The COVID-19 pandemic has created the greatest disruption to education in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries and every continent. The closure of schools and other learning spaces has affected 94% of the world’s student population, even up to 99% in low- and lower-middle-income countries. This crisis is exacerbating pre-existing educational disparities by reducing opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth and adults. Those living in poor or rural areas, girls, refugees, people with disabilities and forcibly displaced people are unlikely to continue their learning. Learning losses also threaten to spread beyond this generation and erase decades of progress.
Disruption of Education
Similarly, the disruption of education has had and will continue to have substantial effects beyond its borders. As fiscal pressures mount and development assistance comes under strain, financing education could also face major challenges. Likewise, the huge financing gaps for education prior to COVID-19 are exacerbated. For low-income and lower-middle-income countries, that gap had reached a staggering $ 148 billion annually and could now increase by as much as a third. On the other hand, this crisis has stimulated innovation within the education sector. We have seen innovative approaches to support continuity of education and training. From radio and television to take-home packages, distance learning solutions were developed thanks to the rapid responses of governments around the world that support the continuity of education.
The closure of schools, colleges and universities not only interrupts teaching for students around the world; the closing also coincides with a key evaluation period and many exams have been postponed or canceled. Loss of this information delays recognition of both high potential and learning difficulties and can have long-term detrimental consequences. It is important to note that the blocking of institutions does not only affect internal evaluations. In the UK, for example, all exams for the main public qualifications (GCSE and A levels) have been canceled for the entire cohort.
Depending on the length of the quarantine, we are likely to see similar actions around the world. It’s also possible that some students’ careers benefit from disruptions. In Norway it was decided that all tenth grade students will receive a high school diploma. Studies show that the abandonment of normal examination procedures in France in 1968 (following student riots) had long-term positive consequences on the labor market for the affected cohort.
In higher education, many universities and colleges are replacing traditional exams with online assessment tools. This is a new area for teachers and students alike, and assessments are likely to have a larger than usual measurement error. Research shows that employers use educational credentials, such as degree classifications and grade point averages, to rank applicants. Thus, increasing applicants will potentially reduce matchmaking efficiency for new graduates to the job market, who could experience slower earnings growth and higher job separation rates. This is costly both for the individual and for society as a whole.
The careers of this year’s college graduates may be severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have experienced major interruptions in teaching in the final part of their studies. In the same way, students have suffered major interruptions in their evaluations and, eventually, they are likely to graduate at the beginning of a major global recession. Evidence suggests that poor market conditions at labor market entry lead workers to accept lower-paying jobs, and that this has permanent effects on the careers of some.
Graduates of programs with high anticipated earnings can offset their starting point through earnings gains both within and between companies. But graduates of other programs have been found to experience permanent income losses upon graduating from a recession. In recent months, numerous expert opinions and forecasts on the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for the world of international higher education have been published in the media and blogs. For example, the QS blog and the Studyportals blog contain numerous articles on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international higher education. In addition, especially University World News, Times Higher Education, WONKHE and the British Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) blog constantly publish articles and forecasts from relevant experts.
Harness the potential of personalized and adaptive learning
Beyond the initial coping phase lies the challenge of addressing the learning gaps that inevitably widen. Even before COVID-19, the variation between countries, schools and classrooms, as well as within, was deeply troubling. A study published last year reveals how disparities in learning achievement have not diminished over the past half century. The most disadvantaged still perform at levels that are three to four years behind the richest. Now, with the added variables of remote learning, the divergence is likely to be even more marked. When students return to school, will education systems be adequately prepared to respond to the learning gaps exacerbated by the pandemic?
Many of us hope that this crisis is the moment that education has been waiting for to truly transform the way we teach and learn. Evidence suggests that a more personalized approach through adaptive learning is promising. For too long, education systems have relied on century-old, standardized modes of instruction en masse for all students. While this model has been outdated for some time, the education crisis caused by COVID-19 has finally made these shortcomings impossible to ignore. Now more than ever, a new and more personalized approach to learning is needed to address the ever-widening learning gaps that have only been magnified by the pandemic.
The future of education
The skills taught and the organization of the learning experience are the two main aspects in which the pandemic can have lasting consequences. Covid19 pandemic has accelerated the trends that already existed regarding the transformation of the labor market, in particular the transition to the digital economy. Digital skills are fundamental, a new type of basic skills, deeply intertwined with digital learning. These skills must be learned in school and updated over time.
But the coronavirus outbreak also created growing uncertainty. In a rapidly changing environment, behavioral and social-emotional skills are as important as cognitive ones. The COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the need for better social, emotional, and organizational skills that would help students. It would also help workers to “navigate ambiguity”, “be creative and imaginative” and take responsibility in times of crisis. The crisis has been “a wake-up call” for the organization of the educational system and has shown what can be done with technology, but also the things that only face-to-face interaction can do.
In the past, we assumed that if people sat in a classroom, everything was fine, but the pandemic has exposed inequalities within the classroom both in material and in the level of attention required. The biggest lesson is that education needs to better integrate technology. Learning was a place and now we are realizing that learning is an activity, and the activity can extend from school to home.
This transformation, which was already underway, has been accelerated by the closure, but warned of the impact that moving the learning process out of schools could have on society as a whole. Because schools and universities are such an important part of the organization of our society, the effects of such organizational change are likely to go beyond the educational system and affect the work-life balance of workers.
The pandemic has been very damaging for everyone, but it has been particularly hard for those students who are not very engaged or who do not have enough support. Socio-economic inequalities and the digital divide are fundamental to explain this. The sudden shift to digital learning can have divergent effects in the case of adult learning, of families with different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Ultimately, education and training during and after COVID could end up reinforcing inequalities rather than reducing them.
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Maurin, E and S McNally (2008), “Vive la revolution! Long-term educational returns of 1968 to the angry students”, Journal of Labor Economics 26(1): 1-33.