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Humanity 4.0: How the brave new COVID-19 world may force us to design the education, social and workforce solutions we need.

By March 16, 2020October 22nd, 2021No Comments

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Today, like many, I begin a new phase of Humanity 4.0 existence – voluntarily social distancing, working from home, and turning down the fear dial to turn up my ‘curve flattening’ as Victoria is declared a State of Emergency.

As a working mother of four facing temporary school closures, the juggle is going to get very real over the next month as I stare down the barrel of remote work, kid-wrangling and adapting to a very new kind of COVID-19 normal.

So I’ve been workshopping a kibbutz-style experimental home school concept, with an agile, evolving emergency curriculum including: Social Distancing – Global Virtual Greetings, How to be an Isolation Influencer 101, Interpretive Dance, Tik Tok Numeracy, MAFS Modern Philosophy, Clickbait – Practical Techniques, and a Reggio Emilia-inspired, self-directed nutritional learning class entitled: “Find your own %#*^ing food in the garden”.

My girlfriends and I (with nearly 30 school aged kids between us) have been entertaining ourselves coming up with inventive Black Swan lesson titles and COVID-19 life in confinement hacks on our What’s App thread.

But the reality is that beyond the banter, underneath we’re all grappling with the gnawing uncertainty that comes with facing the unknown of the weeks ahead, an education system shutdown, and the financial implications of a workforce and consumer economy being hit from every side, which sees some of us suddenly underemployed, trying to offset the looming lean months in the balance sheet, and readjusting to remote work and learning at home with multiple kids nipping at our heels.

Governments in 73 countries have now announced or implemented the closure of educational institutions in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, estimated to be impacting 516.6 million children and youth globally – and growing.

Hundreds of millions of learners are now experiencing education disruption, and in an effort to offset the impact, UNESCO has released a comprehensive resource list of free educational applications and platforms to help parents, teachers and school systems, and is providing immediate support to countries as they work to facilitate continuity of learning systems, especially for the most vulnerable.

Sadly, as with most human misfortunes across the eons, those who suffer the most during this time will, as always, unfortunately be those who have the least, and when it comes to educational access, the digital divide will compound disadvantage for those without access to the internet and digital tools required to learn remotely during this time. (According to a recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics the “digital divide” in Australia still remains largely unchanged.)

Given our work across the education sector at girledworld and Future Amp here in Australia, we’ve had a rare front row seat to the unfolding chaos inside secondary schools and higher education institutions in recent weeks as they grapple with emergency COVID-19 containment contingencies and the deployment of continuity strategies for e-learning, distance teaching and digital education delivery during these uncertain times.

But there’s a part of me that’s watching it all with keen interest.

Because maybe the upside to this unprecedented disruption is that this crisis may rapidly accelerate the innovation long-required to rethink, redesign and recalibrate our education and learning systems, and reexamine the fundamental role of education in our ever-more complex 21st Century world (currently awash with one too many wicked problems).

Back in 2018, Gonski’s landmark Through Growth to Achievement Report called for radical education system reforms, and a move from a year-based curriculum to one that’s independent of age or grade to enable student-directed, personalised and digitised blended learning models.

The report outlined a new education system designed to provide more flexible delivery models offering virtual, on-demand, digital and distributed learning to students who have for too long been subjected to an Industrial model, lock-step mass education system.

Globally, leading educators agree that Education 4.0 design and delivery needs to shift toward a multi-disciplinary, pick-and-mix personalised model based on real-life problem solving, greater learner autonomy and flexibility, and the development of core competencies in technical, creative and employability skills to meet Industry 4.0 needs.

But the education sector has been slow to move, and maybe this strange moment we now find ourselves in is our chance to shake the snow dome and work out where the education system makes sense, where it no longer serves students, and what should stay and what should go.

There are some stand-out educational institutions seizing the current situation as an opportunity to lead and fast-track decisions: For example, last week the University of Tasmania’s Vice-Chancellor Rufus Black announced that UTAS would accelerate its five-year strategy and cut back its course offerings from 514 to 120 in an effort to reduce costs, decrease over-reliance on foreign students and be prudent as the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic plays out, (and which is predicted to put a gaping hole in the balance sheets of multiple education institutions, businesses and corporations right across the country).

