It is without a doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed many facets of our lives and with social distancing rules being implemented globally, industries that are naturally crowd-dense are the most affected, one of which is the education industry. With social distancing necessitating the pivot to remote learning, according to UNESCO’s daily monitoring of school closures around the world, a total of 194 countries issued country-wide school closures in early April 2020. As countries slowly begin to emerge out of lockdown restrictions, the number of country-wide school closures has gone down to 110 as at 7 July 2020.
Given that more than half of the world’s population are active internet users, digital disruption in industries is unavoidable and in the case of the education industry, it seems that the adoption of technology has come at an accelerated pace – videoconferencing companies like Zoom see a growth in their usage, reporting 300 million daily meeting participants during the pandemic period.
Some might brush this off as a black swan event given that it is catalysed by an urgent and acute social need, however, by virtue of the scale and magnitude of change, it is undeniable that the role of technology has tremendously facilitated the move to remote learning and digitalisation in the education industry as a whole.
Adapting to changing learner demographics
Although the global health crisis might present an impetus to intensify the digitalisation of the education industry, education technology has actually been growing well prior to COVID-19 with global investments into the industry recording at an US$18.6 billion high in 2019, with research forecasting that the online education market is set to reach US$350 billion by 2025. With particular reference to end-user segments, dominance in market growth can be seen in K-12, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), and Small and Midsize Businesses (SMBs).
Much of the dominance in the K-12 segment can be attributed to Gen Z (first-generation digital natives) and Gen Alpha (children of millennials) learners entering the world at the cusp of technological advancements. Having been ingrained with the use of technology from a young age, for this group of learners, technology does not act as a supplement but rather as an indispensable tool – just like how pen and paper were to learners from the older generations.
The consumption habits of digital natives are characterised as having a preference for unlimited access to goods/services over ownership – this is evident given the myriad of subscription-based services that offer freemium tiers such as Netflix and Spotify. Paired with the plethora of highly mobile information across various online platforms available at their fingertips, digital natives are described as self-learners who feel at ease gathering knowledge from online sources rather than traditional educational institutions.
Taking the lead amongst the world’s edtech unicorns, Byju recognizes how technology is an enabler in education and evolved its business from providing in-person extracurricular classes to creating a learning app that provides short video content for its target market via a subscription service. Understanding generational needs and more importantly, acting on foresight allowed the edtech company to capitalize on the sudden pivot to remote learning by providing free access to its product, leading to a 25% increase in its number of registered users.
Re-assessing the linear relationship between education and career
Traditionally, education and career have been assumed to have a linear relationship (ie better education leads to better job prospects). With the rapid advancement in technology continually resulting in the changing skills needed in the workforce, a widely held opinion amongst observers is that this has outpaced the capability of the education industry to meet the demands for future skills thus creating an education-employment gap.
Given the industry’s slow pace of digitalisation, experts opine that the university mode of education comprising of broad-based curricula, impersonal approaches to teaching and contact-time is obsolete as it does not take into account the changing expectations of current learners. As such, observers agree that a much needed revamp to the educational industry would need to consider the fluid nature of upcoming skills needed in the workforce and the overarching course of action would be to pivot away from the linear perspective and adapt a lifelong-learning approach to education.
The three Ms: Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs), Microcredentials, and Modular-based Certifications
Taking into account the skills of the future, according to researchers at Dell Technologies and the World Economic Forum, much of the future jobs in which Gen Z’s will be employed to have not been created yet. The latter has also predicted that more than half of employees will need major re-/upskiling in their job functions by 2020.
The increasing demand for skills development across industries has allowed MOOCs to gain traction in the past decade. Reflecting businesses’ interests in upskilling their employees, according to a CEO survey conducted by PwC, 77% of respondents agree that a lack of employees with key skills represents the main threat to their businesses. The benefit that MOOCs provide not only allow remote and self-paced learning, it is also significantly more cost-effective and enables selective choices to be made for a particular skill-gap.
With cross-functional skills being highly valued in an increasingly collaborative work environment, micro-credentialing provides the flexibility that would benefit companies looking into a multi-skilled workforce, allowing learners to build their skills repertoire across varied fields in order to stay competitive. To add, retraining staff for internal recruitment would be more cost-effective as companies would have to contend with labour costs woes amidst a bleak economical outlook post-COVID-19 – the conventional approach of relying on new hires to meet skills gaps can cost up to 50%-60% of an employee’s annual salary. E-commerce giant, Amazon, leads the way with dedicating US$700 million to retrain a third of its staff in key skills they have identified and will be pursuing this training outside of the conventional educational institutions.
Paper qualifications have traditionally held weight in hiring practices as they are recognized as a formal mode of education. Perhaps in their effort to diversify their delivery methods while leveraging on their brand, some established educational institutions have come up with modular-based certification which shows an appreciation for the need of the current workforce requirements to have flexibility in their pursuit of upskilling while retaining their income. These certifications are usually offered post-graduate where the modules are stackable over a set period of time that is comfortable for the learners’ unique pace and the certification would eventually be awarded upon satisfying course requirements.
Challenges to digitalisation
As the scientific community battles with understanding the workings of a new virus, and urge for a revision of global health measures over the long-speculated notion that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is airborne, remote learning might just work its way into a more permanent role in the education curriculum. Despite this being a move that would be considered as a step towards the right direction by pro-disruption observers, there are challenges presented by remote learning.
According to research conducted by Education Development Trust, one of the main concerns that the education industry would face has to do with pedagogy and how it can effectively be delivered in a remote learning situation. The virality of the SARS-Cov-2 virus caught the world off-guard and countries had to swiftly coordinate a national response across governmental sectors. As a result, the pivot to remote learning was not born out of a properly structured approach, and what would usually entail a multi-year plan detailing incremental indices of sector progress had to be executed in a matter of weeks. Research pertaining to remote-learning were also limited to the higher-education context, leaving educators in the pre-tertiary group to adapt on a needs-basis under pressing time constraints.
Whether or not an educator delivers their lessons remotely or in-class, the expectation of an educator does not differ and they are to be proficient in executing well-planned lessons (structure), adapt their teaching to students’ individual learning (adaptation), and formulating an accurate and productive mode of assessment (assessment).
Remote learning would result in students’ learning experience to be diluted, particularly those in age groups that rely on highly engaging content delivery to retain attention. Ensuring that students’ unique learning styles are attended to online would also require significant effort. To add, educators would need to be given adequate support in their own learning of using new technological tools in their teaching. This would prove problematic and perhaps impossible for countries with low to no digital capacities.
One other challenge in remote learning is the absence of teaching presence. Research looking into the drawbacks of MOOCs have shown that student persistence and drive is highly dependent upon teacher-student engagement. To ensure that teaching presence can be nurtured well virtually, educators would need to vary and diversify the opportunities of engagement (eg assessment activities, remote instruction).
Regardless of where one’s stand is on the matter of how the education industry should evolve, it is with certainty that technological advancement will not wait for the industry to play catch-up. In a panel discussion addressing the future of education, Johannes Heinlein (Chief Commercial Officer and Senior Vice President for Strategic Partnerships at edX) succinctly summarises the considerations that the industry would need to take. MOOCs companies responsible for the disruption in the education industry have already gone on to look at the skills of the future and its no surprise that it contains skills in a variety of domains. Educational institutions should take to Heinlein’s advice with haste if they would like to stay relevant in an increasingly VUCA world.