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Education and COVID-19:
challenges and opportunities


September 14, 2020

School children and their teacher wear masks and maintain social distancing.

UNESCO has observed that “Most governments around the world have temporarily closed educational institutions in an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These nationwide closures are impacting over 60% of the world’s student population. Several other countries have implemented localized closures impacting millions of additional learners.” Overall, close to 200 countries closed their schools in the spring, thereby interrupting the education of more than 1.5 billion young people. We therefore need to reflect deeply on our education systems in light of this unprecedented crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had devastating impacts that are likely to have long-term social and economic consequences. The crisis has exacerbated already-widespread educational inequalities due to factors relating to gender, disability, immigration, mother tongue, learning difficulties or other sources of socioeconomic disadvantage. Indeed, 40% of the world’s poorest countries have been unable to support their disadvantaged learners in recent months, and the many adverse consequences of school closures have been particularly severe for disadvantaged children and their families, as well as for all learners with learning difficulties and special needs.

The pandemic has starkly highlighted the fragility of our education systems, even those considered relatively stable. It is therefore crucial that the innovation and creativity stimulated by this crisis be leveraged to make education systems more just, inclusive and resilient. This article is therefore intended to give educational system stakeholders a crisis-inspired glimpse into potential opportunities for improvement in the areas of curricula, students, teachers and educational settings.

Improving curricula

The prolonged closure of schools due to the COVID-19 crisis has transformed stakeholders’ relationships to both schools and learning content. Although some students continued their education, many were deprived of adequate opportunities to do so and often lacked essential services and tools such as technological equipment or learning support services. It therefore became necessary to establish specific priorities and emphasize some subjects more than others in school curricula.

In the absence of both clear operational guidelines and a contingency plan concerning curriculum priorities, education system actors came up with a variety of suggested approaches to maintain educational continuity. Some curricular priorities were proposed concerning the academic skills and knowledge that students, depending on their age and grade-level, needed to maintain in subjects such as languages, mathematics, science and history, with the rest of the curriculum – the arts, for example – being discounted as non-essential. This suggests that clear guidelines need to be established to prepare schools for other potential emergencies involving prolonged closures.

Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind that many education systems had already revamped their curricula after determining that students were rarely able to adequately transfer the knowledge and skills acquired in school to everyday situations. Indeed, the learning acquired in school was rarely placed in the context of real-life situations, which fuelled the idea that school is boring and outdated. Many international organizations, including the OECD, have called for an effort to make education more “meaningful” through revamped curricula that are more challenging and interesting for students.

In Canada, the Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) has prioritized global competencies within curricula that can be leveraged in a wide variety of situations. In summary, it is more necessary than ever to support students in the development of fundamental competencies or life skills for the future.

Four trends in curricular reform have been identified in educational systems, namely: (1) a competency-based logic; (2) a socioconstructivist perspective; (3) increased focus on learners; and (4) more emphasis on authentic learning situations. However, there is a significant disconnect between these prescribed curricula and classroom reality.

Prioritizing opportunities for authentic learning

The COVID-19 crisis has raised salient questions about the necessity, importance and usefulness of certain curriculum content. It has highlighted the relevance of certain trends, particularly the authenticity of learning situations. Indeed, apart from academics, educational programs and student assessment, the paramount need that has emerged is to preserve students’ motivation, engagement and interest as well as their connection with school, particularly when schools are closed for long periods of time. This requires varied, flexible and authentic learning activities. In this regard, the authentic learning experiences resulting from the COVID-19 lockdown could be used to contextualize student realities during the pandemic. This represents an opportunity to rethink curricular content and approaches.

Teachers can draw on the UN’s 2030 Agenda Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a source of inspiration for contextualized and authentic learning situations relating to the major challenges facing humanity.

In this regard, the UNESCO Chair in Curriculum Development suggests that parents use the reality experienced by their children during the pandemic as a starting point for learning activities, especially in writing, mathematics and problem-solving. Such activities could include, for example:

  1. In mathematics, calculating how far a one-kilometre lockdown radius extends from the student’s home;
  2. In language courses, using critical thinking to write an argumentative essay on the credibility of a given information source;
  3. In science, understanding the factors that affect the physical and chemical reaction when baking bread at home.

