Education, the Public, Private and Third Sectors, Youth Groups and Volunteers come together to respond to COVID in Europe and the Mediterranean
COVID has shown us how urgent the need is for communities to become more resilient in responding to societal transitions. The six months following the introduction of coronavirus on European soil were a test of true ingenuity as millions of educators, from pre-K to graduate school, scrambled to continue fulfilling their teaching mandates when schools closed and social distancing was imposed, beginning with Italy and soon spreading throughout the continent. School systems were forced into a non-existent “Plan B” – warranting a desperate reboot of teaching and learning, and leaving teachers on their own to figure out how to continue teaching in light of the pandemic-induced school closures - no true teacher wants to see their students disengaged from learning or left behind. They started teaching from home via distance learning. They rushed to find what they could to compensate for lost time in school, many reaching into their own pockets when schools refused to allocate funds from their budget to pay for needed resources. This happened in light of the fact that, although most were unprepared for the minutiae of e-learning, many were not digital ready themselves nor had they achieved optimal levels of technology literacy.
Google shared data with the world to show the huge spike in the demand for digital learning resources triggered by COVID, affirming what we have seen coming for some time - teachers, parents and students seeking out online resources. Nothing new here; for the past 20 years or so, recommendations from esteemed international organizations have come forth on the need to redesign learning for the 21st Century, a clarion call for action that has positioned education as the primed target for disruption, stimulated by COVID. It took a global pandemic causing a sudden and brutal shift to online learning of emergency measures to shift schooling practices outside the culture of face-to-face interactions, and to engage in educational practices that have been advocated for at least a decade for technology literacy, knowledge deepening and knowledge creation.
Distance teaching and learning in emergency situations such as those created by COVID involves many variables - from educational infrastructure and school culture, a diversity of technological equipment, previous situations of socio-cultural disadvantage and / or learning difficulties, internal coordination, ministerial mandates, budgetary constraints, and last but certainly not least the preparation of teachers, trainers, programming managers and other instructors in being digital ready and technology literate. Societal transitions that highlight the value of online teaching and learning have taken place since the dawn of the Knowledge Economy, particularly regrading technologies that have ushered in goals toward sustainability, i.e. the “green” transition, and digital readiness, i.e. the “digital” transition. But disruption in education has no silver bullet, and distance learning itself is not the answer either. With the COVID pandemic accelerating a range of societal transitions, communities are vulnerable to being severely impacted, witnessing both immediate and long-term repercussions. The education sector is not an isolated victim of the pandemic - every sector of society has felt the impact of major shocks to the world's economies like COVID; and let’s not forget the widespread devastation caused by the 2008-13 economic collapse. Both disruptions to society have caused massive global economic stagnation, high unemployment, the shuttering of businesses small and large, the decimation of many sectors that are central to economic growth, a massive loss of jobs and a precipitous decrease in GNP. Both also brought to light how socio-economic shocks are negatively affecting people’s lives - their incomes, physical and mental wellbeing, an increase in domestic violence, and the social integrity of communities as a whole. Not only has COVID added pressure on the social service delivery systems, the pandemic has exacerbated labor market challenges. Like the global financial crisis before it, COVID has brought to light a pervasive skills gap and skills mismatch between what is learned in educational and training environments and those demanded by the 21st Century workforce. Continuous economic restructuring, innovation, and globalization have led to major transformations in labor markets, giving rise to the so-called “skills gaps” in the Knowledge Age, referring to skills and competences that are not normally taught in school at any level of education. Consequently, young people are unprepared to apply important transversal skills that are in demand by employers. Additionally, training organizations in both formal and non-formal learning environments tasked with preparing young people for the workforce are finding It difficult to prepare them for jobs that are emerging from or engendered by major shocks to the world's economies such as the financial crisis and COVID, or Knowledge Economy jobs in general where information is the driver of advancements not only in science and technology but of making society and communities resilient.
The lingering effects of the Global Financial Crisis are still felt a decade later and have had a profound impact on entire regions. With its destruction of jobs across sectors, GFC was associated with a sharp decline in employment, giving rise to a mass exodus of young professionals seeking jobs and prompting large-scale emigration from the southern, eastern and Baltic flanks of the EU. The GFC’s domino effect also contributed to population loss that in turn has been detrimental to economic development, high NEET (not in employment, education or training) populations in many regions that continue to remain high to this day, and an under-employment phenomenon that still has not been codified in employment statistics. Furthermore, there exist business cultures that create a vicious circle for young skilled professionals who want to avoid emigrating and remain in their country. Companies often demand too much previous work experience for an entry level job, and oftentimes do not provide recent graduates with the opportunity to enter the job market with the knowledge and skills acquired through higher education and vocational training because they lack work experience and the right kinds of skills – "soft skills" like working in teams, effective communication, being able to apply critical thinking to problems that arise in the workforce and digital readiness that can complement technical skills they learn in school and VET.
The pandemic has accentuated not only the digital skills gap, but also the limitations for digital preparedness of teachers and instructors, of schools and of training organization that have also struggled over the past nine months to continue their educational mandates and learning objectives. Trainers and other educators in both formal education and non-formal training programming alike were finding it difficult to prepare students for Knowledge Economy jobs pre-COVID – and now face an even more ominous challenge to prepare them for responding to the fallouts from major societal shocks like coronavirus that rapidly and drastically reshaped the world. Multilateral funders saw this as a golden opportunity to prompt the formation of alliances that could respond to the COVID-19 situation, most notably the European Commission, through Erasmus+ calls for digital readiness and promoting creativity, and the Union for the Mediterranean for employment promotion. Global Skills Network rallied its extensive network in Europe and the Mediterranean region to respond to the calls in six applications bringing together a cross-section of society – education, the Public, Private and Third Sectors, youth groups and volunteers – in applicant consortia. The fallout from COVID will take a global village to put our communities on the road to recovery – a huge THANKS to our partners who will bring these projects to life!
Sandra Lund-Diaz is the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Instructional Design at Global Skills Network, the umbrella organization for a group of action-oriented agents of change: Entrepreneurship Education & Training Around EntreComp (www.EntreCompEd.eu); Knowledge-Building Pedagogy supporting Problem Solving (www.KBinAction.com); a beta digital platform for promoting the United Nations Sustainability Goals (www.OnePlan4OnePlanet.org), Telecollaboration supporting cross-border dialogue around issues (www.Crisalus.com)