The COVID-19 crisis mustn’t be used to rationalize hasty education reforms

The use of ed-tech tools in an emergency does not obviate the need for evaluation and testing
Birthe Van Der Veken, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Birthe Van Der Veken, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Just three months ago, few of us had even heard of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Yet today, it is no exaggeration to say that COVID-19 has transformed the lives of people around the globe – leaving us uncertain about almost everything. This has prompted many people to consider what the world will look like post COVID-19.

“Pandemic futurism” is on the rise. Although it is useful and necessary to imagine what the world will look like when we can safely resume some semblance of social and economic activity, we need to think critically about the future, especially when it comes to education and the future prospects of our children and youth.

“There is nothing inherent in what we hope to be a temporary global health crisis that necessitates a radical, rushed reimagination of education in one particular direction.”

One of the most consequential changes wrought by COVID-19 is the closure of schools in countries around the world. Within a matter of days, and without warning, students have moved from sharing classrooms with their peers, learning in groups, exchanging views spontaneously, preparing for the school play or playing outside, to staying at home, isolated from their peers, and spending much of their time in front of a screen or being “taught” by their parents.

This educational crisis has triggered calls for sweeping changes in the way we structure education going forward. Advocates of the controversial and arguably somewhat vacuous concept of “21st century skills” have jumped on the “pandemic futurism” bandwagon to argue that the current global health emergency represents an opportunity to reimagine education.

“Diverse approaches are, and will continue to be, both the strength and the Achilles heel of education.”

Arguments for using COVID-19 as a basis for reimagining education are predicated on at least two fundamental assumptions: 1) that the ways in which education was delivered pre-COVID-19 suffered from major flaws that are in need of urgent remedy; and 2) that the delivery of education online (through educational applications as well as synchronous and asynchronous online teaching) will enhance education.

With respect to the first assumption, it is important to remember that prior to this crisis, there was no consensus on a single factor that would lead to significant improvements in education. Education is one of the major forces that shape and are shaped by culture, and it therefore needs to be the subject of evidence-based debate, whether or not we are in the midst of a pandemic.

There is nothing inherent in what we hope to be a temporary global health crisis that necessitates a radical, rushed reimagination of education in one particular direction. Diverse approaches are, and will continue to be, both the strength and the Achilles heel of education.

“Online education in all its forms is necessarily an approach with limited, largely untested, pedagogical benefits.”

Let’s look at the second assumption. Perhaps more than any prior global crisis, COVID-19 has highlighted the role of technology in our lives. In times of social isolation and physical distancing, we are using online tools such as video conferencing services to connect with and learn from one another. This also includes young learners, who are connecting with their teachers and interacting with their friends online more than ever before.

What does this mean for the future of education? Probably not very much. The online learning that is taking place right now is not the same as in normal times, when students would also interact with their teachers and peers in the physical world. They are learning in isolation and, if they are lucky, their schools have provided some semblance of online learning opportunities.

“Let’s think critically, recognizing that the future of education has always been uncertain, and that this will continue to be true even after COVID-19 has ceased to be a threat.”

Debates about the role of technology in education are not new, and neither are the opportunities and challenges that technology represents for education. COVID-19 has not suddenly changed what we know works in education, nor has it changed the fact that evidence about the efficacy of most online learning tools and applications is lacking or suffers from major flaws. Online education in all its forms is necessarily an approach with limited, largely untested, pedagogical benefits.

Put simply, a global health crisis should not be viewed as an opportunity to make untested changes in the future direction and scope of education. COVID-19, with the collateral damage it is causing – unemployment, financial insecurity, the need for homeschooling, rising domestic violence and more – is by no means a neutral background against which we can imagine the future of education or anything else.

Uncertainty can be a good thing; let’s embrace it and not prematurely reach for simple solutions or seize on this crisis to propose ways to transform education. Let’s think critically, recognizing that the future of education has always been uncertain, and that this will continue to be true even after COVID-19 has ceased to be a threat.

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