Skip to main content

Global Innovations in Education During the Pandemic

Professor Fernando Reimers looks at how many countries around the world responded to education challenges caused by the pandemic.
Fernando Reimers
Photo: Elio Pajares

A silver lining of COVID, says Professor Fernando Reimers, was the push for education to innovate. Through the pandemic, Reimers set out to study how education systems around the world sought out innovations, even in places that had few resources. While it was reassuring how many education systems worldwide tried to make changes, Reimers is concerned that there seems to have been a dip in that creative ingenuity over time. 

“The worst-case scenario is that we learn nothing from all this innovation. That we don't capture this innovation dividend. That we are so traumatized by this pandemic that we're trying to actually not have memories of it. None, the bad and the good. And we basically say, let's go back to the way the world was before the pandemic,” Reimers says. “I think that would be not only a lost opportunity, it would be wrong because the world before the pandemic was not a good world. That's why we had some of the challenges we had. It was a very inequitable world. It was a world in which we're not helping kids to develop essential skills, to be able to learn more autonomy during a crisis like a pandemic. So I think losing that innovation dividend is a real risk.” 

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Reimers shares insight on education innovations from around the world — including unique ways that universities collaborated with education systems — and how the pandemic may have impacted the future of global citizens.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. When the pandemic hit, Professor Fernando Reimers wanted to help global educators grappling with the worst crisis facing education. Initially he feared being a voice of doom until he wondered what good might be happening. This led Fernando to explore dozens of innovations educators launched during the pandemic. He now knows that there was a silver lining of sorts to the pandemic considering how educators from early education, all the way through higher education collaborated and innovated around the world. I wanted to know more about these innovations and his thoughts on creating global citizens. First, I asked him how the pandemic may have shifted educational goals worldwide.

Fernando Reimers: I think the pandemic has created a number of silver linings in that respect. Number one, before the pandemic, you remember there used to be these debates as to whether schools should be about preparing people for the economy, core skills, basic skills, the whole child, and it was a never ending debate. And the pandemic I think taught us, trying to teach in the pandemic that no one learns very much when they're in fear. I have, as you know, been studying educational innovations that emerge during the pandemic. And one thing they all have in common is they all realize that the first thing they had to do, if you have had any hope of teaching a child, was to check in how are you doing. Check in with their wellbeing. And that they had to create programs that supported the wellbeing of students. So I think this notion that in order to educate a person, you have to address the whole person, is going to stay with us in terms of goals. And I think that's a good thing.

I want to believe that another way in which the pandemic has shifted our understanding of goals, in making visible the bear inequalities that exist in our societies and how this pandemic has impacted differently, people with various degrees of privilege. I want to think that this pandemic is going to cause us to be more intentional in saying, we educate people, not just to look after themselves. We educate people so they take responsibility for others. And we are going to educate them for solidarity, for collaboration, for actually being stewards of improving the communities of which they're apart.

Thirdly, maybe along this notion that we have to educate the whole child, we also have to educate kind of for ethics. The pandemic has also taught us how important science is and a scientific understanding of the world. Why? Because it's pretty amazing that in a matter of 10 months we had all these vaccines. And if anybody had any doubts of how important science and technology is to society, I think more people now have an appreciation for that. So I expect to see a greater emphasis in science.

And actually, because we have seen how harmful the behavior of individuals who were prey to false information and to these eco chambers that kind of told them, "Well, you don't need to wear a mask," and so on. I think we're going to be more interested in developing media literacy and the capacity of people to be critical consumers of information, to help them understand that there is such a thing as truth. That truth is not the same as your political opinions and that wearing a mask when your public health authorities are telling you should wear a mask is not a sign of political identity. It's just following sensible advice from scientists.

So those are some of the ways in which I think we're going to have more elevated and broader goals for education coming out of the pandemic.

Jill Anderson: Hmm. And one of the areas you looked at was innovation. You've been studying this for a long time pre pandemic, and then throughout the pandemic. What did you discover about the ways that global educators were innovating?

