A Discussion on The Future of Education
Adapting to the New Normal
A Discussion on The Future of Education
Education was one of the worst-hit sectors by the COVID-19 crisis, as most schools and universities worldwide were forced to suspend in-person teaching due to the strict lockdowns imposed by most countries. By mid-April 2020, 94 percent of learners worldwide were affected by the pandemic, representing more than 1.5 billion children and youth, from pre-primary to higher education, in 200 countries, according to the UNESCO Global Monitoring Report. The pandemic’s impact on education in Qatar was less severe, thanks to the prompt action from the officials and the existence of the necessary infrastructure to offer online education. Virtual classes enabled educational institutions to complete the 2019-2020 academic year before they adopted a blended learning approach for the new academic year. This approach combines online learning and traditional in-class lessons at schools.
The situation has left education stakeholders with so many questions to be answered: What should we expect in the upcoming months? What did we learn from this crisis? How can we use it to build a better future for education? How can we be better prepared for the next crisis? There is no way to provide definitive answers to these questions, as we are still in the middle of the battle against the pandemic. It would require years of in-depth research to know its long-term effects on education.
However, we did our best to give you a clearer picture of the current situation through “Q & A,” a new section in our magazine. We spoke with five prominent education experts representing Qatar Foundation to seek their opinions on the aforementioned topics and learn about their vision for the future of education.
Prof. Francisco Marmolejo
What lessons have the education sector learned from the COVID-19 crisis so far?
The first lesson we have learned was that the education environment was much more fragile than we think and was not ready for this crisis. We also learned that transitioning to remote teaching is a short-term solution, not a panacea. But most importantly, the crisis also showed us that we need to challenge our assumptions about what is bad and what is good for education. It provides us with a good opportunity to disrupt our education systems. We can use it to rethink and reshape education, and help the education systems overcome the challenges they have been facing for decades. We need to benefit from it to create a better future for education and to prepare the students of today to be socially responsible professionals who have a sense of solidarity and are more committed to their communities.
How can we prepare students to be more socially responsible in the future?
The need for more socially responsible citizens is a clamor applicable to both educators and future graduates. It is a collective effort starting from the family nucleus that involves all relevant players: government, companies, schools, civil society, and of course, teachers and students. As French philosopher Edgar Morin has indicated, the current pandemic has shown in society a strong sense of solidarity but also a lack of empathy. Preparing new generations of socially responsible future graduates requires socially responsible educators.
Do you think that countries that fail to utilize the COVID-19 opportunity to reassess their education systems may risk falling behind in terms of their education systems’ long-term achievements?
Definitely. Paradoxically, the current pandemic crisis has opened a unique and novel opportunity to induce a well-managed disruption in the educational systems. Considering that the pandemic has a global scope, no education system in the world is immune to its effects. Many of the inadequacies and shortcomings in education have been exposed during the crisis, mostly related to inequal access to education, high inefficiency of academic programs, questionable quality, and more importantly, limited relevance of the educational experience. For each of those areas, opportunities for improvement abound. In order to respond more effectively to the needs of the economy and society in the “new normal,” there is no doubt that “more of the same” will not be the right response.
What is the main challenge facing higher education, and how can we overcome it?
Higher education tends to work in a silo, and the crisis has shown the significant limitations of such a narrowed approach. Unless we see higher education as part of the entire educational system and in the context of a broader societal ecosystem, its capacity to respond to new challenges will be marginal. The very limited articulation of higher education with the previous levels of the education system limits its ability to equip future graduates with critical thinking and team building, integrity, empathy, and other essential skills for career success. Those are not the kind of skills that can be learned in a particular course, and it would be too late to learn them only at the university level. Research shows that the best age to build these skills is between 6 and 12 years old, so we need to embed them in the early levels of education.
This is one of the reasons why Qatar Foundation constitutes a unique educational ecosystem, not existing at the same scale in any other part of the world, which allows higher levels of articulation from pre-school to doctoral education. In fact, Qatar Foundation has already taken the lead with the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University in convening higher education experts across the globe to learn together about the different efforts currently in place to have higher education institutions that support the continuation of education in the previous levels of education. Currently, more than 15 cases globally, including our case at Qatar Foundation, are being analyzed and will soon be shared internationally.
