Lessons for the education sector from the COVID-19 pandemic

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Empty classroom with whiteboard of school. Empty classroom with whiteboard of school.

In 2018 we published a blog, Four Education Trends that Countries Everywhere Should Know About, summarizing views of education experts around the world on how to handle the most pressing issues facing the education sector then.

The four most popular were:

  1. Advances in neuroscience
  2. MOOCs
  3. Blockchain and
  4. How to deal with the consequences of negative population growth

Today, after two years of COVID-19, we have been forced to look at a new set of relevant trends. Neuroscience remains as relevant, perhaps more so given the ability of science to advance learning. MOOCs were seen relevant for post-secondary education. In addition, the following topics may become more relevant: the role of the private sector; education technology; inequality; and pedagogy.

Neuroscience. Neuroscience will continue to be critical for early childhood development and for literacy and overall learning and cognitive development more broadly, especially for low-income children. But neuroscience also helps understand how distance learning impact the organization of our brain: (i) when learning in a dedicated physical place; (ii) when learning is carried out under the supervision of a professor; and (iii) when the learning is distributed between classmates. The use of videoconferencing affects the functioning of global positioning system neurons (neurons that code our navigation behavior), mirror neurons, self-attention networks, spindle cells, and interbrain neural oscillations. These effects have a significant impact on many identity and cognitive processes, including social identity, leadership, intuition, mentoring, and creativity. Just moving typical learning processes inside a videoconferencing platform, as happened during COVID-19, can in the long term erode school cultures and communities. Neuroscience research can be used to understand how distance learning works best. How the teacher/learner separation by space or time, or both; the learner/learner separation by space or time, or both; and how the use of media and technology to enable communication and exchange during the learning process despite these separations. In particular, homes are becoming our schools: every day we check up on each other with online meetings, calls, and e-mails. Some of this will remain in the future and we need to find out what is its implication for learning.

Massive Online Open Courses. The potential of MOOCs increases with the challenges created by the need of online education. They acquire more importance today given that one side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been increased enrollment in online classes. Some argue that secondary education may become a target for MOOCs. A clear “side-effect” of the COVID-19 pandemic has been increased enrollment in online classes. The increase in enrollment in many MOOC classes was in the order of magnitude over the similar time span in previous years. A particular target were teachers who needed to be trained to manage online classes. Some called 2020 the year of the MOOCs. Increase in enrollment has been seen in both developed and developing countries. It has been also noticed that learners enrolling during the pandemic are more likely to be younger than previous enrollees.

Private Sector. In the empirical literature one can see that income shocks, caused by natural crises or macroeconomic crises not necessarily reduce child human capital. In developed countries and in middle-income countries child education outcomes are counter-cyclical: they improve during recessions or natural crises. In developing countries, the outcomes are procyclical: school enrollment fall during recessions, especially among students served by the public sector schools. Not surprisingly, private sector enrollment goes up during these times, even covering low-income students. COVID-19 has led to an increase in private school enrollment in some countries.

Education Technology. This is a clear lesson. Education systems that did not pay enough attention to education technology, learned the hard way that it needs to be included as part of the system, a needed education input. Many innovative models have blossomed during the pandemic, so a role for Blockchain in education is still apparent, as it could help create an open architecture for learning.

Inequality. The negative impact of COVID-19 on learning has been significant and while it affected all students worldwide, the most affected ones are those students from low-income families in rural isolated regions. It is estimated that the share of 10-year-olds who cannot read a basic text could reach 70% in low- and middle-income countries due to prolonged school closures and poor learning outcomes.

Pedagogy. Last but not least, teachers and school principals need to be a focus of attention to make sure that the pedagogy in the classroom or in the videoconferencing platform deals with the specific challenges. New skills including dealing with education technology, working with parents and other community stakeholders, are needed.

As we said in 2018, education systems in developing countries are facing many challenges. It seems like such an understatement now given the two years of school disruptions in most countries due to COVID-19, the emerging learning losses, and rise in inequality and poverty; Omicron variant and its successors will continue to create more difficulties. The group with the most to lose are students. The time to act is now: improve pedagogy, with a focus on reducing inequalities that have emerged due to the pandemic, using whatever means necessary – edtech, MOOCs, private delivery – all informed by science of learning.


Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

Eduardo Velez Bustillo

Consultant, Education Sector, World Bank

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