In the midst of an unprecedented, anomalous crisis like the COVID Pandemic, it is usually difficult to see more than a few days into the future. It is almost as if we were wandering around in a dense, or even deadly fog. Keeping in mind its salience, education is an obvious tool that provides people with skill, knowledge, technique and information whilst enabling them to realise their rights and duties towards their family, and their local and global communities. It expands vision and outlook to understand the world. It develops the capabilities required to fight injustice, violence, corruption and many other detrimental elements in our societies.
Along this backdrop, Redefined Sustainable Thinking (REST) interacted with Rostrum Education, an EduTech consultancy, on the future of education and E-Learning and the impact COVID-19 pandemic has on the same. Rostrum Education, having had experience with online classes and remote learning, proved to be the fitting organization to have this discussion with. Their familiarity within the field of E-Learning provided insight into a rather constructible, conceivable future. Delving into the matter, the two organizations not only examined the growing investment in the sphere of E-learning, but they also explored whether the relatively new field could be a sustainable alternative to traditional textbook-based, in-person education.
REST believes that the future of E-Learning, while extremely promising, depends highly on the pioneers of this movement, their motivations and beliefs. In a country like India, where roughly 75% of the population does not have internet access (UNICEF, 2020), introducing E-Learning as one of the primary modes of teaching poses obvious issues. In order to tackle these problems and for E-Learning to be considered as a workable alternative, an ecosystem centered around collaboration needs to be built. Educational establishments and private entities need to join hands with governments and work together to ensure that the benefits of E-Learning are available to all and there is no further deepening of prevalent inequalities.
Primarily, investment into education needs to increase. This will not only be the most cost-effective way to drive economic development, improving skills and opportunities for young men and women, but it will also unlock progress on all 17 SDGs. Secondly, policies that work towards extending resources to marginalized groups need to be introduced. India’s Aakash Tablet Scheme in 2011 was an attempt to do the same but it lacked the required synthesis of governance and supporting mechanisms. Lastly, extending beyond the internet, services such as television and radio need to be considered as potential modes of education transmission. This adoption of television and radio has been successfully showcased in a handful of countries such as Nigeria, where the state has introduced weekly broadcasted scholastic programs.
Moving on, considering the future of education, it is important to examine the effect that recent world events such as the COVID-19 pandemic have had and would have. REST believes that the pandemic has not only allowed immense transformation but it has also widened the ‘policy window’ for decisions and action. COVID-19 has become a catalyst for educational institutions worldwide to search for innovative solutions in a relatively short period of time. Henceforward, it is highly likely that traditional in-person classroom learning will be complemented with new learning modalities such as live broadcasts, ‘educational influencers’ and virtual reality experiences. Learning could evolve to become a habit integrated into daily routines - a true lifestyle.
Additionally, in the past few weeks, we have seen learning consortiums and coalitions taking shape, with diverse stakeholders – including governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers, and telecom network operators – coming together to utilize digital platforms as a temporary solution to the crisis. While most initiatives till now had been limited in scope, and relatively isolated, the pandemic and its aftermath could pave the way for more large-scale, cross-industry coalitions to be formed around a common educational goal.
On the other hand, while most schools in affected areas are finding stop-gap solutions to continue teaching, the quality of learning is heavily dependent on the level and quality of digital access. After all, only around 60% of the global population has dependable internet access (WEF Future of Jobs Report). The less affluent and digitally savvy individual families are, the further their students are left behind. When classes transition online, these children lose out because of the cost of digital devices and data plans. Unless access costs decrease and quality of access increases in all countries, the gap in education quality, and thus socioeconomic equality, will be further exacerbated. The digital divide could become more extreme if educational availability is dictated by access to the latest technologies.
Moreover, what can not be missed is the fact that there is an ongoing concern about technology and device reliance of the younger generation. The risk is that technology becomes all-consuming. This has the potential to impact students’ mental and physical health. Online learning, although incredibly convenient, has its pitfalls. Connecting with peers, communicating with instructors, and maintaining a personal social life can become a challenge when all interactions take place remotely. It is understood that individuals who spend an excessive amount of time on electronic devices experience difficulties focusing, making internet addiction a serious problem. Concerns of social isolation that arise can very easily lead to decreased academic achievement and mental illnesses in the longer run. Moreover, online learning affects the physical activity levels of students. Little movement results in students being stationary for hours on end in front of their computers. Eye strain, muscle and joint issues and excessive sitting are all causes of concern. Therefore, it will be imperative to seek out a balance and consider these issues before going on an all-out support for E-Learning. These issues will have to be incorporated integrally in the design phase for the future of remote learning, online education and other related courses.
Finally, the rapid spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of building resilience to face various threats, from diseases to violence, climate insecurity, and even rapid technological change. The pandemic has also presented itself as an opportunity to remind us of the skills students need in this unpredictable world. Experience and proficiency with informed decision making, creative problem solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability should be valued now more than ever. To ensure these skills remain a priority for all students, resilience must be built into our educational systems as well.
A digital future to a great extent is more likely to be a reality than not, but we will have to ensure that we don’t rely on students to take on the burden of this transition. Our education systems, processes and investments must also transform. Now is the time for all of us to reimagine the future we want to live in and start building it.