What is your advice to university students and fresh graduates who may be feeling uncertain about their future due to the pandemic?
I would tell them: you are part of a unique generation that faced a challenge that no one else has ever faced before in contemporary history. It might be a challenging time, but you must understand that the concept of a job is changing. To be successful, you must develop your ability to work within teams inside a multicultural ever-changing environment. You have to be flexible as you might not only need to change jobs, but also professions. More importantly, you must be prepared to continue learning and acquiring new skills for the rest of your life.
Qatar Foundation Schools
Should we tailor e-learning to the needs of individual students?
As with everything in education, it is crucial to be open to doing whatever is necessary to remove barriers to learning. That means being open to confronting uncomfortable truths as well as being innovative. Sometimes, it is necessary to break a traditional approach rather than trying to replicate it. And this is at the heart of disruptive education, one of the Qatar Foundation themes, where counter-cultural developments can lead toward a new paradigm. The measure of success is student progress and achievement. Every school in Qatar needs to integrate technology into their curriculum.
What is your advice to administrators based on what QF Schools have already achieved in this field?
When technology works really well, we should be unaware of it – it should just work. So, before educators and students can benefit from the opportunities presented, the supporting infrastructure must be assured. The challenges often lie within the external elements rather than internal factors, especially where an ‘anytime, anywhere’ approach is to be adopted. The technology must work for those students with restricted bandwidth and VoIP restrictions as well as for students studying within the school’s own network. It is essential to know what the limiting factors are and plan accordingly. We should also capitalize on existing networks that connect our students, such as 4G and 5G via smartphones and other devices.
When we design online curricula, should we work on increasing the role of parents?
The ideal is to facilitate independent learning. Our children learn an enormous amount anyway through their use of the Internet and personal devices, though that is usually rather chaotic; the challenge is to channel productively that innate thirst for information. Online learning that relies on parents doing anything other than encouraging their kids is unsustainable and undesirable. Innovative curriculum design should reimagine how we think of teachers, casting them more as facilitators of learning rather than simply the expert source of all knowledge and wisdom.
What is your advice to students who are currently surrounded by negative news and uncertainty about the future?
This is an extraordinary time for our young people, and I know that many are finding it hard, especially those whose families have suffered illness or loss, and my heart goes out to them. It is a time of rapid change, and we shall emerge into a new era that we shall see through fresh eyes. The world is being rebooted, and there are opportunities presenting themselves that were not there previously, and the generation presently in school is the one that will build that new future. I would say to our young people, by all means, be aware of the challenges but do not wallow in the past; it can’t be changed. Look to the future, and remember, we have been preparing you for a future you could not possibly imagine.
In general, what are the most important lessons we have learned from the crisis so far?
The motto of the worldwide scouting movement is, ‘Be Prepared.’ It is hard to think the unthinkable and to avoid complacency, and it is hard to decide to act before the effects of a crisis are felt locally. The single most important lesson, I would venture, is that the world is a very small and intensively connected place. Global issues are everyone’s concern, and a failure to act early can have cataclysmic consequences. This time, quite apart from the lamentable loss of life, we have come close to breaking the world’s economy; imagine if we break the climate.
Omar Al Agnaf
Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI)
Hamad Bin Khalifa University
How vital is biomedical research in facing health care system emergencies?
Biomedical research plays a crucial role in supporting health care systems. It focuses on studying biological processes and diseases to improve prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases, leading to a healthier population and a more robust economy. When health care systems face challenges similar to the COVID-19 pandemic, biomedical researchers and scientists are always on the front lines to work on solutions while studying the disease to better prepare the system for similar emergencies in the future.
How did QBRI support the health care system in Qatar during the COVID-19 crisis?
One of QBRI’s main goals is to provide solutions to the health care challenges facing the State of Qatar and the region. From day one of the pandemic, QBRI used all its resources to support the health care sector. The first step was to provide advanced equipment and technologies that included robotics to increase the testing capacity at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC). QBRI also employed all of its efforts to provide high-caliber volunteers to HMC. The institute also placed its research staff’s capabilities at HMC’s disposal, as they provided technical assistance within the corporation’s laboratories where needed. In addition, we developed our own in-house COVID-19 test kits as a backup, in case of shortages like what happened during the early months of the pandemic. Finally, QBRI has recently launched an Inter-Disciplinary Research Program (IDRP) that focuses on infectious diseases in collaboration with HMC. Meanwhile, QBRI’s experts participated in various national committees to provide advice on the ideal measures to fight the pandemic. We also published bilingual insights on our website to update the public about the latest discoveries and findings relating to COVID-19, based on reliable sources, in a clear and simple language. QBRI is currently operating three research centers that focus on neurological disorders, diabetes, and cancer.
