We knew education needed to change. And we knew technology could play a role.
For years, I’ve spoken and written about the future of education. In 2017, I wrote a paper about a young woman named Angela who travelled the world learning from experts, collaborating with peers in far-flung places, and checking in with her learning concierge. A vast pool of data informed her concierge’s recommendations, and her work was loaded into a portfolio transferable across curricula and countries, her accomplishments stored in the blockchain.
In 2017, we already had the technology to create this vision — far from futuristic speculation, the story was a realistic possibility with the right investment. Our education system was not fit for purpose and we were ready to address it.
Something felt ‘off’ though. Angela connected with others and had endless opportunities. But, even as I wrote the piece, Angela’s experience felt solipsistic.
Angela’s personalized learning felt somehow impersonal, and issues of privilege and equity went unaddressed.
Distance learning both affirmed and challenged Angela’s narrative. With the right resources, we know we can digitize schools quickly. We can create further customization and new opportunities for students. But we also need community. And younger children — and their parents — need much more than the platform can deliver.
The future of education has proven to be far more complex and interesting than any positioning paper or Ted Talk could ever predict.
The economist Schumpeter wrote about cycles of creative destruction: the phenomenon of firms’ entry and exit following the introduction of new technologies and the ensuing innovation. This leads to a period of change — when some business models fail and new business models emerge. Some firms enter and some firms exit. Many economists who followed Schumpeter examined additional forces that influence firms’ entry and exit. These forces may include government regulations, globalization, culture, natural disasters, and organizational leadership.
Creative destruction can be seen more easily in industries with lower barriers to change than education — entertainment, for example (the demise of the video store vs. the rise of streaming). Education was ripe for disruption before COVID-19. Emerging technologies supported new platforms for learning and news ways of using data to support learning. Government regulators, like the UAE’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, created sandboxes for experimentation and innovation. Alternative models, including online schools or blockcert credentialing, were old news by 2020. And, COVID-19 showed that we could change rapidly with the right resources. COVID-19 has also exposed significant challenges regarding equity, access, and preparedness for change.
Reimaging education is easy. Reinventing is hard. To truly reinvent education over the coming years will take longer and be much more complex than simply moving a school onto TEAMS or Google Classroom. 2021 will be a transition year, in which we harvest the lessons of 2020 and design for a better tomorrow. While doing so, we need to keep these short- and medium-term objectives in mind.
Address the basics with equity and well-being (2021):
With many children around the world in distance learning for over a year by the time they return to school, it will take time to discover the academic, social, and mental health impact of such sustained absence, but there are a few things we can do right away:
- Marie-Kondo curriculum and assessment: Jal Mehta, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor and Shanna Peeple, 2015 US National Teacher of the Year, suggest that we focus on essential learning for a year and “let go of the rest.” To do this effectively, we need to clearly map curriculum priorities, identify learning gaps, and engage in data-driven instruction.
- Address literacy: Reading is a complex process and essential to success in school. Teachers work hard to create phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and syllabification skills to help children prepare to read. This is hard to do online or at home. As Kindergarten to Grade 2,[DL1] students return to in-person learning, ensure that they are assessed and provided with daily intervention. Students in Lagos, Nigeria and Djibouti, for example, are engaged in a program the Swedish company Lexplore to use artificial intelligence to identify reading difficulties and provide teachers with specific insights and tools to meet the needs to each student.
- Remediate, yes, but also make time for play and well-being: The focus on remediation runs the risk of becoming all-encompassing. I’ve experienced this first-hand. I began my teaching career in Baltimore City in 1997. There was no recess. No social development. Sure, we covered the basics, but at significant, and probably unnecessary expense. Two inspiring programs to review include the LEGO Foundation’s Right to Play, which has recently been adopted in Ghana, and Think Equal, a social and emotional learning program focused on equity.
- Take care of teachers: Dr. Noémie Le Pertel, a global consultant on resilience reminds us that resilience requires recharging. While teachers have risen to the challenge of distance and hybrid learning, this year has been an endurance race with few, if any, opportunities to recharge.
Prepare for a better tomorrow (2021–2024)
Borrowing from The Strategy Cascade
- Have a clear and inspiring vision: Most schools and ministries have a vision. Now is a perfect time to revisit that vision. Is it clear? Is it still relevant? What would it mean for graduates? Work with stakeholders to identify what adapt the vision, if needed, and identify what it would look like in practice. If you were closer to meeting your goals in June 2021, what would need to happen? What would be different for your students?
- Align vision and action: Bring your vision to life with clear action plans and distributed accountabilities. Of course, it’s important to ensure that this does not create work that interferes with the core function of schools (teaching and learning). Mirai’s School Improvement Coach allows governments and schools to streamline action planning, delivery, and progress monitoring.
- Map learning experiences to modalities: We’ve learned so much about the opportunities and limitations associated with online learning. Some learning is best face-to-face (practical subjects, labs, reading instruction). Young children and learners with special needs benefit far more from in-person instruction. Conversely, individualized practice of skills learned or the delivery of more niche interest-based courses is infinitely more possible online. The UNESCO/McKinsey toolkit chapter on hybrid learning provides insights on the efficacy of different learning modes.
- Shape stakeholder capabilities to support your vision: Teachers, students, leaders, and parents need new skills to thrive across learning modalities. One Schoolhouse, a long-time leader in distance learning, provides guidance and resources for understanding and developing hybrid learning planning and teaching capabilities.
- Ensure the right systems are in place for future changes: The schools and systems that were best prepared for closure were the ones that had the highest levels of digital literacy and access on the part of students and staff. It is essential that we don’t wait for the next crisis to ensure that students and teachers have access to devices, Telcos are engaged with schools and ministries, and all stakeholders are prepared for online and hybrid learning.