The COVID-19 crisis is still underway, with obvious uncertainty about how long and to what extent the pandemic will continue to impact education systems across the globe. Schools all over the world gradually started closing as part of measures to contain the spread of the virus, affecting about 90% of the world’s student population. The number of students who have already dropped out of school, or are considering doing so, has been increasing, and these children and youth will join the 258 million others who were already out of school prior to the virus’ outbreak. One of COVID’s many revelations has been the fragility of education systems worldwide, regardless of a nation's wealth. In Japan, for instance, a survey by a student group, covering junior college, university, and graduate students, revealed that 20.3% of post-secondary students are considering dropping out of school due to financial repercussions from the spread of the virus, and in some high schools within Washington D.C, it took “more than six weeks to get the bulk of students the technology they needed to immerse in distance learning, with a few still unable to log on.”
We have no idea what is going to happen in terms of the future. Students in Monaco, starting school this year, will be retiring in 2080. How can we best prepare them for this future when we cannot predict what the economic, social, or cultural landscape will look like by Christmas? When even the wealthiest of nations cannot guarantee that their schools will remain open, or that access to a quality education will continue, how can we avoid squandering the immense talent of children? Although no one solution can answer this, it seems clear that investment and acceptance of distance-learning is an immensely powerful tool to combat a global pandemic’s impact, and part of any solution. Traditionally, there is a sense that an online classroom is a deeply inauthentic place, and without the socialization that comes with an environment which is shared, there has been much truth to this notion. However, COVID has laid bare that we need an education revolution. We think about the world in all the ways we experience it: we think visually, we think in sound, we think kinaesthetically, we think in abstract terms, we think in movement, and technology is bringing effective tutorials using these experiences into the domain of computers. With Motion Capture software, 3D animation and Virtual Reality, even the creative movement of a Ballet dancer can fall within distance-learning's remit: The Dutch National Ballet and the Royal Academy of Dance being only two examples of many institutions offering online classes to beginners where a large community of individuals can share their ideas and experiences within a shared environment.
Not all enterprises had to adapt quite so radically to the virus’s imposed limitations and had in fact been utilizing the power of distance learning prior to the most severe consequences of the virus so far. In addition to experienced online education providers like Carfax Education, The Perse School, Cambridge, and their partners, had created ‘Blutick’ an award-winning program to teach mathematics, powered by artificial intelligence; Eton College, had released ‘EtonX’, an entirely online platform for studies, which adds to the enormous cannon of digital lectures available from MIT, Oxford University, Standford University, to name a few. Outside the educational industry, Automattic, the company behind ‘WordPress,’ which powers 35% of all websites on the internet, had brilliantly demonstrated the potential power of a remote labour force by never having had an office. The thousands of staff and students of these institutions continue their work remotely, and successfully, providing an optimistic insight into our uncertain future.
Fortunately, there have been enormous advances in how curriculums can be delivered digitally, using webcams and microphones to replace whiteboards and auditoriums. Internet connections are becoming faster, computer memory is becoming greater and AI is becoming more holistic. If we are not ready to replace our classrooms of brick and mortar, we must certainly consider that they can be complemented by those rendered digitally, and, with the right guidance, learning can occur in a virtual space.