It Was Time For a Change — What The Pandemic Revealed about the State of Education

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University is hard. Completing a degree at any level can be seen as having to overcome several herculean feats to get assignments completed on time, all while juggling 2 part-time jobs and trying to pay the bills. Now with the added challenge of a massive pandemic that has completely altered how modern society functions, it has come to a boiling point. Burnout, stress, illness, and just generally elevated anxiety levels have resulted in lower grades, higher dropout numbers, and far too many cases of students just feeling too overwhelmed to continue.

So what is there to be done? What has been done up until this point in time? The methods have shifted from classroom to classroom, educator to educator, but the common denominator seems to be as much as virtual has added an unexpected convenience, nothing can replace in-class interactions. Engagement levels have dropped, assignments have increased, and there is just a general sense of loneliness and isolation when all your daily conversations with another human being occur through a screen.

However, there are some things educators have attempted to implement in order to make their student’s lives a little less dark and gloomy. And not only that, but many universities have become conscientious about ensuring that students who may not be as privileged and rely on the resources once provided by being onsite on campus. The latter issue is something that Michael Hawes, CEO of Fulbright Canada brought up throughout a recent panel discussion on “The Future of Education” on DotsLive. He mentioned how Indigenous students have suffered the most from the lack of access to public resources, as many do not have internet access, bandwidth or hardware to properly participate in online classes. “A couple weeks ago, a student requested that we have a meeting at 11pm, because that was the only time she had access to the internet…it was a stark reminder that technology is not accessible to all our students.” Fulbright is actually launching an initiative this January in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School to engage in meaningful conversations with indigenous students and other underrepresented groups so that they can better serve their needs.

A much needed conversation, this panel brought together experts from around the globe to describe just exactly what trends they have been seeing regarding pivot strategies for educational institutions, what they themselves have implemented, and what they believe the future of education will now look like.

What Has Been Emerging in Tech?

Some of the biggest players in the game like Harvard and Tsinghua, have made it their priority to ensure students are getting the best possible education they can despite the circumstances.

Susan Borges Crowley, Senior Director of the Harvard Business School Online, spoke about how they have enrolled over 400,000 students since 2014, and designed the courses so they were not just traditional lectures. “You won’t go four minutes in one of our classes without being able to participate in something interactive.” Crowley said. They ensure this through not just technology, but how the courses are designed as well, with just as much horizontal learning as there is vertical. There is also the high-resolution video wall employed by the Harvard Business School proper to mimic the feeling of sitting in a lecture hall and allow for that same scale and level of interactivity. Crowley also mentioned the emergence of hybrid classrooms, something that Denise Amyot, CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, seconded as a highly useful model. “In colleges and polytechnic institutes it is very hands-on, it has to be. So with the hybrid model students could adapt and actually get the chance to practice their trade.” Amyot also mentioned that some institutions have included the use of augmented reality or virtual reality within their classrooms, not necessarily for the full session, but “just to give the students a different experience.”

What To Do About “Zoom Fatigue”

Another challenge that is constantly at the back of educator’s minds is how to balance and mitigate the near constant barrage of online interactions that can leave many feeling unmotivated and burnt out after awhile, as staring at a screen or 90% of the waking day is anything but ideal even in our tech-indulgent world. “I can assure you that colleges and universities are focused on mental health and wellness.” Hawes explained. He mentioned his own organization making use of online peer-counseling tools like “Big White Wall” to ensure that those who feel unable to voice their feelings of stress and anxiety to their co-workers are able to find counseling that can help get them back on track. But like many other educational institutions, this is still proving to be an issue without a clear solution.

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An esteemed panel featuring Michael Hawes, CEO Fulbright Canada (upper left), Susan Borges Crowley, Senior Director of Harvard Business School Online (upper right), Denise Amyot, President and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada,(bottom left), and panel moderator and co-host of the Honest Talk, Catherine Clark (bottom right) not pictured: panelist Luping Xu, vice-dean of Xingjian College, Tsinghua University

What Does the Future of Education Look Like?

It is hard to predict exactly where the future will go, but based on the fact that all institutions have been forced to adapt, there is certainly a massive culture shift taking place within academia. “Universities were operating on the Ford-industrial model.” Hawes observes, one that is quite outdated and no longer serves its purpose in an era where many of those occupations that required that particular learning model (memorization) have all but disappeared. Hawes believes that educational institutions are going to have to spend money on new technologies, and he also realizes that this can get expensive, but it will only be for the better in the long run. “There is an extremely high need for knowledge in today’s world, and by that I do not mean information” (holds up cell phone) I have one of these that can possibly give me all the information I need. What we are talking about here is the most knowledge, understanding, and how to use the information that the phone so kindly provides for us.”

Amoyot believes that there will need to be an established culture of life-long learning, which in many ways is already happening. “Before you used to go to school, go to work, and then retire. But now that is no more…the median age at schools we have observed is about 27, half have already gone to college or university.” Crowely agreed with this trend, as a challenge that HBS online has been trying to grapple with is “How do you create a global institution that is equitable?”

“ We see women who may be upscaling even when they have children.” says Crowley, and that HBS online’s mandate has always been “to educate leaders in the world wherever they are.”

A pride point for the school seems to be the smaller gender gap for their courses compared to others, and this can be likely due to the fact that they offer flexible hours that women, particularly women with children, can benefit from. 50% of their enrolled students also happen to be from outside of Canada, which again is in part due to their online accessibility. She sees many of these schools moving to a modularization model, a modularization of education as a whole so to speak. “We will not go back to how it was before.” There needs to be a flexibility and ease of transfer between institutions that even till this day, is not really an option. Students should be able to choose a course from one university and be able to apply it to another, and schools need to come together for more collaborations. Hawes mentioned that many universities were almost territorial in the past, but that really a practice that benefits the student masses at large and meets their constantly evolving needs.

Ultimately, education needs to empower people. They can then help shape tomorrow and have the right support and tools they need to do so effectively. This is something that is always at the core of every educational institution, but perhaps they had gotten complacent in believing that the same systems of operation were still applicable even hundreds of years after their initial implementation. One bright side we have seen throughout this pandemic is the shifts in thinking, the quick pivots, new methodologies, and really providing more accessibility that has definitely empowered many students and lifelong learners looking to get the most out of what universities can offer them. We may not know what the future holds, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

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