We are not out of the woods yet. But we are running out of patience. This is true of most of us stuck here in the pandemic, but particularly so for those of us in education. We have literally been at a standstill as far as conventional visible education goes, and for many millions, we have regressed. The progress we have seen has been substantial, but limited to those who have good access to technology and safe spaces. Even here, we are chafing at the bit, with students and parents alike keen to go back to what was familiar.
This is when two things are likely to happen. One, we are likely to make mistakes, as our instincts take over from our self restraint so far. And I am not only talking about public health, but also of pedagogies. Second, we are going to start feeling our way in the dark for post pandemic strategies. Both of these are related. Our post pandemic world will be made of forces that we unleash now – including our mistakes. And our successes.
Three truths are self evident, coming out of the pandemic. We are going to be faced with large educational inequities. Some of us would have received fairly continuous education, not very different in content from what we received in classrooms, the rest would have been cut off from learning to a lesser or larger extent. The world will have to face up to this gap, and deal with it.
Two, we would have innovated and experimented as never before with digital pedagogies, and much of what we learnt will feel incremental if we are only aiming to be as good as we were in the past. Most teachers and edu systems that moved to online learning would have aimed to be only as good as they were previously. This is a small goal, and if we are only trying to replicate the outcomes of the physical world with tools from the virtual world, we would have under-served ourselves. The first fall out is that our educators will find the shortest path to the old goals, and we will crystallise all our old mistakes and new shortcuts and call it a good pedagogy. Our new world will be made up of these short cuts (though it was really hard work to even make it to here), mistakes, and stop gap measures in addition to some brilliant new ways of working. We will be inheriting a pedagogic mixed bag from the pandemic, and it will take years to untangle this bag of threads. Three, we would have built new capacities within ourselves to learn in different ways, and learnt to respect different types of learning, not just those validated by certification systems. Our insecurities and need for scale will inevitably lead us back to some validation overlords, but we will not be as dependent on them as we were before the pandemic. Learning has broken out of the four walls of the classroom, and the stories of its success or otherwise will determine our self confidence in auto didactic learning pathways, for life.
Education in the post pandemic world will succeed if four solutions are found during and before the end of the pandemic. If we are able to work our way through these four, we will be in the sunlit uplands, come the end of the pandemic. If we are not able to solve for these four, we will be struggling with them, and their consequences for the job market, social welfare, progress and pace for decades. Here are the four. (i) Work on social and emotional learning in the new circumstances. It does not mean the same things that it did for us, who did school over a decade or more ago. Friendships, support structures, loyalties, punch ups, learning moments, team bonding, personal growth – all of these mean different things in the real world and it will not be enough to lead some discussion sessions with virtual groups. We will need to build for the realigning of physical and virtual distances – and the new kinds of relationships that we have between humans and bots, and more. Yes, Alexa might be your students’ most reliable friend, and not the person they used to sit next to in class. Your students may be mentored by a person sat across the world, may be informed by a curation engine, may be in a relationship with multiple partners within and across different social media apps, and may build their deepest friendships with real people via virtual communities of care. This is not a world that educators have experienced before, but must lead. (ii) Work on modular learning that will aid those left behind, both episodically and systemically. Whether it is an episode of depression, of abusive domestic situations, of family weddings, a political rally or harvesting season, some students have always slipped behind on some learning. It has only exacerbated in this new world of learning, because our physical scheduling is not necessarily aligned to the school anymore. We can continue our virtual lessons from grandma’s house across the world, or sleep over for days at different friends’ houses, logging on for lessons and maybe getting it or not. Teachers are working hard at it, but lets face it, it is hard to hold the centre. Systemically, of course, those without good technology and community or home support for learning will lag. In order to beat the lag which is at it’s most visible now, we need to build catch up modules. Post pandemic, these are a great basis to build life long learning for those who missed it, and for those who want to grow up again, differently. This is an investment that must be made now – these modules will be the stepping stones for this generation to continually progress. If we do this now, they will make it in the post pandemic world. If we do not, they will sink, taking us down with them. (economics, bad AI, inadequate development for good decision making etc.) (iii) Collaborations will be the way to progress learning and growth, but success will be even more competitive than before. Whether it is a singer, or a scientist, the early part of their growth is unlikely