In the world of education, this must count for a miracle. Schools, colleges and universities insisted for years that online learning was not for them. With the coronavirus pandemic, suddenly, schools were able to make this rapid shift. Within a fortnight, the technology that received a hard push back suddenly became acceptable — even mandatory.

It is tough to advocate change and reforms in the education sector. The traditional university and school models have been sacrosanct for centuries. We mocked 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. Until now.

Schools quickly realised that this disruption could knock them off their perches. Schooling and higher education had been struggling for decades. Higher education survived, patching over issues with structure, tenure, research, purpose, discrimination, ambition, rigour, reach and, of course, funding. Schooling too suffered with learning lag, funding, standards, teacher motivation, pay, and the gap in preparing all students adequately.

The elite did better, since money often purchases quality. Excellence and opportunity were not accessible to all students all over the world. Indeed, as we see from the disruption, nor is survival.

Institutions adapted. They were right to do so. They needed students more than students needed them. On paper, institutions certified students. Really, students validated institutions by applying.

We are in the early months of the disruption, and already, university students across the world are questioning the value of their education and demanding discounts. Despite the huge amount of work that teachers in schools have put in to scramble to maintain continuity where they can afford it, by going online, fees are under threat. Parents don’t want to send their children to school while the physical dangers are high. Schools cannot survive this.

The disruption caused by the coronavirus disease laid bare the fact that institutions were not necessarily delivering value. The school is easily unbundled.

We just moved classes, connect, and content to online media. Soon, we will become good at it, and extend it to all. A student will be served just as well with an online curriculum delivered by star teachers across the world. Or by supervised study groups in real or virtual spaces. On demand, with customisation, this could be better than the old ways. One does not need to come into school for this. Teachers, too, can learn to create their magic via tuitions or other learning hubs.

Certification can easily be independent of schools. The information technology sector has been doing it for a while; scholastic assessment tests are not school-dependent at all. Students can register for any exams across boards, states, and countries. Exam operations can be in neutral centres, or online. We don’t need schools for exams. Administration can hardly be a reason to have schools and universities. Administration is a software now.

Neither learning, nor assessment, needs to be tethered to one hub, except to serve regulation. Regulation can reform to support the unbundled parts too.

Social and emotional learning can be found in community and group-learning experiences. One does not need specific school structures. Only sport needs local facilities. Even a corporate traineeship provides that collegial experience. A student may do better participating in a global competition or hackathon than writing tests and essays for an in-school assessment. They can find friends in the local park, or football club, 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?

Other sectors have been disrupted before, and so too can education. Ancient universities disappeared, as did entire school systems. It can happen again. The unbundling of the school package has been made visible. Schools and colleges can be disinter-mediated, and students may find it easier to directly access learning that serves their goals. For many, schools were overly rigid, restricting their personal journeys. For others, schools forced a generic pace. For some with talent, schools were limiting. 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. Schools bind students to them with laws, enforcement, a monopoly on progression, and habit.

Schools also bind students to them with the love of learning, with purpose, with direction and support. Schools and universities do provide value, but it is not where they think it is. It is not where it was. This disruption has revealed our vulnerabilities. But it has also given us a reason to seek true value.

As educators and as institutions, our task is to answer this question: What is the true value of schools? And then to deliver for value, not to habit or regulation.

Meeta Sengupta is an adviser, writer and speaker on education policy and leadership practice who curates conversations for sustainable solutions and impact
The views expressed are personal
This article was published in the national daily, the Hindustan Times on May 14, 20202, both online and in print.

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