During the first wave of the global coronavirus pandemic, 1.5 billion students across 160 countries worldwide were forced to study at home.
The European Training Foundation (ETF) has been monitoring the education and training responses to the coronavirus pandemic in 29 partner countries. This mapping exercise has allowed us to observe patterns of social change that are likely to have a long term impact on how and where education will take place, but also on at least one generation’s ability to integrate into the labour market and become successful contributors to society. Here are the five trends identified as vital for sustainable socio-economic development post COVID-19.
Education systems must design curricula and processes where well-being is a top priority
For young learners and teens, the pandemic could mean much more than online learning. The youngest of the Millenials, Generation Z and Generation Alpha will carry the imprint of these months on how they view and relate to the world. They are absorbing different lessons about communication, self-motivation to learn and potential career and life paths.
A socio-economic report by the ETF shows that “young graduates and young jobseekers who already faced difficulties entering the labour market are now at even greater risk, as countries have frozen apprenticeship programmes and other forms of support to young graduates.” At the same time, “weaker demand and more prudent hiring strategies may limit their employment opportunities over the medium-term.” Uncertainty and stress, looming over young people as they switch from Zoom room to Zoom room, do little for their ability to acquire new knowledge or skills, or for their social integration.
A country that has explicitly addressed well-being and mental health as part of its COVID-19 crisis management strategy is Turkey. The country’s digital education platform, EBA, and the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) were used to ensure remote learning reached as many children as possible (including children with hearing impairments) and were complemented by a helpline and a psycho-social guide for students and parents, released both as an app and as a web-based resource. This guide facilitated more open conversations about what children, parents and teachers experienced during the school lockdown, and reassured them that feeling distress is not uncommon under the circumstances.
Young people have the right to education and training in relevant skills
Well-being is a growing priority for individuals, who are more and more interested in living in less populated areas, taking advantage of new opportunities to work from home post-COVID. As companies move towards smart working, there is also higher potential for home countries to keep their young workers employed in organisations located anywhere in the world, thus minimising workforce migration. The reverse side of this coin is that education providers will have to keep up with the new logistical challenge of having students spread geographically and, perhaps, even across time zones.
In this landscape, transferable, transversal skills are must-haves. Education systems need to put 21st century skills (scientific and IT literacy, creativity, collaboration, curiosity, problem solving) on an equal footing with other subjects. With more jobs becoming remote, there is an emerging need for a particular kind of social and emotional intelligence and for communication abilities that can make global, multicultural, remote teams work.
The general assumption that, once there is a vaccine for COVID-19, the economy will bounce back and we can return to business as usual, may be an oversimplification. With many variables still undefined, there is a high risk that vulnerable categories, such as youth, will fall through the cracks.
The future of education is blended
It would be tempting to declare that digital and online learning is the future, but the countless testimonies received by the ETF of students missing their social life at school suggest that the future of education will need to be blended. Blended learning – flexible across space as well as time – is the most favourable context to a much-needed lifelong learning approach.
With economic landscapes in flux, particularly under the impact of the pandemic, we are seeing a growing interest in modular courses. The education market itself is seeing the emergence of disruptors, such as micro-credentials and new types of qualifications, into more mainstream channels.
"The key takeaway from the remarkable reaction to the COVID-19 crisis," the ETF COVID-19 mapping finds, "is the realisation that the transformation is not about 'moving online' but about switching to learning throughout life and ensuring that learning is accessible to all."
What gets measured gets improved
It is only by experiencing remote collaboration, project-based assignments and online communication that learners can prepare themselves for what is awaiting them after their training.
The European Commission has responded by creating SELFIE, an online self-assessment tool that helps schools reflect on how they are using digital technologies. SELFIE was developed in partnership with the ETF, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) and UNESCO's Institute for Information Technologies in Education. Piloted in 2017 with 67,000 users in 650 schools across 14 countries, it has been used, to date, by over 670,000 people in 7,300+ schools across 57 countries and counting. It is updated continuously, and even expanded with a module dedicated to work-based learning. By taking the SELFIE survey, schools can measure where their digital capabilities stand, from infrastructure to ethical online behaviour. SELFIE schools are empowered to make evidence-based improvements, by listening to the voices of all of their stakeholders: learners, teachers, in-company trainers and leadership, via the self-reflection process.
Stakeholder involvement at all levels is the key to better education for all
None of these goals can be reached, without broad partnerships across all interested parties, from education and labour ministries to employers and NGOs.
Extensive public-private partnerships (PPP) can provide solid platforms for work-based learning. Particularly in vocational education, on-the-job training is essential. For this to be a sustainable option in remote learning set-ups, augmented and virtual reality solutions, as well as new forms of organisation need to be made accessible to all learners.
Collaboration is also needed to provide each student with the necessary devices, connectivity and an environment that is suited for learning at home. Equity is an issue when looking at which jobs can be done from home, under what circumstances and by whom.The ETF therefore sees a need for projects where the sharing of resources is facilitated by central administrations, according to needs identified on the ground.
On a larger scale, "re-establishing international cooperation, including crowd-sourcing and sharing of resources could speed up and support this transformation," says ETF director Cesare Onestini.
With the start of the new school year, the ETF acknowledges the immense effort made by governments, civil society, employers and, not least, parents and learners, to keep education moving forward. "We observed, through regular meetings with our key stakeholders as well as through the (…) social media campaign #learningconnects that countries went through similar stages (…)," says Onestini. "The way countries reacted could very well remind us of the curve of change. From denial – ‘this is not going to last long, just few days’ – to shock and confusion where countries made decisions on how to prevent chaos in their systems, to a state of ‘letting go’ in particular for teachers and parents and all those involved in the challenge of making this work for the better, and finally picking it up to ‘searching for new ideas’ and getting a very high number of solutions and innovative practices in quick acceleration and delivery. Usually, when people get to this phase in their change curve, the next phase is the new beginning".
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