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What technical steps should the education industry take now to prepare itself for another pandemic-like event?

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Modernizing infrastructure, developing skills-based curricula and broadening interactivity tools are among the steps recommended by experts in Protocol's Braintrust.


Leah Belsky

Chief Enterprise Officer at Coursera

For higher-education institutions, the pandemic accelerated critical business needs including growing online teaching, reducing delivery costs, prioritizing student employability and supporting faculty development to stay relevant in a rapidly-evolving work environment. What began as a short-term response to the crisis will result in an enduring digital transformation of higher education.

The future of higher education will be defined by blended classrooms, job-relevant education and lifelong learning. Universities must proactively future-proof their institution across these areas to avoid further disruption. That starts with increasing technical capacity to offer high-quality remote learning at scale, including helping faculty develop the skills and pedagogy they need to teach effectively in a digital environment. Blended classrooms enable academic institutions to serve more students and lower costs of delivering for credit hours. Universities should also invest in public-private partnerships with other university and industry educators. This institutional collaboration will play a pivotal role in closing curricula gaps, validating skills and modern credentials, and providing direct onramps to employment through hiring consortiums. These efforts will enable students to graduate with the soft and digital skills needed to remain employable in a competitive labor market.

Today, almost every person in every job must keep learning throughout their life to stay relevant in a fast-changing workplace. Universities need to build pathways for lifelong learning like offering a continued education benefit to alumni. That could be directly through your career center or through partnerships with local employers that agree to offer job-relevant training to their employees.

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Lisa Lewin

CEO at General Assembly

The past year has demonstrated the vast potential of remote education and hybrid learning models, particularly as it relates to expanding access and improving flexibility. At General Assembly, we saw this firsthand through our work in cities like Louisville, Buffalo and Sacramento, where we joined forces with local employers and community organizations to help displaced and unemployed workers reskill for in-demand tech jobs through cohort-based models that offer more long-term potential.

But the pandemic also taught us just how far we have to go if we want to get the future of education right. A lot of the exponential growth of online learning was concentrated in massive open online courses (MOOCs)—which are inexpensive and accessible, but lack the hands-on support, coaching or connection to employers that we know is necessary to help people move from learning to earning. For students who are caring for young children, or balancing work commitments in addition to their studies, those personal connections from instructors, career coaches and peers alike often make the difference between economic opportunity and a wasted investment.

In order to be ready for another pandemic-like event, we have to make meaningful investments in the hands-on, cohort-based live training and supportive services to set career changers up for success. We need to invest in a better learning infrastructure — one that provides not just the content, but also the mentorship and wraparound support services that many learners need to be successful. Doing this work right takes effort, but it's what we need if we want to build a more resilient, inclusive economy that can weather whatever crises are still to come.

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Ken Eisner

Director, Business Development Learning Systems at Amazon, Global Learning & Development Technology

Education needs to be much more forthright at having a disaster readiness plan that channels "The Black Swan," anticipating both natural and man-made disasters — from medical pandemics to massive cybersecurity attacks. Obvious moves include moving infrastructure to the cloud, having a highly scalable disaster recovery solution and beefing up security. For example, Egypt's Ministry of Education was able to provide remote learning to 22 million K-12 students within days after shutting down in-person classes by leveraging Amazon Web Services's cloud.

The less obvious solution is changing the education mindset from an archaic, centuries-old, static mindset into an agile innovation mindset that can adapt to changes in our environment and our evolving understanding of the way people learn. Because we were stuck in the old mindset and constructed a wall of bureaucracy to prevent speed and adaptation, we moved slow. The first test in our evolutionary path is what we will do in the coming year. What will we learn from successes and failures in delivering e-learning, moving towards formative assessments and away from high-stakes, conducting data-driven analysis of ed-tech solutions and providing educators with support in this change? In Amazon parlance, will we Think Big and Invent and Simplify on behalf of our learners?

Failure would be a return to exactly where we were before the pandemic, where education failed to capture the gains and learn from the losses. Agility and innovation shouldn't just be buzz words for business; in fact, they should be guiding beacons of learner-centricity.

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Wei Huang Oania

Education Vertical General Manager, Internet of Things Group at Intel

The 2020 pandemic demonstrated that a digitized, connected classroom is critical to enabling continuity during an educational disruption. Organizations that had previously invested in digital learning platforms, multimedia equipment and digital content for e-learning were most successful at adapting to the sudden shift. These elements will remain essential during the next pandemic-like event, too.

Personalized, engaged learning is a necessity for in-classroom students and those participating remotely. Supporting it requires a range of technologies. For example, interactive smart boards that help keep everyone connected, regardless of physical location. AI tools that eliminate repetitive tasks to help teachers interact more deeply with each student. Engagement tracking, powered by AI analytics, that allows educators to understand student behavior and adjust their approach in real time. With the right solutions in place, you can deliver meaningful learning, no matter where students are.

Of course, collaboration tools will remain critical, especially as 5G allows more students in rural areas to connect. Video, screen sharing and annotation help create more dynamic and organic experiences for learners. These tools should be paired with a scalable, flexible, modular and future-proof digital curriculum. Adaptive learning technologies can introduce self-paced experiences for all students, helping educators better meet each individual's needs.

Efficiency. Equality. Personalization. At Intel, we believe these are the fundamentals of the modern learning experience. The next pandemic-like event won't change these priorities — but will require new approaches to make them possible. And the time to start preparing your organization is right now.

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Nathalie Munyampenda

CEO at Kepler

Meeting learners where they are: infrastructure light, platform heavy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to move beyond pilots to widespread implementation of competency-based, self-paced education offerings that align with changing and new industries. At the outset of the pandemic, African countries closed down all schools, leaving 300 million learners at home. Public and private schools did not have the capacity to do more than upload content online, if at all, and teachers and students did not have the devices or broadband access to continue learning.

This highlights the permanent shift that is required if we are to move learning into the 21st century in Africa. On a technical level, governments and schools need to focus on building, or acquiring and contextualizing, competency-driven content on internet light-learning platforms that are driven by teachers and learners. In several African countries, we saw telecommunication companies zero rating internet costs to learning websites. This could be made permanent with strong partnerships. At Kepler, our partnership with Southern New Hampshire University allowed our students to continue learning at their own pace with minimal disruption to learning and career services. We are now looking into white label platforms for our degrees and non-degree offerings.

Second, and this has been a hard lesson, we need to rethink our infrastructure planning. Our students spent a year studying from home. Infrastructure costs should be refocused to investments in devices, systems and platforms and building strong online learning communities.

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Evan Marwell

CEO at EducationSuperHighway

While schools have made significant progress in enabling students to learn remotely, there are still over 10 million students who lack home internet and/or a computing device that can be used for education. The first thing we need to do is ensure that every school has a one device per student program and every student has reliable internet access at home.

We also need to prepare teachers for the next pandemic event, and that means capturing and sharing the ed tech solutions that worked over the last year and providing the training teachers need to make those solutions part of their regular pedagogy — not just during remote-schooling events.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated June 3, 2021).
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