While discussions on how the pandemic has accelerated the Future of Work dominate, we in the education industry—academics, instructors, professors, and managers—have been concentrating on the Future of Education. Education—and higher education in particular—is one of the most important elements of the Future of Work as it is an engine of ongoing change. The primary goal of higher education is to guarantee a constant supply of qualified cadres that fit the changing labor environment by facilitating their personal and professional growth.

In response to the Future of Work, the higher education system is evolving. The educational models, teaching methods, centers of education, specializations, courses, formats, and modes are all subject to change. Therefore, the Future of Education is happening now. Higher education institutions are participating in these advancements with varying levels of involvement, acceptance, and success—some are pioneering the transition, while others are hesitating and straddling in taking transformational steps. 

Similar to the business and entrepreneurial world, the education sector is affected by numerous external and internal factors. Crises have always been one of the most influential levers and, most recently, we have all witnessed and been victims of the latest crisis: the SARS-COVID-19 pandemic. A tragedy for the entire world, the pandemic forced us to revisit and rethink personal life assumptions, career plans, priorities, and values. It has also imposed a new order of business and managerial practices, accelerating the Future of Work and, consequently, the Future of Education. Below, I provide a brief overview of the Future of Education, looking at the impending changes imposed on the higher education industry by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Technology application: The role of technology within higher education has been rapidly increasing over the last few years. Online or e-learning, webinars, AI, and even AR have taken their place within the classroom. Although in-person classes will still be the most favorable course format (personally speaking), COVID-19 pushed us into the viral educational setup and forced us to learn again and again. We discovered new apps, platforms, gadgets; we revisited our course structures and delivery methods; we reviewed the content and “classroom” activities; we worked on our social skills to become more sensitive and appreciative through the limited space on the screen. The success of the educational process, course, lecture, class, and knowledge creation became connected to our ability to adjust, grow, and change. Most of us learned this lesson and once back to normal, our “new normal” will involve incorporating technological development into the educational process in a blink of an eye, without fear or resistance to understanding all the benefits that this augmentation can bring in overcoming the challenges and obstacles.

Learner-centered education: It has been already established that the successful educational process has shifted from a teacher-centered format to a learner-centered one. The Future of Education will require higher education institutions to rearrange their processes and look at all its elements through the prism of the needs and abilities of a learner. The COVID-19 pandemic had a drastic effect on the labor market—millions of people lost their jobs while new graduates struggled to find employment. The task of the higher education system is to understand how to refit the new labor market, how to re-educate and re-skill those who lost their jobs, and how to allow greater chances for those who are just starting their careers. Obviously, this undertaking is an ongoing task and the evidence of success or failure will come in the future (hopefully sooner rather than later). Nevertheless, we now understand several important provisions: the knowledge gained has to be transversal (applicable in several industries and professions), and it has to be ongoing as facilitating reskilling and relearning will become an imperative for the higher education institutions providing the candidate pool for a highly unstable labor market affected by COVID-19.

Organizational ambidexterity: The discussion on whether or not higher education institutions can be seen as entrepreneurial organizations has been an ongoing one. More and more, we tend to recognize the entrepreneurial features of educational providers that must act like businesses and are subject to similar challenges and impacts as any enterprise. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced another characteristic of the Future of Work and Future of Education: organizational ambidexterity. The ability to deal with current issues and to plan for the future (when no one really knows what will happen), the ability to concentrate on both explorative and exploitative practices, and the ability to multiply and diversify strategies on various levels became a vital prerequisite for survival during the crisis. Interestingly enough, within the last 9 months, we have all embarked on the organizational ambidexterity journey, sometimes without even knowing that. Numerous universities, business schools, and other educational institutions had to revisit their strategies and operations and start working differently, often more efficiently and more in line with the Future of Education.

Undoubtedly, we all hope that the pandemic will be over soon. We will finally be able to hug our families and friends, skip the masks and sanitizers, hop on a plane and go anywhere, or simply pet a stranger’s dog in the street. However, the pandemic did teach us a few valuable things. But the question is: Do we really need a crisis to learn?

This article originally appeared in ISM's 2020 Annual Newsletter.

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