The most unusual and stressful school year in recent memory in the U.S. just came to a close. Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for a generation of young people, and students, educators, and parents turned to digital technologies to fill the gap. They used text messages to communicate about homework in rural India, broadcast lessons over radio in remote Himalayan villages, and conducted classes via Zoom in the U.S. Students learned science from YouTube and TikTok videos and collaborated on homework using messaging apps like WhatsApp and WeChat.
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.
On the online platform Scratch, for example, young people practice coding skills and build community by creating and sharing animations, games, and interactive stories using a specially designed programming language. From January 2020 to January 2021, the number of active Scratch users grew significantly and new projects more than doubled to 2.4 million a month. 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. Docents moved in-person learning programs online and museums like the Louvre shared immersive virtual reality experiences of their exhibits.
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.
“The pandemic has definitely accelerated the need for digital access and online education, however internet access and digital skills are not widespread or easy to obtain,” says Sabelo Mhlambi, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and one of the experts who participated in our research sprint. 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. In the U.S., students of color started school last fall about three to five months behind in mathematics, while white students lagged by less than three months. 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. Our research sprint participants from indigenous communities in Colombia and Canada recommend that more equitable access can be achieved by understanding the needs and assets of the communities and involving them in the design of educational programs.
3: Our education system also serves social and emotional needs
“Schools are not just centers of learning,” says Malavika Jayaram, the executive director of Digital Asia Hub, a Hong Kong-based independent research think tank incubated by the Berkman Klein Center and another of our research sprint experts. They serve as hubs for social interaction and services that promote physical and mental well-being, from free lunches to extracurricular activities to counseling. In focus groups we are currently conducting in the U.S., young people say one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic is not online learning but not being able to spend time with their friends in person. 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. One research sprint participant reported that in China, students have “virtual deskmates,” digital avatars of their fellow students that serve as learning partners.
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. Leveraging digital tools for education will work only if we can foster meaningful, engaging social experiences in virtual environments and ensure students have access to a wide network of resources and support.
The 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 we gathered for our research sprint 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.
Elisabeth Sylvan is the managing director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Sandra Cortesi is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center and the director of the Center’s Youth and Media project.