What will education look like after the pandemic?

Suzanna Doran
November 22, 2021

It goes without saying that COVID had an enormous impact on education worldwide with up to 72% of the world’s learners, or 1.2 billion students, being affected by institution closures at any one time (source). What learning looked like during this time depends on an array of factors from countries’ social distancing guidelines, institutions’ remote learning policies, students’ ages, their access to digital tools and much more. 

For some, time away from the classroom was minimal while others endured many months without access to structured education. Somewhere in the middle were the students who spent a significant amount of time attending their lessons via Zoom, Google Classroom, or another digital tool that has provided a ‘learning lifeline’ during the pandemic. 

Now, as we look to the other side of the pandemic, educational prospects seem just as varied. Let’s have a look at a few of the possible outcomes.

Back to pre-pandemic models

Many educators and students have missed the classroom and have been eagerly waiting for a return to normality. One of the most obvious consequences of institution closures is the lack of social contact which, in younger children, “is a crucial component of pragmatic development; this includes conversational skills such as turn taking and understanding the implied meaning behind a speaker’s words” (source). Older students experienced other problems such as limits on their independence and disruption to exams which caused stress and uncertainty around their futures (source).

Of course, there’s also the issue of access to the internet and a computer to complete work. Digital inequality became more apparent both between countries and between social groups within the same country. For example, whilst 95% of students in Switzerland, Norway, and Austria are able to access a digital device, only 34% in Indonesia can do so (source). In the UK, students from higher-income families are much more likely to be able to access the internet: “only 51% of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99% of households with an income of over £40,001”, according to research from The University of Cambridge (source).

These factors, along with the stress of having to quickly transition to remote or hybrid learning, mean that some groups feel that a return to pre-pandemic models would be preferable.  

Remaining remote

On the other hand, many education professionals believe the world has changed so significantly in the past two years that it’s not possible to return to the way things were before. 

Educators are also seeing positive trends when it comes to online learning. Research shows that retention rates for online learning are significantly higher than those in face-to-face settings: 25-60% in comparison with 8-10% (source). This is likely to be because students can work through tasks at their own pace, spending longer on aspects that they find more complex and quickly reviewing simpler concepts.

When it comes to assessment, many students report greater satisfaction with digital solutions than traditional pen and paper models. Our own research shows that 79% of university students prefer digital exams and that 52% are more likely to apply for a course that offers them. One of the key benefits of online assessment is flexibility for students and staff who may no longer need to travel to an exam hall. In terms of completing the exam itself, the majority of students find word-processing to be more natural than writing by hand, given that they complete most of their other work on a computer. 

Although implementing new technologies for learning and assessment during COVID was not an easy task in any terms, it did compel institutions to innovate more quickly than they would have otherwise. Now, as campuses open up again, educators are starting to think about how they can incorporate these innovations into their long term strategies. 

“The question is no longer how to scale innovations from the margin to the center of education systems but how to transform education systems so that they will source, support, and sustain those innovations that address inequality and provide all young people with the skills to build a better future for themselves and their communities.” - The Brookings Institution  

The middle ground: hybrid models

Perhaps the most likely scenario is somewhere in between. Going back to the classroom is valuable for many reasons: it allows students to participate in hands-on activities alongside their peers without having to rely on an internet connection. Yet many students have also found home-learning to be better suited to their needs because they’re able to study at their own pace in a familiar environment. Remote education also opens up student and educator access opportunities by reducing the need to travel. 

This suggests that a hybrid model, in which learners can access both in-person and online learning opportunities, could offer a happy medium. For this to be successful, “there must also be a seamless, fully integrated experience for students, with lecturers referencing previous content to connect online and offline activities” (source). 

Of course, this kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight and requires significant planning and buy-in from all stakeholders. However, educators are finding that techniques and resources they implemented during the pandemic can now be adapted to hybrid models. For example, an art teacher in the US started making instructional videos for remote learning in 2020. Now that she teaches remote and on-site learners, at the same time, the videos are still useful. “Whether they’re sitting at their kitchen table or classroom desk, every student has an excellent view of her skills demonstrations” (source).

Similarly, a professor at the University of Jordan began using an online collaboration tool with his students during campus closures. He says, “It has changed the way of teaching. It enables me to reach out to my students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting and also document sharing [...] I will stick to [the tool] even after coronavirus, I believe traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand,” (source).

Educators and students alike have shown enormous resilience and ingenuity over the past two years. Now, as we look forward, it’s likely that the ideas developed during the pandemic will only serve to strengthen educational offerings in the future. What’s important is that, as these new innovations continue to evolve, all stakeholders are supported in delivering and accessing high-quality, equitable education. 

If you want to keep up with the conversation about the future of education, tune in to the brand new Digital Assessment Podcast. We talk about how far educational technology has come in the past few years and what it may look like post-pandemic. You can find all of our new episodes here as well as on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

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