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The spread of the Coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 created major challenges for the European societies and for the global community. Schools and crèches are closed, major events are cancelled and quarantine decreed for entire regions. Companies send their employees to work from home, while public life has by and large come to a halt. Now, people are even warned against going to cafés or socialising. Will this weeks-long social isolation as a compulsory health measure be the end of adult and further education?
The end of adult education?
At the first glance, the answer is in the affirmative: while I am writing this article, Münchner Volkshochschule (Munich Adult Education Centre – the largest adult education centre in Germany; founded in 1896 in Munich) has on its website announced cancellation of all courses until 19th April. The Bonn Adult Education Centre (Bonner VHS) has its courses still running, but it is nonetheless dependent on the federal state’s decision on the matter. The state centre for political education in Baden-Württemberg has previously cancelled all events until 3rd May. This highly dynamic development, on just a few examples, requires great flexibility from all educational institutions. It is however particularly dramatic, from an economic point of view, for those who are greatly dependent on student fees. The Working group of German educational institutions (AdB) has two days ago called on the federal government to support with their package of measures to mitigate the effects of Sars-CoV-2 also and in particular civil society actors working in the youth and education sector.
Adult education does not however stop with suspension of the organised further education. Yet, the opposite seems to be the case.
- People need solid information more than ever. Mass media and internet information providers react creatively, using mathematical and scientific knowledge. Adults learn from pictures why disinfection agents do not help against viruses and small numbers are catapulted in order of scale by exponential development.
- The political sector and authorities seem to highly willing to learn and open for advice from scientific experts. I think that by doing so both sides accept that knowledge is constantly changing. This however creates uncertainly among the people, but shows a certain maturity in dealing with scientific knowledge.
- Finally, there are enormous variations in the attitudes and behaviour. Related learning and self-education processes should not be underestimated. The fact of the impending large number of premature deaths among the population as a result of COVID-19 leads to the precautionary measures being widely accepted, with cross-generational factors in mind, which makes people accept more or less without complaint cancellation of a soccer game or a concert. Potential for a conflict associated with the permanent imposition of such restrictions is yet to be seen.
- Not yet a prediction, but it does not mean that adult learning processes are less likely to slow down. Once the commuting route to work is for the first time deleted from the daily routine, tax declaration and home office tasks completed, there arises a new free time vacuum. Dealing with it, after many years of intensive work, is a more or less easy learning task for many.
Opportunity for online education
Coronavirus offers a particularly good opportunity for online education and I so turn back to education providers. Although they have over the recent years had difficult time with the digitalisation, they now have to act quickly using the exiting solutions. Learning centres must within a short period of time find a way for the lecturers to work on tasks with the students without having to be physically present in the building and for the most part without any learning software or learning management systems, let alone experience in using these. The same applies to further education providers.
This is exactly why there is a gold rush in the e-learning industry. I have over the past few days noticed how learning management system providers have reminded about themselves with a press mail under a friendly excuse of “helping out in difficult times”. Some offer paid solutions at no fee, which can be expression of solidarity or an all too transparent form of customer acquisition.
Whichever way one chooses to see these side matters, it is crucial to note that the corona crisis has made absence of an alternative apparent – one must use digital tools for educational processes, where these tools no longer compete with learning in the face-to-face situation, but are rather as a necessary condition for organised learning in a state of emergency. Perhaps, in a few years’ time, the 2020 crisis will be identified as the central catalyst for digitisation in education.