for example, on the unquestionable advantages of using face masks, the privacy of tracking applications or the effectiveness of different treatments.  We can only overcome this pandemic with informed citizens who are capable of discerning the safest forms of behaviour and adopting them out of their own convictions.

Effective online teaching requires dynamic combinations of group and individual activities, both remote and in person. It requires digital repositories for students to access teaching materials, bibliographies and recorded classes. It requires personalizing the relationships between teachers and students with online or face-to-face meetings, individually or in small groups. It requires planning the safe physical use of workshops and laboratories that are essential for learning certain disciplines. Not all institutions have the specialized human resources and technology capabilities needed to implement customized remote learning. State regulations on education will have to adapt to this new era. Inflexible curricula that take years to change and that are mandatory for all institutions of all kinds nationwide will no longer be functional. Many of these educational innovations could become permanent in the post-pandemic era. After hundreds of thousands of students have experienced the advantages of participating in remote classes when they cannot attend in person, or watching recorded lessons to revise or compensate for missed classes, or having access to digital repositories for consultation, they might not be keen to return entirely to face-to-face classes. This is a great opportunity to incorporate educational innovations that should not be squandered.

We may be moving towards a more digital, less stable and more unequal world. Indeed, a democratic society like ours could face threats, but opportunities will also arise. Some jobs will be cut back but new, potentially more creative and higher-paying ones, will emerge. New activities and industries will be created to allow educated humans to add value. Our global image will be strengthened by the examples of solidarity, civic behaviour and resilience we are showing the world. A dynamic, flexible and innovative educational system can help us steer through the current situation and prosper in the post-pandemic future. As educators, this will be our challenge.