COVID-19 and the future of lifelong learning

The COVID-19 crisis obliges us to think deeply and creatively about the future of our societies and the role of education in shaping them, writes David Atchoarena


Much has been said and written already about how educational institutions are responding to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically through online and distance learning. This is important and UNESCO is playing a critical role, with UIL making a significant contribution. Beyond the emergency response, it is equally necessary to reflect on the world that will emerge from the crisis and the role of lifelong learning in supporting social recovery and in shaping a sustainable future.

The crisis not only raises important technical and practical issues about the delivery of education, it also poses critical questions about the kind of society we want to live in, our approach to economic growth, our tolerance of economic and social inequalities, globally and within nations, and our relationship to nature.

In the present context, the role of education must go beyond informing and encouraging people to maintain social distancing and wash their hands, as important as these messages are. The current crisis constitutes an invitation to reflect on the meaning of citizenship, the trade-off between globalization and self-sufficiency, the place of public services, including public education, and the need to foster resilience, creativity and solidarity among people and nations.

It is possible to see this crisis as a turning point, one with a profound and painful price. Importantly, it is forcing us to reflect on fundamental questions about how we organize our economies and the values systems that underpin them: What products, services and professions are ‘critical’ to society? Are we doing enough to protect vulnerable people and places? Can the cycle of endless economic growth become one of sustainability and inclusion? Can the principle of competition, considered as key to performance, in economics but also in education, be replaced or at least complemented by more cooperation? And can the current crisis be a catalyst for new ways of learning and living together, as well as new modes of production that are kinder to the planet and help secure the long-term future?

This broad questioning has many ramifications in education: How can we ensure the digital divide does not get wider – and even begin to close it? Are our education systems doing enough to cultivate active and global citizenship? Is the potential of adult education being realized? Are we working well enough across sectors, realizing the links between, for example, health and education? How can we design lifelong learning systems that enable people to continuously learn new knowledge and acquire new skills, throughout life, as they need them, or simply when they wish to learn them?

While we must do all we can to protect students and ensure that they continue learning through the crisis, we should keep one eye on the future, and not neglect the critical role of education in shaping it.

In the coming weeks, UIL will be publishing a series of blog posts that explore some of these critical issues, starting this week with an article on global citizenship education.

I hope colleagues around the world will respond and share their perspectives. They are urgently needed.

David Atchoarena is Director of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning

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