At the beginning of April, UNESCO released a statement that 290 million students were out of school as a result of COVID-19, a number that has likely gone up since. That accounts for nearly 70% of the world's student population. The ramifications for this type of global disruption to learning will be felt long after schools reopen, with many experts in the industry predicting a radical shift in education in response.
In the past, after what are described as 'education emergencies', lasting structural changes have been implemented. As one NPR article noted, after hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became an all-charter district. Rwanda adopted sweeping education reform after the genocide of 1996.
In the cases of New Orleans, Rwanda, Puerto Rico post-Maria, or even war-torn Middle Eastern countries, restructuring has come at the local level. It needed to. But on a scale never before seen, we are facing a worldwide education crisis. This is not just a crisis for students ages 3-18, either. Trade schools, certification programs, higher ed, special education, coding camps, and so many other tracks have been disrupted. Parents are now taxed with working from home while monitoring their children's schooling. Unemployment rates are skyrocketing, and students and parents are going to seriously rethink the return on investment of going to a four-year university without the promise of employment afterward. Even though the problem exists globally, the solutions are regional. One size does not fit all in terms of restructuring education and preparing today's students to be tomorrow's workers.
What we have now is an unsustainable model, and reform needs to be organized and dramatic. In the interim, schools, teachers, and students are relying on a hodgepodge of software to fill the void, whether that be virtual classrooms, video conferencing, collaboration tools, and all types of other cloud applications. These hamstrung solutions have caused all kinds of issues, from security risks and privacy breaches to connectivity issues, poor integrations, and the failure of basic workflow functions.
Unfortunately, this crisis has come at a time when distance-learning tools are in their nascence. Add to that that virtual classrooms are only part of the path forward — they are a band-aid in a time of crisis rather than the ground-up restructuring and rethinking we need. I envision a new educational paradigm that addresses the needs of nations, businesses, schools, and students together. Elements of this reform could include:
Comprehensive virtual learning platforms
The tools for virtual learning need to get better, full stop. In their haste to keep students on track to graduate, schools have been forced into using disjointed tools, many of which were never designed explicitly for distance learning. (Zoom is not a proper substitute for a classroom, for example.) Across the board, the software is difficult to use, both for students and teachers, and leads to lower attendance, frustrated educators, lost revenue for schools and institutions, and a generally sub-par learning environment for everyone. The need for a comprehensive learning platform will only increase, and vendors should redouble their efforts to create a single solution wherein teachers can share and grade papers, certify students, video conference, schedule assignments, interact one-on-one, and share documents seamlessly. This will happen, but capturing the confidence of educators now, when they need it most, will be critical in determining which software wins out.
Better privacy and security standards
A recent white paper published by Osana found that, "Companies with the least rigorous privacy practices are nearly twice as likely to suffer a data breach than companies with excellent data stewardship." This rings true when looking at Zoom's recent privacy woes, including one instance where a Church's Bible-study video conference was 'Zoom bombed' by a hacker who then showed the group pornography. Given that Zoom, which during COVID-19 has seen its user base jump 21%, has become a principal tool for teachers, education institutions should pay close attention to the privacy and security standards of their virtual tools, especially when dealing with children. Most software providers, many of whom are eager to get into the space of virtual classrooms, compromise on user privacy, often hosting trackers on their properties that feed usage data to technology companies like Twitter, which itself just suffered a significant data breach. A virtual learning platform is only as secure as its weakest app, which means educators should seek out tested and secure all-in-one platforms, needing as few ancillary apps to function as possible.
Service Learning programs
Just because we need a global answer to education doesn't mean the mechanisms for that change need to be universal. What works for India, say, doesn't necessarily work for New Orleans. Service Learning programs, in which students apply what they learn in the classroom (either online or in-person) to community betterment and relief initiatives has a two-fold benefit. For one, students gain first-hand knowledge of their specific community's needs. If your community needs more low-income housing, for instance, that could influence a student's area of study-from chemistry to engineering, say.
The second benefit of service learning is how it can endear and ground students to their community and region. Too often talent is cultivated in one town or city or country only to be exported to another one that promises more opportunity in their area of study. At the same time, governments need to do a better job aligning their profitable industries and businesses with the growing talent of their citizens. India has produced some of the best software engineers and tech talent in the world, however, without the jobs and companies to employ them at home, they find opportunity elsewhere, and the same is true for industries and countries and employees across the globe.
Smaller classrooms in smaller cities
Mass urbanization has come at a high cost. Only now, with COVID-19, have the intrinsic vulnerabilities of decades-long urbanization come to light. But that too is changing. Take the news of Twitter and Facebook pursuing a mostly if not entirely remote workforce. You can imagine in the United States, those tens of thousands of employees leaving the Bay Area-where cost of living is prohibitively high-for smaller towns and cities across the country or even around the world. The impact of this will be huge and could eventually lead to a global rural revival. The technology is already there, with broadband strong enough to support telework and virtual learning in even the most remote areas, essentially democratizing access to good jobs and good education.
Already, schools in mega-cities around the globe are extremely taxed, forced into broad, uninspiring curricula that simply moves millions of students toward an uncertain future. A more distributed population will lead to smaller class sizes, new schools, and again an increased dependence on powerful virtual education platforms, giving students some agency in what they want to learn and how.
In addition, with the promise of being able to work remotely, students are less inclined to leave their communities to seek employment in major metropolitan cities. I anticipate more specialized education programs geared toward professions that service their local economies. Zoho Schools in India is one such example, where students who have or more often don't have a college degree can study technology, design, and business for free (with a stipend) and upon successful completion of the course, students are automatically inducted as Zoho employees. Graduates can also pursue careers at other companies in the area.
A hybrid of in-class and at-home learning
Ultimately schools will open back up, much to the elation of parents, teachers, students, and schools. After all, social interaction is critical to development, and kids around the world are justifiably missing their friends. What shouldn't happen when schools open is that we return to the status quo. That applies to business as well, those who have relied so heavily on remote working tools. COVID-19 has pushed developers to build better solutions faster, and the response has by-in-large been significant.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. There are programs like the Florida Virtual School, started in 1997, which provides award-winning online learning courses for students grades K-12. The school is free, but only for Florida residents. Imagine if this level of virtual learning could be extended globally, lightening the load for brick-and-mortar schools while up-leveling the quality of education available to those living in remote or under-served areas.
For this reason, I propose schools, like businesses, adopt a hybrid education strategy that involves some in-school learning, preferably with smaller classes that are more evenly distributed across countries and regions, as well as some virtual learning to reduce the burden on institutions and encourage avenues for specialized education oriented toward specific industries and trades.