The Black Plague, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351, is estimated to have eradicated 30-60% of Europe’s population, and may have brought about the death of 75-125m people around the world. To those fighting for survival in crowded cities, the idea that the Black Plague could change the world might have seemed outlandish. And yet it profoundly changed the course of history, ultimately ushering in the Renaissance. It shook ossified medieval society to the core – with so many deaths, opportunities opened up in previously closed guilds; lands were abandoned and available to the industrious; a renewed interest in study, in particular of Antiquity, and a new zest for life after the ordeal, moved humanity into a new era of prosperity, fueled by intellectual and technical discovery.
As millions of learners had to adapt to new ways and technologies crossed the chasm to mass usage, it quickly became apparent that there is no going back to the world as it used to be. Covid-19 is changing education in profound ways, just as in its time the Black Plague changed the world.
A thread became popular on Facebook, amid all the worries that the kids will fall behind. “What if, instead of falling behind, our children ended up ahead?” The thread generated quite a bit of controversy, as tired parents wrote about the impact of loneliness and unprocessed trauma, and yet it kept being shared. Just as those affected by the Black Plague would be startled to learn about the new, flourishing culture that the Renaissance was to bring about, today’s educational companies, institutional leaders, educators and parents may have in front of them, in the lingo of Erich Joachimsthaler, opportunities hidden in plain sight. In many ways, Covid-19 simply accelerated changes already under way, in a world of platforms and multifaceted learning. What the crisis did is dramatically alter the technology development curve, moving technology usage to mass and creating new opportunities poised for exponential growth. What are some key vectors of change likely to shape the world of education after the crisis?
- A New Wave of Learners
As expectations of a 2021 baby boom have become commonplace, a new generation of learners may be about to enter the scene, dwarfing both baby boomers and millennials. This will create new demand for education, in a world where transition to middle class in many emerging economies was already creating considerable demand and strain on the system. It may be next to impossible to meet this growing demand for education through the old model, highly labor and capital intensive. Economies that were already under strain to devote resources to education may be unable to continue doing so as resources continue to be diverted to healthcare and other priorities. This may concern state-run education in many countries of the word, but also private institutions that rely on individual giving through donations and tuition, where past rises increasingly seem unsustainable. New learning models and business models will need to be found.
- A Learner-Centric Education
This new wave of learners will have the power to pull the blanket to its side in a dramatic way, shifting away from learning organized around educators and institutions to a learner-centric model. The shift to learner centricity was well underway even before the crisis, with players who missed it increasingly losing ground, and it is by no means unique in the big scheme of things – it is no different from the shift to patient-centric healthcare, that Michael Porter analyzed already many years ago, or shift to customer centricity across so many different industries and players. In education, this shift is likely to be accelerated now that millions of learners are called upon finding a way to learn that works for them, with little support and (perhaps with freedom from?) oversight by teachers and educational institutions.
- The Empowered Learner
As learners increasingly yield more weight in assessing how education is structured and delivered, they will be able to shape things in unexpected ways. Specifically, social media is split between reports about kids bored and disengaged, and those taking ownership of their learning process – by doing creative projects after school-mandated work, finding and cultivating new interests and pursuing their curiosities as they have the time to go deeper. It becomes apparent that learning does not have one flavor or a one size fits all model – but rather can, and needs, to be bent and adapted to everyone’s individual needs and interests. Just as the Renaissance brought about a newly well-rounded individual, we may now be at a time when basic encyclopedic knowledge yields little practical value. Instead, an undying curiosity and an ability to dig deeper, willingness to engage with complex problems that have no easy answers, may be more conducive to success in life, rather than knowledge of facts that have no practical application.
- New Educational Outcomes – the End of Testing?
Indeed, the very notion of the outcome of a successful education may be changing. Forbes already called the Covid-19 time the official end of the testing era. Indeed, there are many practical problems around testing that create immediate headaches for institutions, educators and parents – will the students complete requirements for their current year? Will they be tested? How will gaps be addressed? Will they simply be moved to the following year, negating the purpose of testing? Will they have to complete this year in the next academic year? With so many unclarities, we might expect that students come back vastly different levels – in higher ed, they may have had the time to explore a favorite research subject, neglecting required coursework. In K-12, some may have spent endless hours reading, while others chose to dive into coding and robotics, leading to dramatically improved STEM skills. It may prove challenging, as a society, to bring everyone back down to the same line in the sand across subjects, as required by testing. This will mean an increased opportunity for adaptive learning systems that allow learners to move at their own pace – going faster in some areas and slowing down in others until mastery is attained.
