Commenting on how New South Wales schools have coped during the pandemic, Scott said the state’s schools transitioned well to learning from home.
“It was a remarkable flip in the way we engage with students and really made us think about what is the classroom best for.”
This changing nature of the classroom was addressed by keynote speaker MIT’s Vice President for Open Learning, Professor Sanjay Sarma who said the fact we were able to pivot to online learning in schools and universities seamlessly is mildly worrying.
He suggested the pandemic has hastened our digital transformation as we suddenly discover we don’t necessarily need the classroom or more pertinently, we need to rethink the role of the classroom.
In Professor Sarma’s opinion, the “fire-hose” of information delivered by teachers can be easily delivered online and the classroom can be better utilised for collaboration and project-based learning.
He said we fundamentally need to change the way we organise education and asked the question as to why work and learning are separated.
He also emphasised the importance of lifelong learning and introduced a university model mixing on-campus learning and an internship where students earn credits towards their degree. Furthermore, he suggested a world of work where employees complete a micro-masters or might take a sabbatical to do another degree and then potentially complete bootcamps for further credentials once back at work.
Sarma’s major point was individuals will need to constantly evolve in a rapidly changing digital economy where workplaces will continuously change. The key is constant learning and education should not just be focused on preparing an individual for the first job.
“Education becomes critical and we need to learn to learn. For me, education is what you do to people, whereas learning you do for yourself,” Sarma said.
“Education needs to be a non-profit because we need to be preparing human beings for a whole life. We don’t want folks geared towards one skill so they can’t take their career beyond that – we need to prepare people for life and not job one.”
In the panel discussion following Sarma’s address, the vice chancellor of Monash University, Professor Margaret Gardner said the university was like an elephant that “pirouetted on the tip of a ballet shoe” such was the enormous amount of resources it transferred online once the pandemic hit.
“Everything went online and it all changed overnight and it worked well,” Gardner said.
To Professor Sarma’s provocation that some universities are not well prepared for the future of education, Gardner said Australian universities were already changing appreciably before the pandemic arrived.
“At Monash, we’re not mired in the past,” she said. “We’ve already changed the shape of our classroom. We’d already moved to having exams online and there was already work being done to bring the virtual into education but COVID-19 has accelerated it.
“What’s interesting, is the upshot of everything going online (for our students here and overseas) is in our first semester results, grades have gone up,” Gardner said.
Chief executive officer of PwC’s Skills for Australia, Sara Caplan, asked should we be going back to the classroom at all and if so, in what capacity?
Caplan said no doubt we will because we always “need people pushing the boundaries in laboratories” and other research areas but “we also need to embrace more online learning.”
“We need to continue to pick up new skills and abilities as we go through life,” she said.
Chair of the Australian Government Skills Panel, Steven Joyce spoke of ensuring Australians understand education is not all about heading to university and there should be a closer relationship between the vocational sector and universities.
“They [the two sectors] need to talk more.”
He suggested lifelong learning could involve a mixture of qualifications or credentials.
“At present, the vocational training system is too bureaucratic and industry needs to take more ownership of it. Government should step back a bit and a little more pressure should be put on industry and vocational training providers to work more closely together and to take on a bit more leadership,” Joyce said.
Caplan suggested the vocational training sector needs to be better understood by schools, teachers and parents because right now everything is still skewed towards the HSC and university.
“It’s really important in schools to educate teachers and parents about the whole gamut of options open to young people. Whether it’s vocational training in a TAFE, university or a traineeship pathway,” she said.
“We should recognise a vocational pathway is a different way to achieving a great career. It is no different (for better or worse) than going to university, so we need to change perceptions. Either way is great and can lead to a very fulfilling life,” Caplan concluded.
For more information on the Reshaping Australia Dialogues go to the special AFR Live events page here in partnership with Microsoft.
To read more about Microsoft’s blueprint for an inclusive post-pandemic recovery visit https://microsoft.com/en-au/reimagine