The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of human endeavour and none more so than education. At the height of the crisis, over 1.725 billion learners were not receiving any education worldwide. As many countries attempt to come out of the lockdown imposed as a necessity by the pandemic, it is clear that “business as usual” will no longer be a tenable proposition. In fact, many versions of the “new normal” are being tried, experimented, and disseminated as the world slowly re-emerges, and education is leading the pack in defining the new normal. Nonetheless, there is no single solution that will be applicable around the globe and never has the digital divide been so starkly visible as now.
Most of the suggested approaches to providing education in this time of crisis have centered around the use of technology. The Internet is the overwhelming choice for the transport of content while the actual delivery has been achieved using all flavours of learning management systems, custom developed platforms and standalone applications. A close second has been the use of cellular networks coupled with smartphones that allow for a rich multimedia experience. In both cases, however, countries with lesser developed infrastructure or poor economic conditions, have faced the difficult choice of having their populations divided into the “haves” and “have-nots.”
The lowest common denominator, in many instances, has not even been the older technologies such as broadcast television and radio; countries have had to utilise simple print-based materials in trying to reach all learners. The real challenge has been the development of quality materials that could prove a viable substitute for the face-to-face experience. Traditional teachers have never been trained in the development of materials required for non-face-to-face delivery, and the vast majority is not even aware of the huge collection of Open Educational Resources available in the digital world.
However, in these difficult circumstances, one aspect of human nature that has shone brilliantly has been the resilience displayed by all players. From early responses and the setting up of coalitions as led and exemplified by COL to innovative solutions for the delivery of education, humanity as a whole has generally displayed characteristics of optimism and solidarity and worked together to overcome the challenges posed by this modern-day disaster.
As the multitude of solutions are implemented, mostly dictated by local circumstances, a different world of education will slowly unfold. Some experiments will undoubtedly fail, while others will be immensely successful. When the dust settles, we are bound to see a brand-new educational landscape, impacted and reshaped at all levels. Schools for younger children will have smaller classes with a high level of attention being paid to hygiene and the introduction of innovative approaches to keeping naturally social children at safe distances. High schools and universities will undoubtedly see a huge move towards the induction of technology in every aspect of the teaching-learning experience. We can expect to see an immense improvement in the quality of materials available at all class levels as the move away from face-to-face classes gains momentum.
Who knows, this may trigger the provision of adequate funding for the development of much needed communication infrastructure around the globe and finally usher in the era of world class “open” content easily accessible to all learners worldwide.