Was it a huge challenge to shift focus to infectious diseases?
No, QBRI has the expertise necessary to help tackle different health care emergencies. We quickly responded to the crisis by launching a special program that focuses on infectious diseases. We have already established a solid three-year research program related to infectious diseases, which received massive acclaim from international reviewers. We are also in the process of hiring infectious disease experts to join the program. Such a program will prepare the country to better deal with any future outbreaks.
How do you see the future of biomedical research in Qatar?
The country’s leaders have given particular care to science and research over the past decade because they believe that building a healthy population is part of building a strong economy. The Qatari youth have access to top-class education at all levels, and I can notice a growing interest in biomedical research among them. In order to attract more young people to join this field, we need to expose kids to science from an early age to make them more curious about it. Students should be well-informed about the impact of biomedical research on society and the economy. They should understand the vital role of researchers and scientists in improving people’s lives. They also need to know that biomedical research is a field that offers endless career opportunities in various sectors. Achieving this will require the collective effort of parents, teachers, government institutes, and other entities.
What was the most valuable lesson learned from the COVID-19 crisis?
The crisis showed how crucial it is to integrate all our efforts and knowledge as institutes, academia, and health care service providers to offer solutions to national challenges. The experience we gained during this crisis was invaluable, and we should work together during challenging times as well as good times to move forward with our country.
Prof. Amir Berbic
University students might be feeling the pressure now because of uncertainty surrounding the future of their chosen careers. What would be your advice to them?
Every generation faces a challenge in finding its place in the workforce. You are never being educated for the world that you graduate into but are being prepared to take your education and use it as the basis for the career you will have. If you regard your university degree as ‘vocational training,’ you won’t get as far and will be much more disappointed than if you regard it as a springboard into your future.
Online degrees have always been regarded as less valuable than traditional ones, especially by employers. Is it time to change the way we look at online degrees?
We always need to innovate how education moves forward. For many students, online presence is the life they live, whereas off-line reality seems increasingly old-fashioned. However, a physical object cannot always be replaced by a digital one. What we have found through our first exercise in fully online education is that both online and face-to-face forms of education have their places. The COVID-19 crisis has changed the way we look at education.
What are the most important lessons we learned from this crisis?
One of the critical lessons we learned was how much a community can evolve in its working structure. Students found that they had to be both more independent in their work and, at the same time, found that independency led them deeper into their art. Faculty put deeper trust in their students to be creative and meet challenges with innovative solutions. Another lesson was the reverse: how much the art and design community needed their fellow students and teachers around them to engage fully. One of the hardest lessons many people learned was about the loneliness of working alone. On the other hand, one of the best lessons many people learned was about how they can work alone and when they need to call others for support.
How was the online teaching experience at VCUarts Qatar?
Does the university plan to offer a curriculum that mixes online and traditional approaches in the upcoming years? For an art and design school such as VCUarts Qatar, creativity comes foremost. We only have to look at the enormous variety of art created by students who are all in the same class to understand the role creativity plays in their learning process. Online teaching in Spring 2020 faced an incredibly steep learning curve. Faculty had to change overnight from an in-class to an online mode. Everything from lectures, through demonstrations, to grading and assessment had to be rethought. An example of this is the Fashion Show, one of our traditional end-of-year showcases, which went completely online, and instead of a few minutes onstage, students now have a professional video of their collections to take to their future employers. Having seen the advantages of online learning, I do not think any university can step back from it. For students who cannot attend class in the future, the classes they miss will not be a permanent hole in their education.
What should universities expect from their students at this stage? Did the COVID-19 crisis add more obligations to students?