- The Power of Data
However, the need to measure outcomes will not go away – indeed, technology can serve the need for deeper measurement than afforded by high-stakes testing at a discrete moment in time. Today’s technologies create an opportunity for measuring student engagement and progress throughout the learning process rather than at the end of it – studying correlations between various factors (from time to login to time spent on each section etc.) that ultimately allow for an understanding of patterns leading to success. As the use of technology becomes more prevalent, there may be no need to submit students to periodic testing that they resent – but rather measure their progress along the learning journey, allowing to raise flags and address problems as they arise. Ability to interpret and make usable Big Data that is generated by educational technologies will continue creating untapped opportunities – especially as a standard way to store, interpret and present the data provides a much better chance for cross-market comparison and insights extraction, favoring the emergence of platforms in EduTech.
- Technology Adoption Curve
The opportunity for a platform to emerge that puts together all different market participants to leverage data that improves performance across the board is now becoming a more viable proposition as technology adoption has made a huge leap. Indeed, received wisdom that learning can only be done through face-to-face teaching is quickly turning on its head – the current experiment became a de facto forced technology training for reluctant millions. Yes, in-person interactions will continue to be missed, but necessity is the mother of invention – it becomes increasingly apparent that technology can enhance and transform learning in profound ways.
- Learner Engagement
No, technology cannot replace personal interaction – it will always remain priceless. Nor should it. Institutions that were able to build successful online learning programs have long known that the worst way to create an online learning system is to try to transpose and replicate in-person learning. Instead, it is much more powerful to leverage technology’s intrinsic power to enhance the learning process – not only through continued loops of evaluation and performance improvement, but also through opportunities for deeper engagement of an increasingly fickle and demanding learner audience, who expect a smooth and glitch-free experience that they find in video games and social media. The holy grail will be to keep this audience engaged in the learning process the way social media keeps them glued to the screen – the race, from the likes of BrainChase to Night Zookeeper, is already on.
- Learning accessibility
Technology is not simply making learning accessible to different types of learners, beyond the traditional conceptual academic learner – from hands-on learners who love learning by doing, to visual learners or those who thrive on gamified competitions – it is simply making learning available to many. Even before the crisis, as employers such as Google started offering their own educational courses, news stories emerged about young people from all corners of the world completing these courses to land a coveted job at the technology giant. Now that technology usage becomes more enduring and commonplace, this will lead to a massive breaking down of barriers, as it will not be necessary any more to show up on a campus to receive an education (or indeed apply for a job). This will be good news for learners with disabilities – technology offers help in a way that physical environment may not – but also for non-traditional learners, from veterans to mothers, who were already changing the demographic composition of campuses prior to the Covid crisis. As geographic barriers further break down, this will also mean an ability to take any course from anywhere in the world on a topic of interest, as already evidenced by the opening of most of the world’s cultural institutions and museums to learners from around the world. Without the need of physical presence, learners today can already explore collections at the Louvre, listen to the Vienna Philharmonic, or interact with experts at NASA. This will lead to the emergence of global excellence centers; learner and researcher communities around the globe will in turn offer more opportunities to sharpen skills by interactions with the best. As barriers break down, opportunity – both educational and economic – will become available to many, creating more open markets and global competition.
So, what will this mean for education? In the short term, a need to adapt to the new reality of creating a digital educational ecosystem, truly leveraging the power of technology to enhance the learning process. In the medium term, the opportunity for platforms or networks to emerge that will leverage the power of data to enhance interaction and improve performance. In the long term, an opportunity for exponential growth, fueled by breaking a breaking down of barriers in an increasingly open field. And for learners – opportunity for an education on their terms, to truly harness their unique talents.
Just as peasants moved into Renaissance cities to create a new class of merchants and seize opportunities previously unavailable to them, who knows what new barriers will today’s learners, hunkered in their houses, break down? Who will be the partners – companies, technologies and institutions – who will help them shape their new world?
How do you see the world of learning changing?