What COVID-19 means for the future of education research


Marshall Terrill

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a globally disruptive force to our human systems for over a year. 

Scholars have already begun researching the effects of the catastrophe as it’s unfolding. But what will that inquiry look like in five years, or a few decades from now? How will researchers measure the shock to and resilience of society?

Punya Mishra

ASU News interviewed several experts across Arizona State University on the questions they think researchers will be asking about the COVID-19 pandemic in the next few years and beyond. One of them was Punya Mishra, associate dean of scholarship and innovation and professor in the division of educational leadership and innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

ASU News: With the pandemic as the background, what do you think the experts in your field will be doing research on in five years? 

Mishra: The UNESCO website that tracks the educational disruption due to COVID-19 showed that, in a mere 45 days, starting in mid-February, schools in over 180 countries shut their doors, affecting the education of 1.5 billion learners. Suddenly, the entire world was conducting a global, educational social experiment that continues to this day. People who study such disruptions are not surprised by the first major effects we are seeing.  

First, in education as in much else, the pandemic has hurt the disadvantaged more than it has the privileged. The virus has laid bare the equity gaps in education and lots of underlying problems in our society, especially the equity gaps, in wealth, access to health care and education. 

Second, the pandemic has accelerated and intensified some preexisting trends. Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in technology use in learning, particularly the growth of distance education. This pandemic, and the need for remote schooling, has really brought educational technology to the forefront. And that will likely persist after the pandemic ends. This does not mean that most instances of remote learning were successful. Millions of parents and kids can tell you that sitting in front of Zoom does not imply learning. But at another level, the genie is out of the bottle.  

So researchers will have to contend with the fallout from these things. They will have to broaden the aperture through which they look at educational equity. And they will have to look closely at technology, at the equity dimensions of technology as well as at issues of pedagogical practice — how we teach, and learning outcomes — how we evaluate what we teach. …

Finally, I hope that this pandemic will allow us to revisit the role that schools play in our society and how we evaluate their success. We usually evaluate schools based on students' success and learning through standardized tests. But the crisis made clear that schools are more than just spaces where students go to learn. These are spaces for socio-emotional development, of growth of character and identity. And let us not forget the economic role that schools play — not just in terms of the future but a more immediate one. Schools, by providing safe spaces for the young to engage, interact, learn and grow, allow for parents to keep the economy running. Thus the role that schools play in our ecology is incredibly complicated but we measure their success only on single measures. I hope that the COVID-19 crisis allows us to rethink and reevaluate the role that schools play in our lives and in our communities.  

What kind of data and trends will researchers in your field be looking at in 20 years?

As the science fiction author, William Gibson said, “The future is already here — it is just not very evenly distributed.” 

The learning profile for a migrant child from Syria is going to be different from the learning profile of an inner-city kid in Chicago, or someone growing up in Mesa, Arizona. 

Education is always contextual. It is a rich complex domain that will always feature multiple perspectives and approaches. So the kinds of data that education researchers will look at will be determined by a variety of contexts (Syria or Chicago, wealthy or underserved areas, etc.) and by a range of disciplines (history, philosophy, learning science and much more). This data will be qualitative and quantitative. And, as I mentioned above, there will be a lot of it. The more interesting question, perhaps, is not what kinds of data we will look at but rather, it will be what, given the expected growth of AI and machine learning and the asymmetries of who has access to data, the ethical rules of the road for capturing who owns the data, the conclusions we draw from it and how it is used. 

What research that is happening now in your field, apart from your own, do you find most exciting?

I love this question because one of the things that I do in my work is that I think a lot about what we call the “adjacent possible.” The only way to explain it is with an analogy. One can argue that one of the most significant technological advances was the advent of the printing press. It allowed for mass literacy, and in some ways our educational system is built around the “book.” 

What many people don’t know is that one of the side effects of the advent of print is that many people realized they had bad eyesight. That had not been an issue because masses of people had not previously had to peer at small print on a page by candlelight before. Within decades after the invention of the printing press, lens makers were making spectacles. It was a booming business across Europe and led to people playing with lenses. And that play with pieces of polished glass led to the invention of the microscope and the telescope. And suddenly the infinities of the very small and the very large became revealed to us and transformed how we looked at the world and our place in it. This is the adjacent possible. 

So, I wonder not just about the impact of new educational tools and technologies but also about inventions and technologies that at least on the surface do not have a direct impact on education but in other ways can dramatically transform it. And of course this is really hard to predict. For instance, I think about something like CRISPR and I wonder what that could mean for the future and its impact on learning. I look at the advent of AI and what it means for the jobs of the future. 

I do think this is a provocative question, but one we must approach with a great deal of humility. The history of education is littered with examples of technologies that were supposed to transform education but didn’t. But I think as educators we should be always looking outside of education for disruptions and transformation.  

There are people who make careers out of studying major events, like the great depression or Hurricane Katrina. If you were a current doctoral candidate in your field, what about COVID-19 would inspire your thesis?

If I were a doctoral student in education at this time, I would focus on issues of institutional resilience. I say this because over the past months it has been interesting to see how different educational organizations (schools, districts, higher ed institutions) both within the U.S. and internationally responded to the pandemic. 

How has the pandemic affected your current research?  

In my role as associate dean of scholarship and innovation I get to work with faculty across the college supporting them in their research. I see three different responses. For one group, those who work with existing data sets, in economics of education, or those who study the history of education, nothing much has changed. Their work continues relatively unimpeded.  

For those working in the space of educational technology, in some ways, this disruption has been a bonanza. Their field is now at the center of the action. They are in high demand and rightfully so. 

Finally, there are scholars whose work is dependent on being in the classroom, observing teachers and students, working with Native American populations, or migrant learners. The pandemic has completely disrupted their work.

Reposted from ASU News. Read more from researchers in other disciplines.