Fernando Reimers: Most people did not sit on their hands, waiting for someone to solve the problem, but the pandemic created an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment, where even people who don't normally see themselves as the initiators of the leaders of change stepped up. Parents, teachers, organizations in civil society, teacher unions, of course, governments. You would expect governments to be part of the solution, but especially in the early phase of the pandemic, the nature of collaboration, I think it was a moment of true collective leadership where teachers in the classroom, people in the front lines actually knew better what had to be done than the superintendents, than the minister of education. And they came up with pretty creative ideas. For example, using WhatsApp to deliver a curriculum. We now know [inaudible 00:05:25] 2020, that of course they didn't work as well as regular schooling, but I don't think that's a fair question.

I don't think the fair question is to say, well, how did all these arrangements work compared to the way schools work? Because that assume we had a choice about having a pandemic and we didn't have a choice. I think the fair question to ask is not, how did these innovations, what were their effects relative to the world in which we hadn't had a pandemic? The fair question to ask is, how did these innovations work relative to doing nothing? What if every education district, if every country had done what a few nations did? Uganda, which basically shut down the schools for two years and say, "You know what, we are too overwhelmed right now. We're going to deal with education after the pandemic." I think if you look historically at the pandemic of 1918, this pandemic was pretty exceptional in that everybody said, "You know what, education is too important. It's not okay to just put that issue on the back burner. We have to try. And yes, we don't have a playbook and we're going to fail big time, but we still have to try." To me, that's one of the big lessons.

Collaboration is the other big lesson that everybody stepped up. The way in which technology was used Jill, not so much for instruction, although there are important silver linings there, but to promote a different way of management, a more horizontal, open, inclusive, participatory management. That was pretty amazing. One of the innovations that we studied was a network of 11 charter schools in Columbia that serve very poor kids. And what they began to do both senior and mid-level administrators in that network during the pandemic, they began to have several meetings at week on Zoom, essentially to discuss in real time, how are things working? It doesn't get any better than that.

I'll give you another example. In Vietnam, the government engaged several hundred schools and over a period of four weeks, four weeks, they put together the entire K through 12 curriculum on mini video recorded lessons that they put on a website. And of course, if you were to look at that, would you say, "Gee, is that a high quality Hollywood production?" Probably not, but let's put things in perspective. Let's look at, for example, Harvard's investments in edX, which we have been doing for several years. Each one of the edX courses takes about a year to produce. And the last time I checked, about $1 million to produce. So to see that a country like Vietnam was able to produce an entire curriculum by mobilizing their teachers who are not video producers, who are learning how to do these things in real time in four weeks, it's pretty amazing.

So there were a lot of good things that happened. And I think we need to remind ourselves of all of that innovation dividend. And we need to go back and ask the question, what did we learn that we should keep? What did we learn so we don't go back to the education system we had before the pandemic? Because let's face it. The education system we had before the pandemic was neither teaching all the kids effectively, nor was it teaching them what they needed to learn. We may have a little bit of pandemic fatigue at the moment, and this fatigue may be causing us to develop a very romantic idea of what schools were like before the pandemic, but schools before the pandemic were not good for every kid. And we may have learned things during these two years that could help us make those schools better.

Jill Anderson: Wow. You mentioned this in a way just now. Innovation wasn't always tied to the amount of resources that a place had at all. And I think that's very interesting because oftentimes when it comes to technology, you equate it to having a lot of resources. So how do you explain that idea?

Fernando Reimers: I think you are correct. And I'm not sure I have a great explanation, but I puzzled by that paradox that I'll give you two examples of some of the most inspiring innovations that I studied. One of them was an innovation run by a non-governmental organization in Chile that works with street children. These are children who have left their home because they have been mistreated by their parents. And so these kids, the one thing they don't really have is much trust for grownups because the grownups that were closer to them treated them pretty miserably. And so that organization in normal times has a life skills program that is trying to do a lot of psychological work with these kids to get them to trust other people again, along with providing an accelerated curriculum so they can finish high school because those kids have abandoned their studies. Many of them are street children and so on.

