Technology is central to inclusive education but does not replace the human factor

The Covid-19 pandemic has placed education systems in an unprecedented situation. At its peak, schools were closed in 190 countries, affecting 1.5 billion students, or 90% of the global student body. With almost no warning, governments and private institutions had to switch from presential to online classes, transforming the educational model and the relationship between technology and learning. This challenge has accelerated innovation, cooperation, and partnerships worldwide. It has also exposed data system vulnerabilities and inequalities in the access to infrastructure and educational tools. This session explored the lessons that can be drawn from this crisis.

Author: Sciences Po student Camila Luz summarizes the debate session of the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum

Debate title: Learning from the pandemic: Rethinking education in a post-Covid-19 era

Date: 12 November 2020

During the Covid-19 pandemic, schoolchildren were greatly affected by the need to adapt to new technologies in order to carry on their education. Overnight, schools were closed, and students were sent to pursue their studies from home.

The challenges from this experience were the theme of the “Learning from the pandemic: Rethinking education in a post-Covid-19 era” session on 12 November 2020, during the third edition of the Paris Peace Forum. The speakers discussed the Internet as a universal human right, as well as concerns regarding the continued development of children’s social skills.

Vanessa Scherrer, Vice President for International Affairs at Sciences Po and moderator of this panel, said in her opening speech that according to UNESCO, schools were closed in 190 countries, affecting 1.5 billion students around the world – i.e., 90% of the global student body.

Shifting to distance learning has brought several challenges for all children, but mainly for those who simply do not have easy access to a computer or an internet connection. Especially in developing countries, the pandemic has widened the gap between children who will keep receiving proper education and those at risk of dropping out for lack of necessary tools.

In Estonia, measures to avoid this gap have been taken for the past few decades, according to the current President, Kersti Kaljulaid. Twenty years ago, the state started providing its citizens with internet access. Long before the pandemic, homework was made available online, and parents could follow what their children were learning.

Therefore, Estonia was somewhat prepared for what was to come. “But of course, the volume of online schooling during the pandemic radically shifted upwards”, the President said.

Besides, according to Kaljulaid, the biggest challenge today is fostering the development of social skills in this new context.

“We realized more and more that technology is only one element of this new school. The other side is and will always be how to keep our children learning to be compassionate human beings”, she said.

In other parts of the world, educational providers have even greater challenges. “Essentially, we had to build a plane as we were flying”, said Asif Saleh, Executive Director of BRAC.

Saleh argued that the pandemic brought the need to look at a blended model, i.e., one that provides human interaction and technology. “The crisis has made everyone humbler, and the appetite for change has grown. We need to look at a pedagogy that is not so teacher-centric”, he said.

In Saleh’s opinion, “the marginalized have become even more marginalized”. In countries like Bangladesh, where resources are lacking, an entire generation of children may not have access to a proper level of literacy, especially those living outside of urban areas.

The concern with children who live in marginalized communities was also raised by the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel.

“Digital can be more inclusive, but it also carries risks of reproducing existing fractures”, she said.

One of the measures to be taken is to ensure a stable Internet connection in rural and distant areas so that the most vulnerable communities can have access to education. The Commissioner also defended better cooperation in Europe and with universities in order to guarantee strategic investments in education and develop solutions to better articulate existing technologies with students and professors.

So, what should we expect from the future of education? Stefania Giannini, Assistant-Director-General for Education at UNESCO, believes that a lot is changing, as different solutions, such as hybrid learning, are being implemented around the world.

“We have learned that education systems were not prepared for such a shock; this is for sure. But at the same time, we have also learned that they are capable of rapid innovation and flexibility. There is a new kind of agility, from preschool to university level”, she said.

According to Giannini, the importance of education in the well-being of our society is also paramount. “Technology cannot be a substitute for the human factor in teaching”, she said. As the crisis has revealed intolerable inequalities, it is important to talk about quality inclusive education that trains and prepares citizens to live in an interdependent world and positively impact their communities.

“Education is not simply a transmission of knowledge, we know. But we could see in this crisis that education must become more and more a transmission of values, and a transmission of a vision of the future”, she concluded.

By Camila Luz

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