Posted on April 21, 2020

Global education will not be able to return to “business as usual” in a post-coronavirus world, and must take the opportunity that the crisis has offered to rethink and reshape itself, a Qatar Foundation educator has told an international online conference.

Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined, a two-day online gathering organized by the World Innovation Summit for Education – a global initiative of Qatar Foundation (QF) – and the Salzburg Global Seminar, brought together experts from around the world to analyze the consequences of COVID-19 for educational ecosystems, and how the pandemic could mark the start of a road to change. Among the speakers was Francisco Marmolejo (pictured), QF’s Education Advisor, who told the conference: “If we talk about this crisis as being a catalyst for change, it may be an opportunity to recognize that, globally, today’s education systems are still facing many challenges in terms of equality of access, especially from people from disadvantaged sectors of society.”

Other challenges, he said, include the acute inadequacy of education offerings. “In the case of higher education, it’s very evident there is an excessive academic workload, while there is also very limited articulation with the previous levels of the education systems and also a significant emphasis on disconnected knowledge. “Consciously designing for a ‘new normal’ will require significant political willingness, an eagerness to disrupt, eagerness to consider innovative and feasible ideas, a participatory approach – especially with teachers and parents – and more informed decision-making based on evidence. We cannot miss this opportunity for the disruption of education systems, in order to more adequately prepare the next generation of professionals and the next leaders of our societies.”

Marmolejo, a former global coordinator of higher education at the World Bank, said the current crisis is one that “a lot of people in education were not prepared for”, although in the case of Qatar: “Possibly because of the blockade experienced by the country, the system was prepared to quickly react and immediately put in place systems for the remote delivery of teaching and learning. It was a remarkable achievement in such a short period of time.” He also shared his view that, in the past, education systems have based too many decisions “on anecdotes and emotions, not on rationalistic evidence”, adding: “Something that this crisis is helping all of us to recognize is that, in a way, we have been missing the point.

“The significant emphasis we have placed just on the employability skills of people is, in my opinion, preventing us seeing and remembering that, at the end of the day, education is about forming personas. It is about integral, responsible citizens who, for sure, are employable, but more importantly are committed to their community and with a broad perspective on what happens in the world. “This is a unique opportunity for the new generation, and for us as educators, to become more humble and tolerant, and for our education systems to ensure the students of today – and the professionals of tomorrow – will have a sense of solidarity and social responsibility, and that they care for their community. And while we might be totally confused at this point, that is fine – being confused means we care, and really want to find the solutions.”

Speakers also included Al Jawhara Al Thani, QF’s Head of Educational and Community Programs, who told the online audience: “This is a global reset button for everyone – it is not a chance for education systems to be passive. “The whole world has to hold up to the responsibility of innovating, and thinking about what we can do better and do differently, because we cannot wait for someone else to do it for us. We have to serve our communities and think about their needs right now, and I believe this has put a lot of education systems in the hotseat, forcing them to think about how they interact with their community.”

She said that when the time comes for schools to reopen, educators should consider “how to can make it a space for a richer human exchange” and “how to build intentionality into what we’ve been doing accidentally”. And while the pandemic has led to much of the conversation about the future of education being centered around remote learning, she added: “When we have conversations about traditional education spaces, we can be dismissive of the power of the school’s physical space – and this isn’t about the traditional classroom, it’s about human interaction and how this space can become a microcosm of the world outside. “I believe we can’t discount that traditional environment, because our separation from it has allowed us to see how important it is. It is about using that space and the time we spend with each other within it in a very meaningful way.”

The second day of the conference featured a session on UN agencies’ education response to COVID-19, featuring representatives from countries including the US, Jordan, Denmark, and Austria. During this session, Manos Antoninis, UNESCO’s Director of the Global Education Monitoring Report, said: “The UN system should prioritize those at risk of exclusion, and that includes remembering that technology does have some negative consequences for equality. “It’s important to apply the ‘do no harm’ principle and not deliver solutions that may leave the intended beneficiaries falling even further behind, which means more attention needs to be paid to low-tech solutions. And we need to appreciate the importance of human interaction in education, which has perhaps been sidelined as the influence of technology has grown.”