Changes in education as a result of COVID-19 crisis are here to stay, experts say

High angle view of video conference with teacher on laptop at home. [Shutterstock]

As lockdown measures are relaxed and schools reopen across Europe, EURACTIV has interviewed experts on whether the pandemic could have a long-lasting impact on education systems in Europe, and they said changes are here to stay.

Just before the crisis, the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) conducted an analysis of the readiness for digital learning of education systems across the EU. The picture that emerged was not very encouraging.

“The index showed significant differences across member states in terms of the capacity to take up the opportunities of digital learning, which has proved key to adapt learning activities after the pandemic outbreak,” Sara Baiocco, a researcher in the Jobs and Skills unit at CEPS and co-author of the study, told EURACTIV. 

The pandemic has exposed the need to further equip schools with the infrastructure and technologies, and provide teachers and students with the skills needed to adapt to a digital environment.

The lockdown to contain the COVID-19 outbreak forced the adaptation out of necessity but the process was smoother in countries and regions where the technological possibilities were already available. 

Roger Blamire, a senior adviser at the European Schoolnet, a network of 34 Education ministres in Europe, confirmed that only a minority of schools were ready for such a shock but argued that most had risen to the challenge. 

“We saw more system-wide change in the first two weeks of lockdown than in the previous 20 years,” Blamire said.

According to a survey the network conducted on behalf of the European Commission during the crisis, for two-thirds of the respondents e-teaching was a new experience but the majority think online learning came to stay.

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Some 65% of the students who are in Erasmus exchange programmes but subject to confinement measures do not yet know if they will keep or return the grant that was disbursed for their studies, while 7% said they will not get any, according to a report by the Erasmus Students Network (ESN).

The future of education

The skills that are taught and the organisation of the learning experience are the two main aspects where the pandemic can have lasting consequences. 

“The pandemic has accelerated the trends that were already in place regarding labour market transformation, notably the transition to the digital economy. Digital skills are central, a new sort of basic skills, deeply intertwined with digital learning,” Baiocco said. These skills, the researcher argued, need to be learned at school and updated over time. 

But the coronavirus outbreak also resulted in increasing uncertainty. In a rapidly changing environment, behavioural and socio-emotional skills are as important as cognitive skills.

Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, believes the COVID-19 outbreak has proved the need for better social, emotional and organisational skills that would help students and later workers to “navigate ambiguity”, “be creative and imaginative” and take responsibility in times of crisis.  

Roger Blamire argued the crisis has been “a wake-up call” for the organisation of the education system and has shown what can be done with technology, but also highlighted the things that only face-to-face interaction can do.

Schleicher added that “in the past, we assumed if people sit in a classroom, everything is fine,” but the pandemic has exposed the inequalities within a classroom both material and in terms of the level attention required.  

He argued, however, that the biggest lesson is that education needs to better integrate technology.In the past learning was a place and now we are realizing learning is an activity, and the activity may extend from the school to the home,” the OECD expert said.

Baiocco agreed that this transformation – which was already in place – has been accelerated by the lockdown but warned of the impact that moving the learning process outside of schools might have on the whole society. 

“Schools being such as important part of the organisation of our society, the effects of such organisational change are likely to go beyond education system, for example affecting the work-life balance of workers,” Baiocco warned.

In fact, the role of parents during these difficult times has been enormous. Blamire explained that “despite multiple pressures, parents have in large numbers become the teachers of their children, with a better understanding of the curriculum and appreciation of what their school is doing.” 

The pandemic has been highly disruptive for everyone, but has been particularly hard on those students who are not very engaged or do not have enough parental support, OECD’s Schleicher said.

“For those, this has been a big shock, and I think they have been left behind,” he added.

The socio-economic inequalities and the digital gap are fundamental to explain this.

The sudden shift to digital learning, Baiocco explained, can have diverging effects on children, or adults in the case of adult learning, from families with different socio-economic and educational background.

“Ultimately, education and training during and post-COVIDcould end up reinforcing rather than reducing inequalities,” Baiocco warned.

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In its annual growth report, the OECD painted a gloomy picture: rising inequalities, slowing growth and strong headwinds for the global market economy, notably because of trade wars. EURACTIV Germany summarised the OECD’s recommendations for Europe.

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