Training students to draw on various internal and external resources to meet an authentic challenge fosters knowledge transfer by placing students at the centre of their learning. Authenticity in education would therefore be a relevant approach for contextualizing the students’ return to school and the continuation of their school paths in the wake of the upheavals caused by the pandemic crisis.

Maximizing the use of learning outside the classroom

While the extended school closures in spring 2020 has definitely been a huge disruption in the school year, it has also shown that learning can continue through distance education, especially by digital means, without students’ physical presence in schools, even though this entails some challenges. These challenges can affect various aspects of education, including the student-teacher relationship that is so crucial for student success. Even the best technologies cannot completely eliminate this distance between teacher and student. In-class education therefore remains necessary, but this must be placed in perspective and adapted to the current situation. Furthermore, in preparing for the return of students to school, potential difficulties in meeting physical distancing requirements in the classroom, particularly given student numbers and classroom sizes, should be taken into account. Whereas many schools have reduced class sizes or spaced out student desks, others have addressed these difficulties by organizing outside-the-classroom educational settings, either on school grounds or other outdoor settings. Even in higher education, outdoor classes are being considered as an attractive solution to not only deal with the pandemic but also as a permanent strategy. Indeed, the risk of virus transmission outdoors is considered low, and open spaces facilitate compliance with physical distancing. Outside-the-classroom education is therefore an interesting possibility for facilitating space management and maximizing face-to-face educational activities, while at the same time keeping virus transmission risk to a minimum. Needless to say, indoor classes cannot be completely replaced by their outdoor counterparts but the pandemic has opened up an avenue for exploration, even in the longer term.

In this regard, research tends to demonstrate that outside-the-classroom initiatives and outdoor learning provide added value to the in-classroom learning experience, particularly when these two learning environments are used in a complementary way. The advantages include a more student-centered education and a focus on the students’ own initiatives, both of which foster student engagement and in-depth learning. Outdoor learning is also associated with meaningful and more authentic learning situations since students are more likely to internalize what they experience; educational activities in “the real world” thus foster learning transfer.

In Canada, a case study has also shown that a land-based education model of learning and teaching that includes Indigenous philosophy could also increase student motivation, reduce anxiety and enhance students’ sense of community. The deep connection with the environment that these outdoor learning models foster in students support learning, greater ecological awareness and a deeper appreciation of Indigenous cultures.

Supporting students’ independent learning

Thanks to a variety of distance-education platforms – telephone, radio, television, email and video conferencing – many students have been able to continue their education during the school closure period and maintain their social connection with school. However, many families have experienced challenges in accessing technologies, and numerous parents have experienced difficulties in terms of their abilities and availability to support their children in their learning and in the use of technologies.

The experience of distance education during the pandemic has highlighted the issue of students’ independent learning. Indeed, while students are used to being supervised, guided and strictly scheduled in their school work and in using resources, including technological tools, the school closures have required them, especially those with parents who are less available to help them, to become more independent in their learning.

In this regard, work plans for making students more independent and responsible could be a useful resource, provided that they are adapted for each student and each subject, and that students are explicitly taught how to use them. Moreover, work plans as an educational tool could benefit student learning under normal circumstances in order to foster the development of independent learning by encouraging students to set their own goals and exercise self-discipline, as well as by giving them some control over the choice of methods and tools used to carry out tasks. On the evaluation front, it would also be relevant for work plans to be integrated with educational approaches that support independent learning, such as project-based or problem-based tasks.