When the pandemic happened, that organization said, "For us, it's not an option to disappear from the life of these kids because we're the only grownups that they trust." So what they did is they put their entire team of psychologists and social workers to think hard about, "How do we remain present in the life of the kids?" They developed a program in WhatsApp that began every day, convening the kids in real time and just checking in with one another, "Jill, how are you doing? Fernando, how are things going?" And the team of psychologists, social workers were listening deeply to see who was not talking, who was not there. And then they followed up with the kids. And then they managed to find a way to deliver these life skills curriculum through WhatsApp. They develop essentially self-instructional lessons through WhatsApp. That's one example.

The other example, pretty similar population is run by an organization in which a former student of mine is in the leadership that works with very poor kids in Mumbai, India. Those are not street kids, but they're pretty poor kids. And what that organization does is essentially teach them English because in Mumbai, if you are a poor person and learn to speak English, you now have opportunities that you wouldn't have otherwise have. When the pandemic happened, that organization said, "If there is a group of kids that we cannot lose to this pandemic, it's our kids." And so they too use WhatsApp to continue delivering this curriculum to these children who were leaving in very crowded homes, often just one room with everybody in that one room. They were learning their English lessons through WhatsApp in that place.

You'd say, "What's the lesson here?" I think the lesson here is that it all starts with pretty clear goals and the innovations that I have found most exciting, perhaps because I share the importance of those goals, are those that had an unwavering commitment to supporting the most disadvantaged, a leadership that was clearly about that. And I've seen that both in organizations of civil society that works with small groups of kids, but also in governments. The government of Portugal, when the pandemic began said, "Everything that we do is going to be seen through the filter of what is it doing for our most vulnerable kids." Countries like Singapore, when the pandemic was not a full-blown pandemic, but they knew it was coming, they rehearsed for what it would mean to teach from home. And they discovered that they too had kids that had no connectivity and no computer. And they provided them that. They provided to the most vulnerable kids, those devices and that connectivity before they had a pandemic.

I guess, what does that tell me? That it all begins with purpose. That when you have clear educational purposes, you find ways to use technology that makes sense. But there are highly resource environments where sometimes people think of technology and education without clarity of purpose, where the only purpose seems to be to use technology without serving a valuable, pedagogical, educational or social purpose. So yes, I do wonder Jill, whether a context of crisis and scarcity in effect makes people more creative and makes it... I don't know. Maybe it's the sense that there is nothing to be lost. So you're not afraid of trying wildly different things. And in a context where you have more resources, you may hold onto the illusion that things are under control and maybe there is something that you're going to lose. So you're more risk averse. I really don't have a well-formulated theory, but I agree with your observation that the amount of innovation here was not proportional to the level of financial resources.

You know what I think was a key differentiator in the places that actually produced more innovations and less more than resources? Was leadership. Was the type of leadership that was exercised. I'll give you an example. In the city of Bogota, the very same day that the national government said, "We're going to shut down the schools," the secretary of education, pretty amazing woman, convened a Zoom meeting with all the principles of all the public schools. And at that meeting, she said, "I'm here to ask for your help. I do not know how we could possibly teach when the schools are not in session. But what I am convinced of is that we cannot not teach during this period. And I'm confident that together we're going to figure it out." Now think about what that says about that leader, what confidence it takes for a leader to make herself vulnerable in that way in front of all her principles and essentially telling them, "I don't know what to do. I need you to find the answer together."

But you know what that did. It cost people to step up. It cost people who had not previously saw themselves as part of the solution as saying, "We are really in this together." Same thing happened in the State of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Exactly the same thing. Government shuts down the schools. The federal government actually had a pretty lousy response to the pandemic, was totally missing in action. But then the state secretary faced with that crisis, in his case, he convened the 10 most influential business leaders. And what he did was exactly out of the same page of the secretary of Bogota. And having observed leaders in other institutions, that was not the response of every leader. There were some leaders who thought that maybe they had to say face, or maybe their own fear of the same situation caused them to pretend that they were in charge, to pretend that they had a solution. And that pretend stance, I think in the long haul was actually unproductive because nobody could have had a solution.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Fernando Reimers: We hadn't experienced this before. So I don't think it's about money and resources. I'm not saying that money is irrelevant at all, but I'm saying that clear purpose and a leadership style that brought in everybody to be part of the solution was a lot more important than money.

Jill Anderson: Right. At the beginning of the pandemic, you see a lot of innovation happening and then it sounds like it started to dwindle a little bit as time went on. Are we in a space where that momentum has been lost?

