COVID-19 has become the biggest disruptor for the education system. Such an impact deserves attention on account of the crucial role of education in the progress of society, the transformations that learning and teaching experiences have undergone and the importance of education in shaping the workforce landscape for industries. Schools, universities and other organisations contributing to professional development have been called on to ensure continuous learning while simultaneously digitising learning delivery, adapting facilities and teachers' skills. Nine months after the outbreak of the pandemic, the Digital Thursday online event was organised to revisit the measures that have been taken in the education sphere to respond to the crisis, review the impact of the pandemic on learning and teaching outcomes and discuss the role of digital tools and skills in creating the future of education. The event was chaired by Prof Savvas Papagiannidis. The special guests of the webinar were Alison Shaw, a Professor of Practice for Student Success and Progression at Newcastle University and Karen Marshall, Apprentice, Education and Engagement Lead at Accenture. Alison Shaw and Karen Marshall discussed the challenges that educational institutions face, the remedies to address the challenges and shared insights into how education and engagement activities have been digitally transformed.
The education system has been facing a rapidly changing technological, environmental and demographic landscape. The pace of change, skills and accreditation standards are the three crucial challenges, all of which had been raising concerns before the pandemic. However, the pandemic has accelerated the need to address these challenges against the backdrop of the massive shift to digital tools of interaction.
The pace of change concerns the rapid advancement of technology, an ageing society, the changing climate, population and jobs of the future. There are very few services which cannot be delivered digitally. Educational institutions, though, have been largely keeping to the traditionalist stance in preserving the habitual way of teaching delivery and learning experiences. Universities’ low flexibility and ability to change can be accounted for by the bureaucracy involved and market drivers that require universities to follow particular standards to stay competitive.
Skills in the areas of science, the arts, broad specialisations, STEM and soft skills are constantly changing too. Education and training should be based on caring for the learners and the recognition of the need to provide relevant skills that will be demanded in the job market. The way subject disciplines are formed should reflect a better way of combining the knowledge that will serve well in defining professional paths both in the academic and business sectors. Skills and experiences should be industry-relevant and continuously upgraded to be applicable to current thinking and employers' needs.
Teaching to the test. The current ways of accrediting skills reduce learning to the test and devalue expertise and qualifications. Schools and universities focus on tests to accredit qualifications rather than on knowledge that can be easily applied to solve current industry problems. The accreditation of skills and knowledge using arbitrary metrics reinforces a social hierarchy which favours very few students and sectors. Instead, universities should be looking at opportunities to diversify how learners can go on learning and innovating standards to make qualifications fit for purpose and more equally available.
Ways to Address the Challenges
To improve education, the challenges need to be understood, recognised and addressed. The recognition of the challenges comes from the clear vision of the surrounding industry landscape, the pace of technology development and the collaboration between private and public organisations. Once the vision is shaped and shared, schools and universities should be versatile in their ways of accrediting skills.
Vision is needed to keep up and get ahead of the pace of change, which has been and will be accelerating year by year. It needs to be recognised that human work is being displaced by technological development in some spheres while becoming more valuable in other areas which are hard to digitise (e.g. care, psychology etc). While we now see that STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) and communication are becoming critically important to learners, some areas currently might not be easily accredited, such as the humanities, ethics, creativity, imagination, empathy and trust. Therefore, vision is needed to spot the trends and understand the value of unique human capabilities.
Ongoing collaboration between public, private and academic sectors can help create the vision and realise changes so as to prepare learners for employability. The goal of discussion between employers and universities is to make it clear what technical skills are needed and which modules would address the needs of the business sector. Then, it is equally important to appreciate the value of thinking “outside the box”, which is less about upgrading the skills, and more about the individuals’ ability to apply new solutions to real problems. Design thinking skills should be built into every discipline to shape students’ career success. The dialogue with companies would also inform teachers about the benefits of particular knowledge and their likely impact on students’ employability and the business ecosystem. It would help understand the pace of change and the nature of challenges in the business world so learners would be able to face the future and get ahead of time. Hence, the stability of the relationships between academics and the business sector is a matter of priority and vital importance.
Versatile and modular accreditation is important to ensure the development of applied knowledge, the encouragement of lifelong learning and learners’ resilience in the business environment. The higher education system should be able to endorse the potential of learners by accrediting what they are doing and what they can do in a much more versatile way. It can enable learners to dip in and out of vocational and academic qualifications. Lifelong learning has high value for both individuals and employers, as it ensures the continuity of the “work-learn-work-learn” cycle. Learning in modular ways, recognising the importance and the relevance of what learners are doing is of critical importance in the near future.
Online Education and Engagement in Action
Challenges exist and there are many things to be implemented further to improve education, but what is undeniable is the fact that the pandemic has tested everybody involved in education. Despite difficulties and different technical facilities and capabilities, the education system in general and teachers, in particular, have been able rapidly to adapt the changes to an extent that was not imagined at the outset of the pandemic. Many universities have shown that their role is essential in implementing the digital transformation in dramatically short timescales. Not only has this related to higher education but organisations offering apprenticeship opportunities. For example, Accenture transformed their usual practices, which enabled them to improve the outcome of apprenticeships, reach wider engagement, make recruitment easier and improve learning outcomes.
Online engagement and recruitment. Against the increasing risk of redundancy of those in the entry-level jobs, it is important to ensure the continuity of the apprenticeship scheme while digitally transforming engagement and recruitment processes. For Accenture, long preparation has been key at the transition stage. A lot more time was needed before the start of the programme to make sure that apprentices are well informed about opportunities, available support, virtual etiquette and the communications skills required. To ensure digital inclusion, an additional budget was allocated to equip digital workplaces, enable access to software and connectivity. The number of support people has increased, such as observers, peer supporters and buddies, because working online needs constant monitoring and adaptation along the process. The recruitment process has become much easier although a bit of extra work upfront was needed to coach people on conducting themselves online. With online interviews replacing travel, it has become quicker to get people to volunteer for the recruitment work and achieve the wider reach of engagement programmes.
Support plays a more important role in online learning. Having regular contacts concerning not only work and studies but personal wellbeing is essential. Karen Marshall noted that young people have had far more support and access to their tutors than they ever had had before, which resulted in no reported mental health issues. While apprentices were progressing through the programme, they started appreciating online delivery more, as it has given them the opportunity to balance work and study. As a result, virtual work experience has brought better outcomes for apprentices in their academic studies and the workplace.
The future of Online and Blended Learning:
The future of education could represent hybrid learning opportunities, given the existing positive sentiments among learners. Flexibility is key to bringing diversity into the learning environment, as long as universities can monitor attendance, students’ progress with the work, ensure that students have access to tutors and support. Facilities enabling remote events and training can ensure better inclusion and opportunities for distant local and international learners. Additionally, virtual classrooms can help connect people to distant experts who otherwise would not be able to deliver a lesson in a physical environment.