Universities should always expect the best from their students. The face-to-face class time has now changed to what can feel like a less personal online class, and students are more on their own than perhaps they would like to be. While it would have been easy for students to fall between the cracks and just withdraw from contact, students have done the reverse – they came together to advise each other, help each other, and ensure that everyone could learn. The other side of the crisis is that students will have to bring some of their own skills forward: learning new software, mastering the new requirements of their classes, and understanding and expanding their arts and design work. Networking with their classmates, many of whom they have never met before, will be critical to their success as online students. Once classes start again, however, all of this will be to their advantage, as they will already have a strong support system of their peers behind them.
Director of Research and Content Development
The World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE)
How can education benefit from the COVID-19 crisis?
The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reassess education models completely; that is, to rethink the goals and modes of learning required for the current generation of students of all ages. For decades, we have been stressing that education should be more about teaching students the social and life skills necessary to make them active members of society, and to help them overcome future challenges, rather than being just about memorization, indoctrination, or doing homework. The coronavirus pandemic has given us an opportunity to achieve this and push for change. Applying such change does not require resources or time as much as it requires the education system’s stakeholders to fully believe in the importance of change. We have to be aware that introducing this type of learning will entail new responsibilities for students, parents, schools, and policymakers. We will have to apply “assessment for learning” rather than “assessment of learning.”
How can we achieve the best outcomes from online education?
To achieve the best outcomes from online education, we must consider it as more than just a process of delivering information to students through a digital platform. Our focus should not be limited to technology, as it is just a tool that students use for learning, and there is nothing wrong with adopting other innovative tools. During the COVID-19 crisis, we saw many examples of this in developed countries that lacked the digital capabilities and resources that enable them to reach every student, so they relied on other solutions, such as communicating with students via WhatsApp or distributing booklets to students’ homes. These tools achieved significant and encouraging results. When we design curricula that will be delivered online, we need to make sure that students will not spend most of their time receiving information. Instead, they should be encouraged to gain practical experience by interacting with teachers, solving problems, and collaborating with their colleagues in groups.
What is your advice to students and parents when it comes to online education?
I will talk here out of my own experience as a mother of school-aged and college-aged children who also works full-time and has to attend meetings and participate in conferences outside traditional work hours or even during weekends. There is no doubt that the crisis has put unprecedented pressure on everyone, especially students whose lifestyles have suddenly changed. Many of them may suffer from anxiety due to the uncertainty surrounding their vision of the future. First, I have to say that regular cooperation and coordination between parents and school significantly improve the whole learning process for kids. We must provide them with a comfortable, stress-free environment that allows them to focus on learning and overcome the crisis’s psychological effects. But the most important thing is to make students assume full responsibility over their learning. We might help them in creating a realistic and easy-to-follow schedule, defining their priorities and tasks, or setting attainable goals, but in the end, they have to manage their learning. They should rely on themselves, perform the tasks required from them, and deliver them to the teachers on time. Giving them confidence will be an incentive that encourages them to strive. We should also think beyond the curriculum and focus on developing their life skills and creativity through activities such as sports, gardening, and cooking.
What were the main goals of this year’s “Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined” conference?
We organized the first edition of this virtual conference last April, and it was open for everyone to attend. It brought together education experts from around the world, and opened up an excellent opportunity for the WISE community to meet thousands of education professionals from all over the world to discuss the challenges facing education as the result of the pandemic and the change needed to ensure a better future for education. It also allowed us to learn and benefit from the experiences of different countries worldwide in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. In China and Italy, for instance, the impact of the pandemic was more severe, and some countries in Africa have experience in dealing with other pandemics like Ebola, whereas some countries have experience in dealing with refugee crises. The international community highly praised the conference, so we organized a second edition in June, and then a third one in September. We have also published the “Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined” special edition e-book, which features articles written by some of the world’s top education thinkers. It documents the experiences of key institutions on education’s front line from all over the world, offering everyone an opportunity to study them and benefit from them for a better response to any similar crisis in the future.
What are the other main projects WISE is involved in at the moment?
We work on several projects, and members of WISE regularly participate in international conferences and meetings, which allows us to share experiences and discuss the best ways to develop education. We are also working on a significant research project that studies the impact of the pandemic on the education of young students with learning challenges who cannot benefit from online education, as well as its effects on students with special needs, especially in countries that lack the digital infrastructure required for online education.