This gaping hole is unsurprising, given experts have long warned that the Australian tertiary sector’s over-reliance on Chinese students as an income generator in the face of cuts to higher education funding would expose the system to risk down the line. The coronavirus and subsequent travel bans from China have brought that risk starkly to the fore now.

In 2019, international students contributed $34 billion to the Australian economy and universities now face an estimated $1.2 billion hit to fee revenue from an estimated 65,800 students at risk of cancelling their 2020 enrolments altogether due to currently being stuck outside Australia.

But the meta economic, education and social systems impact of COVID-19 remains to be seen, and the coming months will show us all what a new normal in educational delivery, economic productivity and modern workforce value creation really means.

According to Mark Manson and other commentators across the planet, economic and societal “contractions” like these are normal and healthy things to “cull dead weight” and sort out which businesses and systems are actually creating value for society and which ones are not. Or as Warren Buffett blatantly puts it, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

Economic rationalism aside, the reality is that measures to distribute and enact isolation policies for workforces and the education sector will force a digital imperative and value constraint on our systems and day-to-day ways of working, teaching and learning – whether we’re ready for it or not.

And given this whole situation is likely going to get a whole lot bell curve worse before it gets better, as the virus spreads across the planet we’ll see an increase in quarantining measures with more people staying home, learning from home and working from home, so adaptability, flexibility and reinvention will be key to new systems design in the face of an ever-changing and dynamic situation.

What work looks like when we’re not at work and what learning looks like when we’re not at school will no doubt be an experiment with rich and surprising learnings for us all. During this time of brave new learning trials and pilots, this is therefore our real chance to test and learn.

Whichever way we look at it, across the world, educators, students and workers everywhere will need to get used to a very different looking kind of daily grind.

The upside to COVID-19 for those of us who have been working flexibly from home and casual co-work environs (and evangelising the positives) for a while now, is that we can share our WFH sanity drops, startup hacks, preferred open source productivity apps, team collaboration tools (SlackTrelloGoogle DriveZoomZapier), and Deep Work anti-distraction practices with those who aren’t used to working or learning this way, in order to support them in transitioning to a new work or home learning structure.

The education system with many of its legacy enterprise and LMS systems could directly benefit from rapid integration of some of these real-time group collaboration tools and productivity practices sooner rather than later, and this could be the perfect time to test and learn viabilities, feasibilities and desirabilities for these sorts of applications in the sector.

Making the most of the market opportunity that has suddenly revealed itself, the big guns have also jumped into rapid solution mode for the education sector, with Google for Education just announcing the release of advanced features in Hangouts Meet (available to schools around the globe) so that educators can continue connecting (for free) with students, and can facilitate remote learning (this will include the ability to record meetings, livestream to up to 100k people and add 250 people to a Google Hangout).

Microsoft Teams has also released remote learning startup guidance for educators everywhere, so there are plenty of resources available for trial and implementation in learning institutions across the country, and in an act of benevolence to the scattered and home-bound workers of the world, Jason Fried is offering his book REMOTE: Office Not Required for free here.

But it’s no secret that the jury has been out for awhile on what blended learning or flexible education models look like.

How can we tell if students are actively learning remotely? How do we measure individual learner progress? Can we maintain strong company and team culture when we only see each other online? Do we take the same human cues in a virtual meeting? How do we maintain morale in the virtual office or classroom? Will social distancing and indefinite home isolation affect our mental health and ability to effectively work and learn?

Who knows.

Time will tell. As it ever has.

But maybe this State of Emergency is a chance for us all to push pause for a bit.

To slow down, go home, sit in the corner – and have a good, hard think about where we’re at, where humanity’s at, and where the world’s at.

In the face of social crises, society learns something about itself.

And COVID-19 just might be the silver-lined warning Humanity 4.0 needs to rethink education, globalisation, automation, exponential progress and technological advancement at all costs.

As Yuval Noah Harari wrote in TIME yesterday, the real antidote to the current epidemic is not segregation and de-globalisation, but rather cooperation, solidarity, trust and a new suite of leaders we can look to who can shepherd us through these strange, unprecedented times.

What is certain is that like viruses, all systems evolve and transform.

But only if we respond quickly to the red flags, be a first mover, apply some third order thinking and adopt an agile, adaptable mindset in our every day lives, learning systems and work practices in this brave new COVID-19 world.

Wherever you are, whoever you are, whatever you do – embrace the new normal, for as long as it takes.

We’ll get through this.

Together. Apart.