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The new normal in education… ‘hashtag online’
6 January 2021

The new normal in education… ‘hashtag online’

With a year since the first official reporting of a COVID-19 case, we have almost arrived at a global paralysis of regular education and training provision. This unprecedented situation affected all learning at all levels. Basic and secondary education, initial and continuing training, and work-based learning all came to a stop as we knew them. It upturned course schedules and attendance, disrupted teaching and learning, frustrated examinations and assessments, delayed certification, and will affect the immediate and future careers of millions of learners.

It has reinforced existing inequalities affecting workers and learners around the globe. The shift to online or distance learning during the pandemic should be seen first and foremost as an emergency response. Nevertheless, the crisis also provides an opportunity for the development of more flexible learning solutions that make better use of distance learning and digital solutions.

For this to happen, I suggest three important policy issues must be addressed to create long-term, positive impacts and develop greater resilience.

First: human and financial resources have to be mobilised to ensure universal access to digital infrastructure, tools and modern learning technologies.

Second: education managers, teachers, trainers and learners themselves need training and support to engage in distance and online learning.

Third: education and training providers have to revise teaching and learning models to make the best use of digital resources and tools.

It is now apparent that even after lockdowns are eased, everyone will need to adapt to a new normal, as a vaccine is still 6-12 months away for most of the population.

I previously suggested that we ‘do not adjust our sets’, and I still believe that, but we will start having to look more closely at the picture rather than changing channels. We will have to quickly understand when we look at education and the ‘new norm’ then, what is the picture are we actually looking at?

The pandemic quite clearly accelerated the digital revolution that was just around the corner waiting to come onto the scene, and has now driven right though our lives.

In a matter of weeks, coronavirus (COVID-19) changed how students were educated around the world. Education fundamentally stopped whilst we came to a solution on changes in how to deliver. Those changes gave us a glimpse at how education could change for the better – and the worse - in the long term. This solution was online, and we at the PMI are no different to this in our approach to the delivery of our autumn exams.

These changes have certainly caused a degree of inconvenience, but they have also prompted new examples of educational innovation. Although it is too early to judge how reactions to COVID-19 will affect education systems around the world, there are signs suggesting that it could have a lasting impact on the trajectory of learning innovation and digitisation.

Below, I suggest a further three trends that could hint at future transformations.

  1. Education - nudged and pushed to change - could lead to surprising innovations The slow pace of change in academia globally is lamentable, with centuries-old, lecture-based approaches to teaching, entrenched institutional biases, and outmoded classrooms. However, COVID-19 has become a catalyst for educational institutions worldwide to search for innovative solutions in a relatively short period of time.
  2. Public-private educational partnerships could grow in importance In just the past few weeks, we have seen learning consortiums and coalitions taking shape, with diverse stakeholders - including governments, publishers, education professionals, technology providers, and telecom network operators - coming together to utilise digital platforms as a temporary solution to the crisis, the upsurge in ‘new’ online ‘schools and colleges’. Awarding bodies (similar to the PMI) are finding new methods of online functioning – the Pearson Global School for example. What is more significant is that the majority of new products in online learning environments are currently free of charge.
  3. We need to refocus on the skills we will need in the future The rapid spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of building resilience to face various threats, from pandemic disease to extremist violence to climate insecurity, and even, yes, rapid technological change. The pandemic is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of the resilience skills students need in this unpredictable world such as informed decision making, creative problem solving, and perhaps above all, adaptability. To ensure those skills remain a priority for all students, resilience must be built into our educational systems as well.

The situation we are experiencing now means we quite quickly have to adapt, become more flexible, and combine this with new ways of communication and collaboration. We will have to learn how much more open to ‘remoteness’ we can be once this is over; communication will become the new norm and agility the new way of working; education will become the major driver.

We have moved on from the Empty Raincoat (Charles Handy, 1995) and moved to the Empty Classroom. The principles, however, remain the same: how do we ‘make sense of the future to provide for a of sense of continuity, connection and purposeful direction.

We are fortunate that we have just brought up the latest generation of ‘tech savvy’ millennials, whose ability to use and adapt software and technology is second nature to them, but the soft skills that are necessary to communicate these effectively are lacking.

Those looking for stability in the future need to think about how they can improve their soft skills, as some of the top traits employers are currently looking for are ‘work ethic, integrity, attitude, communication, critical thinking and time management.’

Investing in ‘self’ in difficult times shows employers engagement, growth and development; upskilling or reskilling during this period is evidence of lifelong learning. Showing resilience shows commitment.

The point here is that resilience is a product of opportunity. This is the time to be educating and to become more educated. It displays an understanding of continuity, a connection with employers and the market, and a definite purpose and direction. Now more than ever we have to be agile, adaptable and need to constantly upskill our knowledge and skills to maintain our status.

In summary, short-term responses have been found to manipulate our way through the current climate; these are short term but they emphasise mobilisation and expansion of existing digital resources, particularly (for the PMI) with online examinations. The effects of the current crisis are profound and potentially long lasting; all forms of learning have been, and will continue to be, affected. If we want to ensure that the shift to distance and online learning both meets immediate learning needs and prepares us for more effective systems in the future then we need to increase distance and short course learning options, expand across the whole sector, and improve the social dialogue and coordination within the education and training component of individual organisations working within the sector.

A final word of caution though. Online education and assessment is not a silver bullet; it is a method of increased effectiveness and will provide the basis for more flexibility moving forward. Educational achievement will be affected for those learners who do not engage as well as their peers in online learning, even if as digitally skilled. As a result of the widespread restrictions on movement many potential learners are confined to their homes without access to a suitable space from where they can learn. Some lack access to digital equipment and sufficiently strong internet connections to enable their participation in online learning activities.

The outlook for online learning in the ‘new norm’ is good though and is improving daily, but it is not a substitute in any way for the need or capacity to engage, learn and revise the content before being examined, or the need to have adequate resource and capability/ capacity to do so. The future may be bright, but it is not easy.

As always, the PMI looks to its learners and respects their desire to learn.

If anyone wishes to comment on the above, then please contact me at the PMI via email, or by phone on 0207 247 1452.


This article was featured in Pensions Aspects magazine January edition.


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Last update: 27 January 2021

Dr Keith Hoodless
Dr Keith Hoodless
Dr Director of Qualifications and Lifelong Learning

Pensions Projects Specialist – Very Flexible working

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Location: Essex or Hampshire – Very flexible working

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