Covid-19 and the Transformation of Education

By Mariano Rosenzvaig

Since the outbreak of COVID19 global pandemic, almost every collective and individual aspect of life has been affected in different (and still unfolded) ways. A new and unknown reality has altered work, education, social life, transportation, and everyday routines. The duration and outcomes of this situation are still unclear, but we should be ready to face changes that may last beyond what we initially thought.

The traditional structures and routines sustaining the administration and functioning of the educational system are collapsing. Large classes, indoor activities, playground games, and close interactions, all part of the school’s daily routines are not currently possible and need to be replaced with new forms of schooling. Access, attendance, and funding are also additional key elements that will require profound analysis and revision in this new context. The “new normality” will change the nature of the process as we used to know it.

The new context affects not only schooling but also other aspects of the educational field. Educational research is particularly challenged in this context, requiring a rapid adaptation to provide new knowledge and analytic insights to understand the impact and effects of this global crisis in education and society. 

Doing educational research is often a complex and multidimensional challenge. Moreover, qualitative research involves additional practical complexities for data collection, especially in methods involving face-to-face interactions or direct observations. On top of that, research in during lockdown (and probably also post-lockdown) put additional pressure and poses new difficulties for researching in a widely altered educational field.

Many researchers and scholars have been forced to adapt their investigations to a new context that does not necessarily allow the same observations. Creativity and flexibility have passed from being (some-sort-of) desirable attributes in social research to become almost a condition for a proper approximation to the field.

In recent days, talks, workshops and seminars on methods for social research during pandemic started to replicate in different places. It is fundamental to advance in new ideas on how to adapt fieldwork procedures, data collection, interviewing, observation, and many other methodological routines in these odd times. After all, research and projects deadlines and academic commitments are not necessarily moving at the same pace as the world during COVID19 and show must go on. 

Overcoming the challenge of adapting methodological procedures is a key step to maintain research moving forward, contributing to the analysis of this crisis from an educational perspective. However, this is only a part of the problem, probably just scratching the surface of the main problem. 

Schooling and higher education moved largely to an online basis. Classrooms, auditoriums and playgrounds are not currently the main spaces for pedagogic and social interactions within the educational setting. Additionally, when educational institutions resume their activities, it will be different and unknown. The practices, interactions, and dynamics will face significant changes. We need to acknowledge that the previous educational realities are going to be replaced (or largely transformed) by a new post-pandemic repertoire of practices and activities. The scope and duration of this process are still unpredictable.

The challenge for the research community is not only regarding methods but most importantly, about the ability of the conceptual and theoretical frameworks in place to analyse and comprehend the altered-cum-transformed educational system, its problems and tensions. The question that will remain is to what extent the educational researchers are prepared to interrogate the current process to provide valuable knowledge for the future of schooling and education. 

This crisis calls for a critical revision of the previous epistemologies and its abilities to comprehend a much dynamic and uncertain field. As researchers, we must reflect critically about the limits of the knowledge we were producing, and especially, about the nature of the questions we were asking. Moreover, we need to avoid the risk of becoming irrelevant by our lack of capacity to catch-up with the extreme dynamism of these times. Research questions can age fast, outpaced by a context that is moving much faster than usual research timings.

Methodologies matter, perhaps today more than ever, but only when they are strongly linked to an epistemological frame. Ideas come first. The efforts for adaptation must begin with the observation of the nature of the knowledge we intend to generate. Additionally, it is necessary to demonstrate our ability to develop frameworks capable of rapidly process the current dynamism of the educational system and its problems, observing their shape, their substance, but above all their transformations in a context of high uncertainty. 

If this means that we must rethink epistemological frameworks and divest ourselves of the concepts that have guided approaches in educational research to be replaced by new perspectives, it is important to place this effort within above in the list of challenges for educational research in the post-pandemic world. This reflection is fundamental to prepare the field for another difficult question: Are we prepared to ask ourselves the appropriate questions to understand this crisis and to contribute to the future of education?

The outcome of this forced adaptation to an unknown context is still to be unfolded. Still, the research community (hopefully not just a part of it) will certainly cope and manage to survive in this complex scenario. However, the impacts of this process can have different perspectives. The half-full glass depicts a research community emerging stronger and better prepared after this crisis, with new perspectives, ideas, and an enhanced set of methods and practices to face challenging questions in challenging times. However, the half-empty glass can reveal a completely different picture of the situation, in which researchers face a complex adaptation to this new scenario, affecting the access, quality, relevance, and scope of their research and projects. 

Of course, it is not possible to foresee in what ways and magnitude this situation will end up affecting educational research (and social research). What it is possible to foresee is if the field prepares itself adequately to update its concepts and ideas (and not only its methodologies) will be much better prepared to respond to the problems that this new context will pose. The call is to put ideas ahead, as the first barrier to contain the uncertainty of the new times, and as the first step in the generation of knowledge and responses to future challenges in the educational system.