Given the density of schools and campuses, it is no surprise these were the first to lockdown. And in the short time between then and now (which has admittedly sometimes felt like decades), most students have somewhat seamlessly adjusted to virtual learning, virtual socialising, and even virtual graduation ceremonies. The future of education and the impact of this turbulent period will not be unremarkable though the exact form it will take remains unpredictable. In a period defined by learning curves and painful lessons , what can we learn about the way the world is changing from the education sector?
Before the crisis struck, developments in the world of education were tethered to the changing world of work. As we discussed in part two of this series, changes in society have now rendered higher and further education unnecessary for attaining ‘success’. While some communities and classes remain wedded to the notion of higher education as foundation for a prosperous life, others have moved far away from these, recognising other opportunities to thrive. A key turning point in this has undoubtedly been the premiums now attached to further education and the diminishing value proposition of these agreements. In the UK, tuition fees have grown to £10,000 (for domestic students; £20,000+ for international) and in the US they continue to astound with the best undergraduate degrees costing into the tens of thousands. For students who utilise the not-always benevolent loans companies, they begin their professional careers in varying, but often crippling levels of debt, which recipients spend the beginning years of their professional lives paying off. Scholarship systems have gone some way to advance meritocracy, but these systems have nigh on abandoned average students.
With the onset of this crisis, this well established but not always revered system has been thrown in turmoil. Most universities and colleges were the first to ‘shut up shop’ taking learning and socialising online. Schools with younger students have followed suit and switched to remote or home learning, with weary parents playing double duty as teachers alongside day jobs. For children of essential workers, schools with skeleton staff have opened but this too has been riddled with issues. Ceremonies such as proms and graduation have also moved online with heart-warming effects, including this viral commencement speech delivered to the global class of 2020. Advocates of the system have claimed that the emergence of COVID-19 has merely accelerated the pace of digitalisation in education. However the seemingly forgone conclusion that this is to the benefit of the sector, is not necessarily the case.
In fact, few have highlighted the detrimental effects of remote, technology-led teaching, notably in expanding the gap between the privileged and those who have less. The wider struggle between public and state sector shows a clear worrying trend. Where the private sector has been able to readily digitalise, with virtual learning environments such as blackboard, moodle and firefly linking children to their lessons, state schools have been less readily able to mobilise such systems at scale. Even where state schools are able to mobilise these environments, under the auspices of the current digital educational system, families that have 4 children will need 4 laptops or devices. This is not always a reality. Technology lending schemes and relative cheap non- branded technology has gone some way to help mitigate the gap but as ever, better access to resources and tools put some children ahead others.
For firms and companies to whom diversity is a perennial concern, this should be worrying. The diversity cause begins far before the job application hits the recruiters table. Firms concerned with diversity should note that the process begins as early as primary school, with each year progressed acting as a gate which sadly filters more minority and disadvantaged groups out. This period is already predicted to have a marked impact on students, especially those at crucial periods in their educational journey. Before this crisis, statistics showed that 50% of BAME students are more likely to drop out of university. Given a turbulent gap in educational standards which disproportionately detrimentally affects people of colour and those from lower-socioeconomic communities, we can only predict that this number will rise in future. This has a huge implication on diversity in future workforces.
Away from the potential detriment in learning standards, a switch to virtual also has wider implications. Like offices, educational establishments are spaces for learning by osmosis; in watching, observing, and interacting – these practices cannot be easily replicated online. A longstanding trope in Hollywood has been the story of the maverick teacher who inspires their students to look at the world in a another way (see: the history boys, dead poets society, Good Will Hunting…etc) Though Hollywood adds a certain panache, these stories are not too far removed from the truth, teachers do hold great power and influence in the lives of their students. These relationships are almost inevitably built on small gestures and face to face interactions. While they might not be impossible, they are certainly difficult to replicate online. Critics of this will state that most of these students are Gen Z-ers who do not know a world without technology and therefore they are used to such interactions. To this, two points; First, familiarity is no replacement for the finest. Second, one of the greatest jokes about technology is that it is constantly evolving. Before you know it, you are out of date. For Gen Z-ers, stating that their predilection to technology is the basis of their success deprives them from learning life skills away from the technology they know. So many of these life skills are learned by watching and observing. Digitalization of the educational sector at every level is certainly a good thing. But it cannot be the only thing.
Yet, while there is a need, people will find a way. Accordingly, there has become an almost wartime ideology attached to education and COVID-19; keep calm and carry on. The only benefit of parents doubling as teacher was highlighting the fantastic work done by teacher throughout the globe. No one expected parents to be as good as the teachers, but it was an effort that needed to be done for the greater good. However, when we think of virtual classrooms, we fail to appreciate that they are not the same as real classrooms. This is a problem. The shambles of zoom classrooms have has been well depicted online: from technological ineptitude and whimsical insights into the lives of professors to more serious criminal acts, the virtual classroom is a world away from what students know of real classrooms. In our pioneering, dig-deep mentality we run the risk of conflating the two to such point that the virtual becomes the norm. Neither is dreadful and neither is perfect, they are different and appreciating such differences can help bring out the best features in both.
In part three of this series, we detailed the ways COVID-19 has changed the workplace. In this, we suggested that a ‘hybrid approach’ with some time at home and some at the office would be doubly formidable. Similarly, why should we not apply the same reasoning to students and the educational sector? The two are not so dissimilar; offices become campuses, workers become students and bosses become educators. We cannot explore the future of work, without first thinking about the future of education. Like offices, Schools and universities are not just containers for people while they learn, they are also repositories of both great trauma and great joy; the stories and memories gained here go on to inform lifetimes of behaviour. For vulnerable students, they are also sites of sanctuary. At the moment, they are dangerous but going forward, once schools and campuses are able to re-open, perhaps they too should consider a hybrid approach. With Cambridge University publicly stating that all teaching will be online until 2021, it is likely other establishments will follow suit. Whether this is an example of caution-led strategy or liability surpassing learning remains unclear, but with workplaces and other non-essential businesses slowly opening across July, the question of exactly what education students are paying increasing premiums for will be the question on everybody’s lips. That these students will revolt against such premiums for a wholly virtual education may not be such a far stretch of the imagination.