Fernando Reimers: I think that is true. If I compare the two books we did, the book that looks at the innovations of the first six months and the book that looks at the innovations that lasted 18 months, it's evident that we coded those innovations using a number of categories, that there was more innovation in the first six months. Now, not all of that innovation needed to stick necessarily because it was a response to the crisis of the moment when the kids couldn't meet in person in school. But it is true that there was more innovation at the beginning than later. And then the question is why and what are the longterm implications?

The worst-case scenario is that we learn nothing from all this innovation. That we don't capture this innovation dividend. That we are so traumatized by this pandemic that we're trying to actually not have memories of it. None, the bad and the good. And we basically say, let's go back to the way the world was before the pandemic. I think that would be not only a lost opportunity, it would be wrong because the world before the pandemic was not a good world. That's why we had some of the challenges we had. It was a very inequitable world. It was a world in which we're not helping kids to develop essential skills, to be able to learn more autonomy during a crisis like a pandemic. So I think losing that innovation dividend is a real risk.

I also think that in any system, including education systems, there are forces that maintain the state quo in place. This is what produces an equilibrium in a system. Those were the forces that were disrupted. What do I mean by those forces? Our job descriptions, our roles and responsibilities, the norms that govern what we do in our institutions, who is authorized? For example, in many education systems, the way information flows essentially is within some stove pipes within some silos. Information moves up and down. And then at the top, it moves laterally. During the pandemic, those rules that govern how systems function were suspended. And so that's why you saw a lot of lateral communication. Information flowing freely at the same level within the organization, across organizations. And that's part of what generated innovation.

But of course, as people got vaccinated, as we come back to schools, you see these old norms, these old institutional cultures, these old definitions of who does what, and who's allowed to talk to them coming back to kind of tame these systems, bring them back to the way they used to be. And I think we have to recognize those forces for what they are. Those forces are the forces that used to keep a system that was deficient in place. And I think we should take the time to analyze what did we learn that was productive so we can bring about a renaissance after this pandemic, not the system we used to have, but a better system.

For example, if we discovered that it is good for a secretary of education to come in front of her principals, and to be vulnerable and to say, "Don't expect me to have all the answers. You have the answers." And that was helpful in the pandemic. Why wouldn't that be helpful in ordinary times? If we discover that ordinary teachers can collaborate with their peers within their schools and across schools to develop excellent curriculum, to develop an entire K through 12 television digital assets, as they did in Vietnam, as they did in Columbia, why couldn't they do that in a time when it is not a pandemic? If we're able to do that in four weeks in the pandemic, why should need three or five years and endless loopholes of approval processes and of bureaucracy to do this in normal times?

So I do think we need to take the time to ask what was helpful among other things, because this pandemic is not going to be the last crisis that we face. And if we're going to build system that are resilient to future crisis, we should learn from this one.

Jill Anderson: Hmm. How about the role of universities collaborating with education systems?

Fernando Reimers: With designed a study where we said, "Let's look at how universities around the world have partnered with education systems during the pandemic for the purpose of A, helping them to continue to educate. And B, for the purpose of generating innovations so they can educate better during the pandemic." And the study contains 20 case studies of what various universities did around the world, as well as a survey that we administered to 120 universities. And the central question that guides the study is: are universities learning organizations? As you know, what defines an educational learning organization is the fact that they're in very good communication with the external environment. Not only to adjust what they do to changes in the external environment, but to in turn themselves influence the external environment, to change it, to make it better.

So the pandemic was a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually study that question because it was a sudden change in the external environment. And if you wanted to see if the university's a learning organization, it was a great time in which to study that. And I have to say what we found surprised us. I was expecting to find more of a mixed picture, but I found a pretty consistent picture that in this moment of serious crisis, all the universities that we studied, all the universities that responded to our survey, instead of doing a lot of naval gazing and asking, "Oh my God, how are we going to teach our own students? How are we going to do our own research?" What they asked was, "How can we be of service to those who have less privilege than we do? How can we be of service to society?"

