In the world of education, this must count for a miracle. Schools, colleges and universities had insisted for years, nay, decades, that online learning was not going to work for their classes. The teachers were not trained, the students would not engage, the curriculum would not suit and so on. They may have been right, for it was rare for online learning to show learning gains greater, or even equal to those of regular classes. At best, we educators conceded, that blended learning would both support and engage students.

(another day on why online did not succeed. tl:dr it was done badly. It will succeed now)

Come the virus, and it’s serious implications for rapid spread in gatherings, schools found it in themselves to make this rapid shift. Within a fortnight, the same technology that received hard pushback from everyone – teachers, administrators, leaders – suddenly became acceptable, and even mandatory. The education sector is a tough sector to advocate change and reforms. The most common response to anything wonderful but new is a ringing endorsement of the idea, for others. “It’s a great concept, but it won’t work in my classroom”. We are masters at finding ourselves as exceptions to change, even as we know that it might be better for students. We do like our old ways, which is why the traditional University model has remained revered for seven centuries at least, and the school model for at least two centuries. We mocked it, and called it industrial age education, assembly line teaching. Songs were written about how schooling was like a sausage factory, and each student just another brick in the wall. The wall remained unmoved.

Then, what was it, that caused this entire sector to move so rapidly, and sure-footedly in the face of this pandemic? And that too at a time when teachers and lecturers kept on insisting that this was a temporary blip and would be over before the summer. They could well have treated it as an extended break. Losing a term, or a semester is not such a big deal, the education world is used to working 36 weeks a year in terms of student contact time. Then what was it that galvanised such a dramatic shift – so much so that all of us moved to another medium entirely when we could. And for those who could not, for the internet is still a luxury that is available only to the rich in the world, there was this angst of knowing that the rich were racing ahead again.

Such rapid transformations happen only when there is an instinctive understanding that unless we adapt, we shall not survive. The education sector got that, and very early on decided to survive. I correct myself. Educational institutions – schools and universities – realised that they would not survive if their students were given even a quarter off. The disruption would be too much, and would lead to consequences that would be detrimental for conventional learning systems. The choice was simple, either adapt rapidly, and maintain the connect and control over your – dare I say it – market, or they will go elsewhere, and find other ways to learn and grow. They adapted.

If schools and universities realised this so quickly, then this must have been something that they were thinking for a while already. No one fears redundancy so rapidly, especially when you’ve had a hold of the model and process for seven centuries. There must have been an underlying fear, and insecurity, a deeper realisation that they were already obsolete in the twenty first century. The disruption caused by the virus would only make it visible that these institutions were not necessarily delivering value. It was a well hidden secret that the institutions needed the students more than the students needed the institutions. While it seemed, on the surface, that the institutions certified the capacities of the students, it was really the students who were validating the institutions. One look at the greatest of higher education institutions will show this to be self evident – that the best students applied to them, thus validating their greatness.

The higher education sector had been struggling for decades. Of course there were exceptions where some institutions excelled all the time, and all institutions excelled some of the time. And so they survived, patching over deep and fundamental issues with structure, tenure, research, purpose, discrimination, ambition, rigour, reach and of course funding. Higher education was more precarious than school education, where the problems were more visible, but at least schooling was seen as essential for every child. Here too were issues of learning lag, funding, standards, teacher motivation, pay, and fundamentally, their inability to prepare all students for life and mobility. The elite did well here too, for often money does purchase quality, but this was not universally true, nor was excellence accessible to all students all over the world. Indeed, as we see from the disruption, nor is survival. 

We must ask this fundamental question – what is it that schools deliver, that cannot be done in other ways? Pure knowledge, it can be gathered in tuitions (oh, how they are feared!) and with books and other resources, including online. Classes? Well, we just demonstrated how they can be done online, right? One does not need to come into schools. Sports? Most good cities and areas have local sports centres, they can step up their engagement with the community. Teachers? Teachers too can learn to create their magic without necessarily needing students to be in school full time. What do most schools really deliver? Certification and administration. Certification can easily be done differently without schools at all. The IT sector has been doing it for a while, SATs are not school dependent at all. Students can, in theory, register for any exams they please, across boards, states, countries – and take those exams in neutral centres, or even online. We don’t need schools for exams. And administration can hardly be a reason to validate the need for schools and universities.

What is it then, that makes us believe that schools should survive in their current format? What value do they actually provide to their students? Some do rightly say, the experience. The collegiality, the social skills and the ability to discover oneself. Again, these can be done in a variety of of community and group learning experiences, one does not need specific school structures for this at all. Even a corporate or industry that hires trainees for a year before allocating them a role in the organisation can provide that collegial experience.

Other sectors have been disrupted before, and so too can education institutions. The unbundling of the school package has been made visible to students, parents, teachers and other educators. Schools and colleges can be disinter-mediated, and students may find it easier to directly access the kind of learning that will lead them to find their own goals and maximise their potential. For many, schools were overly rigid, and restricted them in their personal journeys. For others, schools forced a generic pace, which did not suit them. For many, schools were limiting, in the light of their talent and genius. All teachers know, that much of their energy and effort at school is spent in boxing in a variety of students into one set of curricula and goals. Students are not a homogenous group, they are not robots or widgets, and now, having tasted a bit of freedom, one wonders if they may not want to explore it a bit further. The disruption from the virus is going to change the nature of schools for the near future, at least for a year or two. Some parents have already shared their fears about sending their children to schools and universities which would be likely hotspots for catching the virus. Teachers and staff are already wondering if they are safe enough when they go into schools, even with new protocols in place. With social distancing comes the stifling of personal connect, and comes another barrier to engagement. It is going to be tough on teachers, and it is going to be tougher on young students who will ask – as they have been – what am I doing here? Why am I here? The next question inevitably follows – is there another way to find my future?

Schools have relevance still,we know this. Not just because they adapted fast to online learning, not just because they provide a range of experiences, not just because some of them have great teachers. But the purpose of school certainly is not content, curriculum, assessment, administration or certification. These, we have already agreed, can be unbundled and given away to other entities. A student would rather participate in a global competition to solve for global health, than write tests and essays for an in-school assessment. A student would be served just as well with an online curriculum delivered by star teachers across the world, delivered online. Or by study groups that form in real or virtual spaces. They can find friends in the local park, or in football club, or cricket practice, not necessarily at school. If school finds itself parcelled out, then it must ask itself this existential question – what is the true value of school?

Schools and universities do provide value, but it is not where they think it is as of now. This disruption has revealed our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and our insecurities to us. But it has also given us a sense of where our true value lies, as educators and as institutions. This is what we need to find, amplify and grow, and only then shall we remain relevant to this century.

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