It therefore seems valuable to promote students’ independent learning, particularly given the possibility that a second wave of COVID-19 could disrupt the school year again and the fact that developing learning autonomy entails many advantages that are already widely acknowledged in the educational system. Specifically, greater learner autonomy would help students organize their work better, take more initiative, think more critically, and be more involved, responsible and accountable as well as make them more motivated (according to a Université Laval researcher). The possibility of making the learning environment in schools more flexible in order to enable students to make more choices about their lives and their learning – as was done in an elementary school in the Chinese province of Zhejiang – should therefore be explored. During the lockdown, that school quickly and with some success implemented distance education, thanks to a learner-centered teaching model that was already operating at the school and which was based on the pupils’ ability to seek information and analyze and solve problems in practical and innovative ways. Despite differences in access by pupils’ families to digital resources, solutions were quickly found to reach students and guide them in choosing appropriate goals for independently continuing their learning.

Seizing the opportunity to support and guide students’ independent learning therefore seems an interesting avenue for post-COVID education. However, in order to develop learner autonomy and make students less dependent on adults for their learning, teachers must, paradoxically, skillfully oversee their students, particularly by letting them make choices and take initiative. To do so, teachers must possess certain knowledge and skills that are not necessarily part of their training. In this regard, the crisis has brought to the forefront another important requirement in the training of teachers in the use of technological tools: the need to provide quality teaching through the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) that are likely to motivate students and support their independent learning.

Enhancing teachers’ digital skills

Given that distance education has been primarily based on the use of digital technologies such as email, online courses and document-sharing platforms, the crisis has highlighted the need to develop teachers’ digital literacy. While the use of digital tools is an integral part of the professional skills expected of teachers and many teachers have already been using these tools (e.g., video), many teachers still lack the required knowledge, skills and tools to design quality online learning material. Similarly, many students cannot independently use technologies. As a result, teachers during the crisis have had to play the dual role of training students about technologies with technologies.

The crisis has thus highlighted the need to enhance both the initial and continuous training of teachers in the use of technology for teaching. In order to address short-term needs during the school closures while awaiting the eventual development of this type of training, several massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the topics of distance and online education were made available to teachers by institutions such as Coursera, the University of Pennsylvania and FUN-MOOC. Many universities also quickly mobilized themselves to provide distance education to their students. For example, the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) developed several training modules on its Carrefour technopédagogique platform to help teachers adapt to the lockdown.

While it is clearly necessary for teachers to embrace the various features offered by digital tools, such as audio, video, text, live sessions and interactive games, they also need to be trained in the basic principles of how to effectively use these tools for student engagement and learning. For example, a study has demonstrated that adequate planning of a course that is to be filmed as a video has more impact on learning engagement than producing and editing the video itself, and that planning an online course is quite different from planning a face-to-face one. In other words, the rigorous structuring of ideas at the planning stage has more impact than the “finished product.” Without training in these aspects, quality video material from most teachers is clearly not to be expected.

Face-to-face teaching offers opportunities for student-teacher interaction that are difficult to replicate at a distance, particularly where there is inadequate training for distance education. Thus, although some distance education practices have definitely proven themselves during school closures, the e-learning experience has mostly served to replicate face-to-face teaching with a greater or lesser degree of efficacy.

Perspectives

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both challenges and opportunities in education. Prioritizing opportunities for authentic education through the curriculum, learning priorities and the learning environments proposed by education experts reveals a future direction for education that could be further explored after students return to school. In terms of school environments, outdoor education is proving to be a potentially viable avenue to facilitate the management of space and physical distancing, in addition to offering promising learning settings. Lastly, prolonged school closures have highlighted training needs for both students and teachers. While students now need to learn how to work more independently, teachers need to receive more training in the effective use of technological tools required for quality teaching.

In light of recent events and the difficulties with distance learning experienced by educational systems, it is also relevant to question the role of teachers vis-à-vis their students and the overall teacher-student relationship. For distance learning, but also after schools reopen, it is imperative that teachers play a supportive role with their students who might have suffered negative effects from the crisis, such as anxiety and a compromised willingness to learn. That is why it is crucial that a positive teacher-student relationship be established since this facilitates adjustment and adaptation after a traumatizing event like the one we are currently experiencing. The teacher thus becomes a facilitator in the development of the student, both as a member of their community and a member of their society.


Authors

Marion Deslandes-Martineau, Patrick Charland, Olivier Arvisais, Valérie Vinuesa

UNESCO Chair in Curriculum Development, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)