Two of the 20 case studies are based in the United States. One is MIT and the other one is Arizona State University. Pretty remarkable stories. MIT, which in ordinary times has a bunch of in initiatives of outreach during the summer, during the school year, instead of putting that on the back burner, which would've been entirely justified... You could envision how in a moment of crisis, a place like MIT would have said, "Listen, too many uncertainties. That's not going to be a priority." Instead of doing that, they doubled down and they said, "No, this is a time to go digital with these initiatives." They had an entire vice post supporting the creation of synergies between all these various pockets within MIT. And they produced pretty remarkable innovations, essentially turning into digital assets and programs, things that they were doing face to face prior.

Arizona State University, which is in itself in my view, one of the most innovative universities in the world under the leadership of their current president. During the pandemic did remarkable things, offering professional development to teachers in all of Arizona on how to teach online, turning their academies into virtual academies for their students, turning their own programs of teacher education into programs that had a digital component. I mean, you look at how much was done and you have to wonder, how was it possible that these humans... Were they not sleeping or what? But of course, it was in a context where the president has a vision of a public university that absolutely sees it as an engine of social and economic development of the community of which it is a part and Arizona State really shown during the pandemic, was amazing.

But it wasn't just Arizona State and MIT. We looked at universities in Mexico, public and private, in Columbia, in India, in Qatar. Pretty interesting story. So I do think that these lessons are important because perhaps they signal a reinvention of the mission of the university. I think that looking at what universities did during this pandemic should cause those who doubt the value of the university to reexamine their assumptions. Certainly if you look at what they did in public health, I think that the exemplar of that role of university is our former colleague in the School of Public Health, now the Dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, Professor Jha. He is amazing as an example of a professor who basically devotes a lot of his time to educating the public on information and critical importance.

Jill Anderson: A lot of this stuff that you're talking about feels really hopeful and optimistic. You've so much work on the idea of how do we create global citizens. How do you think the pandemic has impacted our ability to develop global citizens for better or for worse?

Fernando Reimers: I often quote a play writer of the Roman Republic 20 centuries ago. His name was Terence. Terence was brought to Rome as a slave. He was born in the north of Africa, probably Tunisia, and he was given his freedom and he became a playwright, which is what people in the Roman Republic did, who wanted to educate the public. And in one of his plays, he says, "I am human and nothing human is foreign to me." And to me that encapsulates the idea of global citizen. The idea that you are only human when you can have deep empathy for each and every other human being, for every other person. When you have the capacity to see the world through their eyes, to feel their pain, to recognize a piece of yourself in them. And I think the pandemic was a great moment for us to experience that.

This is a once in a lifetime experience when for a while we all knew that life was precious and that we could lose it at a moment's notice. That we could be infected and we could end up in a ventilator and maybe not make it. And what is that thing that it takes a tragedy to help us develop that insight? I suspect that the full 8 billion humans who survive this pandemic, not the 6 million who lost their lives sadly, will remember these for the rest of their lives. Of course, they'll remember many things about it, but among other things, they will also remember that they were in this together with every other human. That the same experience was affecting every other person.

So I do think the pandemic has given us that opportunity for profound empathy with other humans. And certainly in our field of work in education, I do think the pandemic gave more teachers than the number that normally have the opportunity to be curious about what's happening in other countries, to actually experience collaboration with peers in other places, to become themselves global educators, to see the value of global collaboration, to see the value of learning from what was happening elsewhere. So I think that this pandemic makes it more likely that to go back to the goals of education, we understand that part of what we need to do when we educate people is to help them understand that to be human is to live so that nothing human is foreign to you. And to have the capacity to collaborate and to join with others across all of these divides that humans have invented for the purpose of making the world better.

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much, Fernando. You have offered so much in this conversation. It almost makes me wonder if I should be checking in with you yearly to get an update from here on out and benchmark where we are and how these innovations progress over time.

Fernando Reimers: Thank you so much, Jill. It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Jill Anderson: Fernando Reimers is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a member of UNESCO's Commission on the Futures of Education. He's the author of many books, including the recent, University and School Collaborations during a Pandemic: Sustaining Educational Opportunity and Reinventing Education. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


An education podcast that keeps the focus simple: what makes a difference for learners, educators, parents, and communities

Related Articles