2017: German Professor of Education Olaf-Axel Burow predicts seven trends that would revolutionise education until 2030. Little did any of us know that three years later, a global pandemic would interrupt most trends, transforming what education experts predicted impossible to change without lengthy reforms. Reflecting on my personal experience as a first year PhD student at Cambridge, I unpack how these seven trends have been affected, altered, and accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the choices we have going forward.
1. Digitalisation. In 2020, digitalisation has been incredibly accelerated. We had no choice but to adapt to new realities of Zoom meetings, virtual coffee catch-ups, interactive jam boards and online pub quizzes to engage with fellow students and professors. One year ago, no one could have imagined that we would be able to adapt so quickly to a fully digitalised world. What will we take with us into a post-pandemic university? To what extent are blended learning formats useful? I do enjoy being able to attend a lecture while finishing a stretch after my run, but boy do I miss those in-between coffee chats that make your university experience unique.
2. The changing role of the teacher. Having to reframe the role of the teacher during a global pandemic poses various challenges. I appreciate that lecturers had to adapt to new pedagogies, ways of facilitating learning and ways to engage a group of PhD students while the whole world was in a chaotic state. It was a learning curve figuring out how to create breakout rooms, unmute (oh yeah, we’ve all been there), and insert elaborate zoom backgrounds depicting a beach scene or colour-coordinated bookshelf when the desk started to look too chaotic. In my experience, teachers have become more compassionate. Although we are not all affected in the same way, we are all going through the same pandemic. It has been refreshing to have more conversations with professors about what genuinely matters and how to drive change, both within our academic work and everyday lives. Is perhaps not only the role of the teacher changing, but that of the student too?
3. Networking. On the bright side, through digitalisation and online interactions, I have the opportunity to attend and network at events all over the world, switching between continents, institutions, and topics with a click. Thanks to this virtual open access, the ‘academic bubble’ has been able to expand and I am able to exchange with and learn from people globally. Information is now reaching teachers, practitioners, caregivers, policy makers as well as students in a much more accessible way. On the negative side, I do miss in-person catch-ups over coffee and tea. It is strange that as a cohort of 70+ Education PhD students, I have only met a handful in person. Interesting connections are often made in unexpected spaces (see trend 4) and so much richness and quality is lost by missing out on speaking in-between classes, conversations at the coffee machine or seeing the same faces at similar events again and again.
4. Change in the learning space. For me, the pandemic revolutionised the ways I now consider ‘learning’. Being 24/7 in the same space – eating, sleeping, working out, calling with friends, relaxing and studying – ‘learning space’ has taken on a new meaning. I have reflected upon my widening understanding of the concept of learning. Watching TED Talks while meal-prepping is learning. Adapting to new online platforms is learning. Supporting friends who are going through a tough time is learning. Contributing to volunteer work with a remote team of 40+ people is learning. In these times, even practicing yoga to stay mentally sane is a learning experience for me. Learning has truly become independent of time and place.
5. Health-oriented education. It seems as though we shifted our values over night from liberté, egalité, fraternité to ‘health over anything’. In recent months, the connection between our physical wellbeing and our mental health has moved to the forefront of public attention. Personally, it was crucial to me to find a balanced routine amidst all these physical limitations. Daily runs along the Cam and the obligatory weekend walks to Grantchester are must-dos for my physical and mental health. The free live yoga subscription from my college became my daily start and welfare talks and mindfulness advertisements flood my inbox. Although awareness of the importance of mental health inclusion in schools and universities had become increasingly important before the pandemic, COVID-19 accelerated its widespread adoption. Never before have I talked so much with my friends and fellow PhD students about mental health, exploring ways to support each other while apart. How will ‘health over everything’ lastingly influence our behaviour?
6. Democratisation. Manipulation through fake news, misinformation and individualized algorithms on social media platforms have the power to impact our everyday choices. Democratisation and the persistent promotion of critical awareness in education are crucial; however, being in crisis mode, this process is halted, if not reversed. Changes are not proposed and followed through by students and citizens from the bottom up, but rather are imposed top-down in forms of protective measures and lockdowns. While top-down approaches might bring safety and organisation to some, it also disempowers individuals’ decisions, withdraws independence and comes with a great amount of planning uncertainty. Leaving the UK with only hand luggage for the Christmas holidays, with one pair of trousers and one pair of shoes… I should have known better. In these uncertain times, decisions are being made for us, and I have been unable to return to the UK for various months.
7. Happiness orientation. Finally, there is the matter of returning to some of the fundamental goals of education: shaping you as a unique individual, furnishing you with an original spirit to tackle the big challenges and allowing you to successfully find your way, loving whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whoever you are with. The pandemic has brought countless challenges for everyone, destroyed existences for some and ended dreams for many. However, as an optimist, I do think I learned through this past year that whatever happens to us, we have a choice in how we react to it.
The Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy (2020) links the pandemic to a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. She said:
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through it lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ .
While trespassing through this portal in the midst of a global pandemic, these seven trends continue to shape education. COVID-19 may have affected, altered and accelerated all seven trends, but we still have a choice: to either hold on to a world that no longer exists the way we knew it, or to dare to imagine a future where education is only the start to a revolution.
Burow, O.-A., & Gallenkamp, C. (Eds.). (2017). Bildung 2030—Sieben Trends, die die Bildung revolutionieren (1. Auflage). Beltz.
Roy, A. (2020, April 3). Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ . https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca
Carlotta is a first year PhD student at the Faculty of Education and a sdw scholar. Her research interests are peacebuilding, comparative education, school reforms and Montessori education. She holds an MPhil (2019) in Education, Globalisation, and International Development from the Faculty, where her research focused on teacher retention in rural Bangladesh. Connect with her on linkedin: Carlotta Ehrenzeller