• The pandemic has forced students around the world into distance learning.
  • This has exposed the shortcomings of both online and classroom-based education.
  • As we get back to normal, we have a chance to combine the best of both worlds into a more effective pedagogical model. Here's how

COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on life across the planet, and few things are expected to return to the old normal anytime soon. For education, though, a new normal is urgently needed.

For much of the world, and at almost every level, education revolves around exams. Leaving aside the complex debate on the need and value of exams, an essential ingredient of learning inevitably takes a back seat: engagement. Deep, actionable learning requires debates, discussions, projects, coaching, criticism and feedback. But this is difficult to achieve and harder to scale, and consequently widely neglected.

COVID-19 has forced much of the world into distance learning. Many institutions found the transition to video-conferencing relatively straightforward – as long as students had the networking and computing resources to access the lectures. But that seamlessness exposes a deeper problem in residential education. And for that matter, what we are seeing with Zoom classes today isn’t state-of-the-art online education either. Much of the world is caught between two worlds, exposing the failings of both: an educational system that was somewhat socially distanced to begin with, and a distance-learning solution that just isn’t built on lessons from modern online learning.

Now is the time to rebuild, and there are three areas to consider: pedagogy, modalities, and structure. The science of learning, rapidly evolving technological capabilities, and the changing future of work all indicate which way to head.

1. Pedagogy

When nature yields proximity back to us, educators and students will inevitably ask, “now what?” The fact is, much of the in-person time in classrooms around the world is wasted in one-too-many lectures that might as well have been delivered on Zoom. Instead, we need massive adoption of the flipped classroom. The idea is to reserve the actual classroom for engaging two-way activities while using online and pre-reading to accomplish one-way transfer. This is not a new idea; many fields, such as the humanities, and many educational institutions – such as mine, MIT – understand that students need to marinate in the content. The science of learning tells us that learning is most effective when students are curious, and dopamine is released in the brain. And it tells us that students absorb material better when they struggle but receive timely coaching, and when they discover and apply concepts. This can be achieved in formal and informal discussions, in performances, and through projects: a robot, a dissection, a piece of software, an independent research study, a musical composition, or a community activity. But this is all often lost in the quest for utilitarian efficiency. A large number of small, private liberal art colleges will not survive the COVID-19 winter because of their much-debated economics. Ironically though, pedagogy is one thing they do get right, and their demise will be a tragedy.

2. Modality

Distance education is not online education. Properly designed online content involves short (5-10 minutes), well-produced, asynchronous videos that are more attuned to the ability of the human brain to focus. Online content can also include simulations, games and online group annotation of a document – which are more vivid than most in-person lectures. Students can pause, rewind or speed up content at their convenience. Brief, auto-graded quizzes after each video enable something known in cognitive science as the testing effect: immediate recall from content promotes long-term retention. Over time, online capabilities will become even more sophisticated with simulations, games and virtual reality. An online student moves to the next topic when she has mastered the previous one. This is called mastery learning and leads to more concrete progress in the learning journey. Online forums are surprisingly good at peer-to-peer and expert interaction. Zoom has its place too in this world: students can use videoconferencing to interact with peers, teaching assistants, professors and coaches. But when the lockdown ends, the online modality should be used primarily to make time for the most important aspect of education: in-person engagement. Online can never be a replacement for good in-person learning but it can strengthen it, improving grasp and nuance. But make no mistake: good online content will replace disengaged teaching rapidly and decisively. And online education certainly offers a better cost-benefit equation than a mediocre college.

COVID-19 has led to school closures around the world
COVID-19 has led to school closures around the world
Image: UNESCO

3. Structure

The structure of education today is brittle. As the contours of the labour market become uncertain after COVID-19, education will need to become more malleable. Students will need more visibility of and more connections into the working world, and more bite-sized options so that they can customize their trajectories. Two and four-year degrees cannot be the only alternatives. High school students everywhere might want to do apprenticeships to get a taste of work, as they do in Switzerland today. Perhaps we need more vocational technical schools, so that students get more job-ready skills. While studying for an associate or bachelor’s degree in accounting, a student might want to get a separate online certificate, like a MicroMasters in financial engineering. Microcredentials are in our future. They give students options to tailor their curricula. If COVID-19 has taught the workforce one thing, it is that working adults must be able to acquire new skills rapidly, and likely continuously. This points to the need for new options for continuous adult education. Much of it will be online from the edX and Courseras of the world. Some learning must necessarily be in person – to learn to operate equipment, for example – but it is hard to leave work for extended periods of time. Distilled in-person experiences over a week or distributed across weekends will become necessary. One way or another, the structure of our educational systems is monolithic, and it needs more granularity.

The need for reform

By impounding proximity from human society, COVID-19 has exposed some of the flaws of our education system. Many symptoms were pre-existing: $1.6 trillion in student debt, eroding confidence in educational institutions, colleges in trouble. And perhaps more starkly, the loss of nuance in public discourse, the black-and white positions when shades of grey are required, and the decline of compassion, critical thinking and sensible discussion. If the education system does not reform at all levels, the cold hard calculus of market economics will sweep much of it aside, taking with it the most precious and delicate aspect of education: engagement. We must reanimate engagement in education in 2021 and beyond as we slowly dust ourselves off after this brawl with nature.

Sanjay Sarma is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Vice President for Open learning at MIT. In addition to pioneering online education, Open Learning includes the Jameel World Education Lab, which works with universities around the world on the future of education. Sarma is the author of the upcoming book “Grasp: The Science Transforming How We Learn”.