- The coronavirus pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on Gen Z and the educational landscape, a veteran ed-tech CEO told Business Insider.
- The positives: Education will see more tutoring, a “flipped classroom,” and more adaptive learning opportunities in the future.
- The negatives: The pandemic is exaggerating the socioeconomic divide and putting all students at risk of learning loss.
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“We’ll have reverberations with this generation that we won’t even begin to understand for a few years,” Charles Thornburgh, a veteran education technology CEO, told Business Insider.
Thornburgh has spent 25 years building ed-tech businesses, from creating K12 study skills software to founding Civitas Learning, a data company that works with hundreds of universities to improve graduation rates.
While both cohorts are seeing their schooling upended, it’s more of an adjustment for the older half who already have a codified view on how learning happens. Consider the concerns voiced by a dozen Gen Zers Business Insider spoke with, whoexpressed dissatisfaction with the “technical cluster” of virtual classroom learning: Students stop offering their opinions in video call discussions to avoid talking over each other, some instructors are struggling to adapt to technology, and non-verbal communication cues are easy to miss on camera.
The younger half, Thornburgh said, are experiencing a smoother transition because they’re even more native to the technology being used in a remote classroom. It’s less disruptive for them in the short-term, but more change inducing in the long-term – Gen Z’s expectations for these tools will persist in the future, he said.
But regardless of age group, Thornburgh is envisioning changes in the K12 landscape across the board. While he sees more upsides than downsides, the negative effects could have steeper ramifications.
The future of education will see more peer-to-peer mentoring and adaptive learning
Thornburgh said he anticipates positive prolonged effects on education for Gen Z.
He said that Gen Z, the first digitally native generation, is now expecting even more virtual connectivity with friends and learning materials. Most socialisation happens at school and students are trying to fill that void. The pandemic has partially amplified an already strong demand and desire to connect with peers, which Thornburgh said he thinks will lead to more peer-to-peer mentoring and tutoring in the future.
He also said he anticipates the concept of a “flipped classroom” in which students self-navigate learning content – first consuming the content on their own and then asking questions afterward. It would be a step toward more independent learning in the classroom that enables students to learn at the pace that works best for them.
“When kids don’t have to move in lockstep, they can go much faster in some areas more than others, or have special propensity,” he said.
Because of this, Thornburgh said he’s expecting a higher demand for adaptive learning opportunities and a rise in adaptive resources going forward. For example, he said, a ninth-grader who autonomously moves at a faster pace may be able to get themselves into 11th-grade maths in the future.
Thornburgh said he expects this to more strongly accelerate the implementation of more motivational and creative structures for students. These are positives both Gen Z and for their parents. “Folks previously hesitant about them have been forced to implement them and see that it’s effective,” he said.
The pandemic is exaggerating the socioeconomic divide in education
On the downside, the educational landscape is also witnessing immediate negative repercussions. The pandemic is exaggerating socioeconomic differences in many areas, but the chasm in education is particularly deep.
Schools help close these inequality divides, Thornburgh said, serving as an equal playing field for kids of different means to converge. “During the school day, that’s when kids of different means tend to converge,” he said. “They have the same experience despite socioeconomic background, but that time is gone. A huge part of spring semester has become like summer vacation – when kids with little access to resources lose most ground to peers.”
The gulf is also arising out of a digital divide – there’s a link between socioeconomic status and internet connectivity, Thornburgh said. For lower-income students, loss of access to school buildings and libraries also means they have lost their only chance of using a quiet study space and computer. Even having one computer at home may not be helpful if students need to share it with a parent working remotely.
But regardless of background, Thornburgh added, all students run the risk of lagging behind academically. “So much of our curriculum tends to be stacked on what’s come before,” he said.
He said the massive disruption of cancelled testing in the spring semester, coupled with summer vacation, yields lost academics. Worse, he added, is that most skill assessments don’t happen until spring so students may not know until a year from now just how academically far behind they are.
While states and local districts are putting decisions in the hands of parents to continue their child’s education, Thornburgh said parents have no data on this decision. “How do we efficiently and effectively remediate this?” he asked. “We need to have some sense of where kids are starting and what they have lost.”
This learning loss can have long-term effects when it comes to getting into college, amplifying the already tired battle for access to equal opportunities.
“We know access to and completion of college credentials are the best and surest way out of poverty,” Thornburgh said. “Kids not on the borderline will have a hard time catching up again.”