Education is in the middle of its biggest disruption within living memory. The precautions to curb the spread of Covid-19 have forced pupils to study online and forced schools to adapt to the new paradigm.
Distance learning is nothing new, but up until now it has been largely voluntary and focused on higher and professional education. As primary and secondary schools adapt to the digital space, it begs the question, where do we go from here?
Futurists such as Alvin Toffler have long warned education must adapt if pupils are to learn the skills needed for the 21st century. In his book Future Shock, published in 1984, he wrote: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace and routine tasks are taken up by machines, forward-thinking educators and academics are calling for a new approach to education – one that stresses human values, such as creativity, curiosity, design thinking, and the adaptability and lifelong learning Toffler championed.
On the surface, this is at odds with traditional class-based education. Who needs to know when or where two trains will pass if one of them leaves Delhi at 3pm travelling at 45km/h when an app will calculate it for you?
Who needs to be able to reel off a list of the kings and queens of England and the dates they ruled when a search engine will provide the data at the click of a button?
The value of education
This is somewhat unfair to traditional education. Maths teachers will point out arithmetic is critical to everyday life and that maths underlies many creative fields, whether it be the pitch and harmonies of musical notes or the pleasing proportions of graphic design. History teaches us to research and to evaluate sources using critical thinking.
School curriculums are not designed on a whim. They ensure young people leave school with a basic level of knowledge and with the skills required to enter the workforce at a basic level or to carry their education further, whether it be in technical skills or intellectual ones. They are standardised, and can be tested and evaluated, progress measured.
But all too often pupils – particularly those not of an academic mindset – leave school without realising their skills, considering their education complete.
Grass roots learning
Enter the guerrilla teacher, the pop-up pedagogue. Guerrilla teachers do not fit into the established education establishment – they have no real hierarchy or set curriculum, and often no fixed college. They work online or in extra-curricular clubs and after-school activities. They make learning fun. They may be volunteers or act as freelancers. Because they are so flexible, they can adapt their teaching to the individual needs of a pupil far more readily than a classroom teacher adhering to a set curriculum.
The difficulty then is how to evaluate the effectiveness of such teaching. How can education authorities and potential employers be assured that learning is taking place?
One possibility is to apply a degree of oversight and quality assurance to the teaching. An example might be found in CoderDojo, an international, volunteer-led series of tech-based learning clubs for young people that has operated in 111 countries, including Bahrain.
A new paradigm?
Voluntary clubs like CoderDojo run in physical locations, even if they are temporary ones. But when pupils – even primary-aged pupils – are learning online, is there a need to tie them to one particular institution? At the moment, that is how schools are dealing with the enforced digitisation brought on by Covid-19.
Bahrain offers an example of future possibilities. It is a highly digitised nation with 99 per cent of its population connected to the internet, putting it in fourth place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness 2019.
In February 2020, Bahrain moved its schools online as part of Covid-19 precautions. It logged more than 5.7 million visits to its education portal between the third week of February 2020 and April 14, when the move online took place.
Clearly digital nations such as Bahrain have the capabilities to move schools online in the longer term.
The issue comes when expensive resources are required for practical lessons – most households do not have access to chemistry laboratories, for example.
It is not hard to see the benefits of creating chemistry, physics or technological education hubs, rather than expecting each school to provide its own labs.
Covid-19 has disrupted lives drastically, but we are learning to cope with it. If we go back to the way things were before the crisis, we would have failed to learn, adapt and grow – the very things we want education to teach our children. As Toffler said, we must learn, unlearn and relearn.
David Parker is the co chief investment officer at Economic Development Board Bahrain