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How the pandemic changed our views on education & learning abilities

Technology was always set to play a major role in education’s future, but the pandemic kicked this transition into high gear. While it introduced exciting new ways to learn, just as often it showed how limiting tech-centric approaches can be and how existing inequalities prevent many people from fully participating. We heard of students chasing down Wi-Fi signals for class or stealing a few precious moments on a shared family phone to do their homework. 
 
Half a billion young people were cut off from school entirely during the pandemic because they don’t have the technology or connectivity to participate in remote learning.
 
The past year offered a preview of what education might look like as it becomes increasingly digital. To find out how we can use technology more effectively and equitably, we gathered experts from across the world for a research sprint at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. 
 
Here’s what we learned about how to make education accessible for everyone by thinking more broadly about what learning is and where and how it happens.
 
1: LEARNING CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE
 
Learning has always taken place in a wide variety of settings beyond the classroom, from online communities to museums, libraries, and local events. With many schools less accessible during the pandemic, people were driven to explore these informal learning spaces.
 
Many students are also taking advantage of learning opportunities on the most popular social media platforms, from exploring TikTok’s educational hashtags like #LearnOnTikTok to Facebook’s Digital Literacy Library.
 
Meanwhile, informal learning spaces with a physical presence, like libraries, community centers, and maker spaces, are using digital technology to remain accessible. 
 
Informal learning spaces — both virtual and physical — can serve as an inspiration for how we can use technology to foster self-directed learning, creative expression, and collaboration with peers. However, to fully harness this potential, learners benefit from guidance on how to navigate these decentralized opportunities and integrate what they learned across different platforms.
 
2: ACCESS REQUIRES SKILLS AND RESOURCES IN ADDITION TO TECHNOLOGY
 
As schools shifted to remote learning, many students struggled without reliable internet, access to their own devices, or quiet, comfortable environments in which to learn. But these fundamentals are just the beginning. Even the best resources and technology are of little use without the “digital citizenship” skills to navigate online learning platforms, engage with teachers and peers virtually, and manage one’s own learning outside a classroom.
 
While young people as a whole have a high level of connectivity, they are not all participating under the same conditions, and marginalized students often face multiple barriers to access. 
 
Globally, girls lost ground as emergency educational solutions failed to respond to their unique challenges and needs, threatening decades of gender progress. The pandemic shows that reliance on technology can worsen existing inequalities if we do not ensure all young people have the skills and resources to fully participate in our increasingly digitally connected society and economy.
 
3: OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM ALSO SERVES SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL NEEDS
 
Schools are not just centers of learning. They serve as hubs for social interaction and services that promote physical and mental well-being, from free lunches to extracurricular activities to counseling. There are also important social and emotional aspects of the learning process itself that don’t always translate well to online formats.
 
Many educators have sought workarounds to provide social engagement to students during the pandemic. They are building more time into the school day for storytelling and games, finding creative ways to make after-school clubs virtual, and launching “lunch bunches” for students to socialize during downtime.
 
We often underestimate the role schools play in socialization and well-being. Seeing these functions stripped away at a time when they were needed most is a reminder of just how vital they are.
 
Future of Education in a Digital World
 
The pandemic sped up a digital transformation in education that was already underway. As we chart a path forward, the experts emphasized the importance of engaging all parties, including young people themselves, in developing ways to use technology equitably and effectively. 
 
Digital tools open up new spaces and models for learning, which —if used well and integrated with existing approaches — can enhance our educational system. To get there, we need to take an expansive view of where and how learning happens and how it can work for everyone.

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