COVID-19: Accelerating the Democratization of Knowledge

While the outside world has quickly evolved, for the last several hundred years, higher education has entailed almost exclusively traditional, paid, in-class education.

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History has shown that technological advancement has a standard adoption of 15 years or more in the higher academic setting. Take computers, for example — by the 1950s, computers had advanced enough that both Cobol and Fortran (programming languages still used today) had been developed. It wouldn't be until the 1980s, however, that computers would become commonplace in the university setting. Or take the internet — although it was created in the early 1980s, it wasn't until the early 2000s that the internet became commonly available in schools.

One of the amazing things about technology is that it has the power to widen access to whatever domain to which it is applied. As the gatekeepers to higher knowledge, higher education's reluctance to adopt technology in a timely manner has had the inverse effect of restricting access for many people. While the outside world has quickly evolved, for the last several hundred years, higher education has entailed almost exclusively traditional, paid, in-class education. Over the last decade, that had started to change as educational institutions slowly began to embrace technology — but nothing like what we have seen in the last few years. COVID-19 has completely reshaped the landscape of education.

In a matter of months, the ability to teach online went from an option to an absolute necessity. Many schools scrambled to implement their first learning management system (LMS), find safe and secure online meeting software, equip their instructors with adequate infrastructure and expand their technological footprint. As a month turned into a year of remote learning, people began to see the possibilities of education beyond the traditional classroom. The last few years have seen an unprecedented interest, investment and adoption of educational technology (EdTech).

One of the unique benefits of online learning is its ability to almost infinitely scale. With an online education model, knowledge can be gained without the limitations of geography, the restrictions of classroom capacity or the constraints of the instructor's or student's schedule. Once a course has been created in digital form, it can be delivered to hundreds of thousands of students anywhere in the world on-demand with minimal effort.

The implications for society being able to scale the delivery and sharing of knowledge are huge. While the internet has largely democratized access to general knowledge and the sharing of data and ideas, higher education had been a much slower adopter of that shift. As the world grows increasingly complex and jobs increasingly specialized, lifelong learning is essential — not just to be a capable professional but also a capable member of society.

COVID-19 accomplished in months what had traditionally taken decades for technological adoption in education. Access to higher education knowledge has begun the process of being democratized, making it more available to learners outside the confines of traditional academia. Though most of us can agree that we would have liked to witness this shift under much less duress, this increased availability of knowledge is a small silver lining during an otherwise challenging time.

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