to be wholly dependent on their schools of learning, it will be built by the projects and collaborative exercises they create across the globe, reaching out virtually. While the base will be made by these collaborative projects, the success spike will necessarily, by definition, have to rise above ALL of these – much more demanding of early and mid career professionals. How we handle this collaboration to competitive success during the pandemic for our youth will determine the shape of the post pandemic world. It will be a kinder, more supportive world if we are able to enable collaborative success now, and it will be a winner takes all world if we allow the drift to a success spike world. Success was always about climbing a mountain, the shape of the mountain has changed – the first base is necessarily collaborative now. The journey to the top could be a series of lonely spikes, or shared communities of progress. How we treat (and reward) collaboration and competition now, during the pandemic determines the nature of the post pandemic world. (iv) Our reevaluation of what is important will impact the content and nature of learning in the post pandemic world. The pandemic has made us more isolated, bereft of the reassurances of our local communities – and that makes us more insecure beasts. The pandemic has also made us slow down, build closer relationships with those within our bubbles, value our sunshine and laughter more, especially since it is so fragile. Our worlds have become smaller, and huger at the same time, as the physical recedes and the virtual spreads outwards. How we handle this dichotomy will determine what we mean by hybrid learning in the near future, what we mean by a peer learning group, what makes up our study circles and how we approach our aspirations. For many, our definition of success will be about local survival, and that means including those skills in our curriculum. Every one should have a trade, every one should know how to build and run a local vaccination circle – these may be the contours of learning post pandemic. How we deal with our newly dichotomous world will determine our values and priorities, and these will become the curriculum, and indeed the shape of the school post the pandemic.
It is brutally easy to give five predictions for the post pandemic world. I shall do so, for the sake of completeness. But reflections on the four above, though complex, are more useful. Here come the five – education in a post pandemic world. One, we will still consider schools to be the hub of learning, not just because resources flow through schools, but because mentoring circles need a magnetic centre. This will naturally gravitate towards the known format called schools. Much of the school’s traditional hold will dissipate with better use of technology (e.g. registering for examinations, accessing content) and the core value of schools will be the driver for development. Two, the pandemic learning lag will need schools (and universities) to invest in systemic scaffolding structures, and these may need to be outsourced. Lag learning will lead to lifelong learning modules, and this is an opportunity for social enterprises to leverage technology and redefine constellations of learning. Three, post pandemic learning will build on capacities created during the pandemic. These are not just online learning sessions, though that is the visible part of this mountain. The real capacities include administrative and assessment efficiencies, flexible mindsets, augmented interactions, massified virtual learning environments and more. These and other capacities will grow learning in directions not seen before – and will lead the transformation in education. Four, Funding gaps in learning in the post pandemic world will exacerbate the pandemic led inequity in education.While we were hoping that we had reached a point where public funding would drive quality, the pandemic has made us regress on these ambitions. Funding is likely to pivot towards public health. Within Education, national and multilateral funding will have to refocus on the basics of access, foundational learning and indeed attendance – or engagement connect – as it evolves. This necessary concentration will mean that private funding will progress education innovation and breakthroughs, as it has often in the past. The inequity will show through not just in volumes, as noted before, but in quality too, with the privately funded being educated to redesign the shape of the world, and the mass being trained to run it, or be run by it. This differential is a natural consequence of the pandemic, but can be mitigated. Five, and finally, the post pandemic education universe is going to be defined by the pull to the prior. We will see a phase when everyone wants to go back to the pre pandemic ways of learning, and we will continue to see investments in the old structures, both physical and virtual – and mental, for a few years. For example, education people still require periodicity, akin to the time table, to arrange learning and feel terra firma. This is so different to the way we engage with say, entertainment now, which was subject to prescheduling on radio and television, and now is consumed with much more choice and control. The pull of the prior will be despite the pandemic, not a consequence of the pandemic. The tension between the possible and the prior will play out in the ‘new normal’ – which will prove to be the hiatus before genuine progress.
The post pandemic ‘new normal’ would have run its course when we finally realign learning structures, a journey that has already begun. The interesting thing to look forward to is the end of the ‘new normal’ muddle and the start of the “Next As Normal” for learning structures. This is when we will know that the structures have finally caught up with teachers and learners.