Universities can be midwife to a post-pandemic education renaissance

Steering the innovation currently taking place in educational institutions could have major long-term benefits, says Fernando Reimers

July 9, 2020
Child drawing in window
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The Covid-19 pandemic will shape our collective future in the coming decades. It is not just the horrifying death toll from the disease itself that will impact individuals, families and communities: the consequences of the disease in multiple areas of life will shape the life chances of the survivors.

There will, for instance, be financial burdens on individuals and nations that will likely accelerate and extend the recessions caused by the lockdowns. Combined with the public health costs of the pandemic, this will constrain the ability of governments to fund other social services, such as education, further constraining opportunities to advance human well-being.

History shows that pandemics can have surprising and contrasting effects. They are not the single cause of what ensues, but their acceleration of existing trends and their interaction with other economic and political factors can result in significant social disruption.

The Black Death – which, within a couple of years of its appearance in 1348 had taken the lives of 25 million people – disrupted the rigid hierarchies of medieval Italy, enabling, for instance, the social mobility of families such as the Medicis. That family, of course, played a critical role in bringing together the intellectuals and artists who, in combination with the increasing questioning of established truths provoked by the Black Death, spearheaded the Renaissance.

In contrast, the economic fallout of 1918’s Spanish flu pandemic compounded the political challenges of Germany’s newly declared Weimar Republic. Along with the popular opposition that arose once the full terms of the Treaty of Versailles were known, it empowered right-wing extremists. This led to the assassination of 400 politicians over two years, culminating in the Nazis’ attempted coup in 1923 and the eventual breakdown of democracy.

We do not know how the disruptions caused by Covid-19 will interact with the other challenges of our times. But, whatever transpires, universities are in a unique and important position to steer developments in a positive direction.

Take the likely impact of the pandemic on education. In the short term, the necessary social distancing measures have hampered the ability of institutions, at all levels, to deliver education – and this reduced capacity is likely to endure until a vaccine is available. Hence, an entire generation could lose learning opportunities, with predictable long-term consequences for individuals and society: deeper social inequality and exclusion, stunted economic recovery and a stall in the changes necessary to redress climate change.

However, there is considerable innovation taking place in educational institutions to find ways to sustain students’ opportunities. Such innovation is valuable not just to sustain education until a vaccine is available, but also to address pre-existing deficiencies of education systems. These include their insufficient attention to developing the breadth of skills essential in the 21st century and their inability to offer the same learning opportunities to children of all social and racial backgrounds.

Universities can play a valuable role by studying and disseminating such innovation, or by more directly contributing to generating it, for their own students and those at pre-collegiate levels. In so doing, universities would be embracing their essential roles as engines of social innovation and generators of knowledge that contribute to the improvement of the human condition.

It is a challenge that I have tried to take up. With many of my current and former students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I have been studying innovative responses to sustaining educational opportunity in primary and secondary schools around the world. In partnership with colleagues from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank and the non-profit organisation Hundred.org, we have conducted two large-scale surveys to assess how teachers, school leaders, education entrepreneurs and local, state and national government education officials are innovating to maintain education during the pandemic. We have also curated a list of online education resources to support remote instruction.

These activities fit squarely within the research and teaching missions of the university. I have tried to teach students to think about their responsibility to support those most in need. I have especially tried to help them have hope, on the basis not of denying the gravity of the crisis but of seeing a pathway through it, one small step at a time.

If only one in 10 of the world’s 28,000 universities took it upon themselves to study, generate and disseminate educational innovation to support primary and secondary schools during the pandemic, millions of children could benefit. If they also addressed other persisting education challenges after the pandemic, even more of the next generation would feel the impact.

And if we engaged our students in similar work in other impacted domains, from public health and local government to business and culture, we would not only be preparing them well for the increasingly complex and volatile world they will have to lead. We would also be steering that world towards a renaissance, rather than the much darker alternatives.

Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation professor of practice in international education and director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.


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