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Old or New Normal? 

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Educational institutions are returning to in-presence lectures and activities as in the pre-Covid era. Yet hybrid schooling during the pandemic has shown that there is a potential for change in education in terms of teaching innovation and adoption of new technology which should not be sacrificed to go back to the old normal. 

Back to normality.

Italy and the West are striving to get back to the pre-Covid world. In Italy, for instance, the government has signalled the intention to reduce the use of the so-called “smart working” formula for public employees and even more importantly, schools have reopened with fully in-presence activities. It comes as no surprise, then, that also our university is taking steps towards bringing us all back to the classroom. 

At the time of writing of this article, Bocconi has announced the removal of the physical-online lectures weekly alternation for many courses and for all the exams in the October midterm session. However, hints of this intention date back much further in the summer, when the university administration communicated that it would only be possible to watch a lecture’s recording up to the day after it was held, de facto removing a key incentive not to be physically on campus. 

This urgency to get back to normality is understandable. The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives and forced us to limit our social interactions within the narrow boundaries allowed by digital technology. On top of that, the shift to new digital instruments caught many unprepared, as they lacked the proper means and skills to transition to an online working and learning environment. Yet before reversing all the changes this year and half has brought, we should ask ourselves whether we really want to push the rewind button or rather aim at some “new normal” – a synthesis between the pre-Covid world and the lessons we have learnt during the pandemic. 

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New teaching practices.

One such lesson is that innovation is possible and desirable also in the field of education, where modernization has not historically been welcomed. On the one hand, it is now clear that new teaching formulas other than the traditional classroom lectures can be adopted; on the other hand, digital technologies have made their way into the classroom and are bound to remain there. The two are connected: research on new teaching formulas was underway well before Covid-19, but it was only during the worst phases of the pandemic that we witnessed a significant change, with the shift to online lectures – sometimes even held asynchronously. Albeit marred with (chiefly technical) problems, this format has shown that radical innovation is possible and has inspired to imagine new teaching paradigms. 

A Dutch student proposed in a blog post on the World Bank’s website that classroom lectures be replaced by pre-recorded videos made by leading experts of each sector and that nowadays teachers change their role into “facilitators”, with the purpose of guiding students and helping them grow as individuals. Digital technology also allows for new interaction methods, for instance using discussion boards. Other proposals encourage to update the evaluation system, replacing the current high-stakes final assessments that are major sources of anxiety for students with new creative methods, and making use of tools such as gamification to evaluate skills that are otherwise difficult to measure. There have also been calls for students to participate more actively in the design of activities and assessments and for experimenting with new lesson formats such as peer instruction. 

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The role of technology.

A common trait of the proposals to innovate teaching is that they consider digital instruments to be essential, with videos replacing physical lectures. In fact, the potential for the use of technology in education is greater than most of us can imagine: it is not only about videos and spaces for discussion. Smart technologies can outline personalized study paths through intelligent tutoring systems that serve the individual needs of each student. At the classroom level, they can provide fine-grained analytics to help teachers keep students engaged and improve their teaching practices and also help students with special needs. 

Digital technologies can also contribute to many other realms of education, such as providing analytics to enhance an institution’s study curriculum or providing new assessment methods such as gamification. The potential for the use of intelligent systems is probably still largely to be explored and can help tailor the educational experience to each individual’s characteristics and desires, improving educational outcomes and student satisfaction. 

One thing must be made clear: we are not heading towards The Matrix: technology is here to support humans rather than replace them. In its 2021 Digital Education Outlook, the OECD highlighted that teacher should be kept in control and the outcomes of digital instruments be considered carefully. Full transparency is essential to ensure that algorithms are both effective and fair, and to understand what their limitations and possible biases are. After all, these technologies are still new, and the transition towards their full use will need to be gradual and based on evidence that is not yet available. 

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Author profile
Deputy Director | m.visentin@studbocconi.it

Editorial Director from January 2020 to January 2021, now Deputy Director. Interested in European integration and public policy.

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