Historically a pandemic inevitably produces change to all aspects of society, and it would be really advantageous to our education system if that proved to be the case.
We can look at the change that has happened as a starting point, where there has been a rapid move to online learning, or at the very least blended delivery, that might have otherwise taken a decade to accomplish.
We have seen the Ministry of Education attempt to rapidly close the digital divide by supplying over 16,000 devices to students as well as connecting more than 30,000 homes to the internet.
Where students were too young to connect, Suzy Cato has been wheeled out to deliver engaging lessons to another generation on television.
Interestingly in attempting to close this divide a different divide has opened up.
Temperamentally there are some students for whom online learning simply doesn’t work and some homes where the environment is not conducive to any form of learning. Personal relationships have always been at the heart of successful education. Anecdotally the most successful online learning occurred where the students already had a positive face-to-face relationship with the teacher concerned.
I would extrapolate from that, that where those positive relationships hadn’t been formed, then the student was further marginalised during the online experience, if they engaged at all. There is always going to be a need for engaging teachers with the power to inspire and motivate students.
The move to online learning has a large potential benefit to Hawke’s Bay. As the lockdown has eased, I have seen numbers of former students now engaging in university study from home. In the past we have lost our young people to the big cities to study and not many have returned home. For them to study at home has personal economic benefits with cheaper living costs, but also economic benefits for the province as they are a potential source of casual labour.
Another huge educational change that has come out of Covid-19 is the recognition that has come for the trades. For decades, trades were seen as the ‘poor relation’ or something that you did if you couldn’t achieve the necessary grades to attend university, despite the many anecdotes about millionaire plumbers in London.
Earlier this year a massive reorganisation of the ITP sector (16 polytech institutes like EIT) took place leading to the formation of NZ Institute of Skills and Technology. Our own EIT used to be a stand-alone organisation, which operated with reasonable autonomy in responding to regional perception of the educational needs of Hawke’s Bay and Tairawhiti. EIT has now become part of a larger national network in which we are now required to respond to national needs and take responsibility for increased trade training, work-place learning, and associated qualifications.
As part of New Zealand’s road to recovery post-covid, the Government has identified trade training and our lack of a skilled workforce as a critical impediment to the growth of housing and infrastructure. The recent announcement of free trade-training is a game changer and removing the upper age limit means that that an important pathway has been created into future work for the newly unemployed. EIT is well placed to respond to this need.
What impact should Covid-19 have on education and what we value as essential knowledge?
The pandemic for me has illustrated a huge dichotomy in the attitude of the general public to knowledge and opinion.
In this great democratic age, freedom of speech is an important value, but we have moved from the essential truth of this, to a belief that everybody’s opinion is of equal value – ‘my reckons’ are as important as the opinion of a specialist with post-graduate qualifications and many years of experience. I would like to think that the Covid-19 experience has made us value pure knowledge and expertise. I have been heartened by the respect afforded to Dr Ashley Bloomfield and noted a hunger for real knowledge when ‘the chips are down.’
There has been a move in secondary education towards generalism, rather than pure or specialist knowledge. Students have been encouraged to learn what they want to learn, rather than an essential set of skills of benefit to their future job prospects and that are fundamentally useful to society.
Science has come to the fore as society has come to appreciate that it is only science that will allow us to safely live at a time of global pandemic. How exciting to know that we in NZ can be part of the quest to find a vaccine and that we have the medical personnel who can provide the Government with the accurate modelling that has enabled us to get ahead of this world-wide crisis.
Of particular concern at this time is the growth of conspiracies. Part of me understands that this is a way of dealing with the inexplicable as it arises out of fear. Social media has played an essential role in the dissemination of this misinformation, but the gullibility of some sections of society is truly frightening. Theories around 5G and its supposed role in Covid-19, vaccination and Bill Gates – all of these are obstructive to rational discourse and the finding of solutions to the problems that beset us.
Places of education need to grapple with teaching their students how to be discerning processors of information in an age where they are swamped with theories. A knowledge of history and economics is helpful as well, in order for our future citizens to be able to play a full, discerning role in a well-functioning democracy.
Can we look back to former pandemics for inspiration?
The impact of the Spanish Flu is difficult to discern coming as it did at the end of a global war. Perhaps the Black Death provides greater inspiration as the cultural, economic and social changes that it wrought produced the Renaissance, one of the most creative periods in human history. Let’s hope.