Coronavirus presents an opportunity to redefine the future of education

Sultan Althari and Maitha AlMemari

Published: Updated:

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to take a step back and look into ourselves, re-assessing our priorities. Virus-induced disruption has also forced various sectors to engage in a similar process of deep introspection and fundamental re-evaluation. Educators have longed for the right time to reform the sector, and now—at the intersection of disruption and innovation—they have the perfect opportunity.

Latest UNESCO figures point to the fact that over a billion students are unable to attend school or university due to the global pandemic—this unprecedented crisis provides educators and policy makers with an unprecedented chance to redefine the future of pedagogy. How? By leveraging technology to transcend the subject-based, knowledge-holder model of learning.

It’s one thing moving that model online with remote learning and hoping it resumes as soon as possible, but it’s an entirely different—and more exciting—challenge to redefine the experience of learning as one in which students, educators and institutions are more successful. COVID-19 will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on education, but how will that impact manifest itself?

Here’s what to expect:

First, blended learning will play a central role in education. The rapid transition to learning with asynchronous platforms such as Canvas, Blackboard or D2L and synchronous platforms such as Zoom, will spill over into the post-coronavirus era, acting as valuable tools to supplement the immediacy of face-to-face learning. This comes with positive policy implications: states—like those in the GCC— whose students complain of a mismatch between education system outcomes and labor-market needs may now bridge that gap through blended learning.

This model would empower educators to allocate greater in-person class time towards professional soft skill development, such as critical thinking, leadership and emotional intelligence, which are central to success in a private sector framework. Students would therefore transcend the short-term extrinsic motivation to work, while increasing their long-term intrinsic motivation to perform, ultimately yielding positive effects on state employment and productivity levels.

Second, the shift to online platforms and reshuffling education outcomes demand a new role for the educator. The development of career-relevant, higher order cognitive skills is more crucial today than ever. Students need the skills to navigate the constant influx of information to make full use of the learning process. Based on the current Program for International Students Assessment results, it is unlikely that students will effectively navigate the world of online learning on their own without considerable guidance.

A review of research on summer learning loss in the United States demonstrates that during the summer vacation students lose the equivalent of one month of academic year learning—this is exacerbated by the fact that the rate of loss increases with each grade. These findings further emphasize the need for novel teaching methods and learning processes for teachers and students at all levels.

Revising curricula to include digital literacy as a pillar of an inclusive and innovative approach to pedagogy is one way to achieve that. Beyond digital literacy, it is imperative that educators transcend the hierarchal content-provider role and act as collaborative coaches and mentors. COVID-19 is now offering us the time and opportunity to experiment and incorporate technology to improve teaching methods and educational outcomes.

Third, expect educational institutions to be more resilient and less bureaucratic. Why? COVID-19 propelled educational institutions into rapid action with little to no regard for inert organizational structures and complex bureaucratic processes. The operational efficacy of those processes will now be put into question, and with the emergence of personalized, AI-driven education, students will demand nimble and adaptable institutions. Adaptability must be coupled with greater investments to create robust education systems with the resiliency to weather future disruptions without compromising the learning experience.

Fourth, the educational gap is set to narrow or widen depending on multiple factors, a key one being the continuation of learning. The globalization of education reveals disparities in the schooling received by many around the world—the divide is fraught with accessibility barriers and infrastructural constraints. However, national lockdowns prompted a rapid global shift to remote learning with the potential to exacerbate pre-existing socio-economic inequalities. However, a silver lining lurks behind these uncertain times: educators now have the space to promote equitable quality education, form cross-industry coalitions, and integrate new technologies into learning.

The pandemic also paves the way for private-public partnerships formed around a common educational goal beyond government-funded initiatives. For instance, remote learning in China was facilitated by a collaboration between government and major telecommunications operators to ensure sufficient bandwidth and reliable digitization. In developing countries where students face accessibility barriers, non-profits now face a greater responsibility to create and sustain inclusive educational models that eliminate the harmful impacts of class stratification.

One of the pandemic’s silver linings is the space given to sectors like education to redesign and redefine sector-based tenets. It has become evident that the traditional education system is insufficient and intrinsically limited. Progress must be accelerated towards a new model of education—one that encompasses an emerging need for digitization.

Students today are defined by technology and view easy access to information as an extension of their identity. What is scarce and demands greater attention in the post-COVID era is an education premised on emotional intelligence, intellectual adaptability, and entrepreneurial thinking.


Sultan Althari is a Masters Candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Student-Affiliate at the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative.

Maitha AlMemari is currently a Rhodes Scholar pursuing the MSc in Comparative International Education at the University of Oxford.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.