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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Future skills and the Pandemic The Post-COVID Era

25 November 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, Jennifer Edmond, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at Trinity College Dublin outlines the skills we need to develop in a post-Covid world.

Professor Jennifer Edmond, Co-Director, Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities

My research sits at the intersection of culture and technology, and this means that I may have a slightly different perspective on how we might think through the question of what skills and competencies we are going to need in the post-COVID era. For example: when we consider what we’re going to need and what growth areas there will be after COVID-19, we might first think of bio-engineering. The vaccine is the thing we are all looking forward to, and the thing that will let us go back out into our communities without fear. We also might be thinking about ICT because of the fact that platforms such as Zoom, Google and Facebook have become so important to us in this time.

With my humanities hat on, however, I am very aware of the fact that there are a lot of problems we will face that science and technology can’t fix. What if a vaccine is developed and people won't take it? That’s a cultural problem, one of trust and information flows. Similarly, I see how our growing use of on-line communications tools is becoming something we are dependent on, like electricity or roads.  But unlike these public infrastructures, our on-line technology platforms are run by private companies without any public oversight.  Indeed, anyone who has experienced the creeping incursions of platform lock-in (where one piece of software starts to nudge you in the direction of the company’s other products) or had their productivity derailed by an unexpected software update recognises that this is a different sort of user relationship.  That’s also a cultural and communications problem.

In this context, when I think about the competencies that have really come to the fore in the COVID era, the things that come most prominently to mind for me are from the humanities, rather than STEM, toolkit, such as:

Critical and contextual thinking: Critical thinking allows us to question whether the news we hear is telling us what we really need to know, rather than what they think we want to hear, or what will make our behaviour easier to control.   Similarly, contextual thinking allows us to bring in historical lessons to solve the problems of our modern times. These skills allow us to have both an active filter for information and a maximally informed perspective: after all, in an unprecedented health crisis, it was the lessons of the 1918 flu pandemic and the polio vaccine rollout that became our touchstones for decision-making.

Empathy: I think about empathy and the way in which connecting with people has become a key challenge.  This is true not just in our established networks but within the local groups we are now reminded of our interdependence with.  This may include not just people who are like us or people who are presented to us algorithmically because we display similar online behaviours, but people who are just living around the corner from us and who may need our help (and vice versa), our food producers, healthcare workers, and even people in other countries struggling against the same challenges. COVID has made our local and global  community ties starkly clear, but we cannot do anything with much of this perspective until and unless we can see these ‘others’ as like ourselves.

Resilience: The interesting thing about resilience is that avoiding hardship does not allow us to develop this skill for when we really need it. The more we work for our knowledge, and the more we have to come through certain kinds of experiences, the more resilience we will have. Oftentimes, the paradigm within technology development is to make things easy for the user, but there are some things that should actually be left a challenge, because otherwise we lose out on the opportunity to understand the complexity of a situation, to work through a problem and to face challenges that we can learn to resolve.  These kinds of frustrations can help us build resilience in relatively ‘safe’ contexts, so that when we do face greater challenges, we will be prepared.

Creativity: Creativity has been something that has gotten many of us through this pandemic, allowing us to connect in creative ways with our family or community, to invest time during lockdown in creating or building something that we could pass on, or maybe to experience the transcendent artistry of a performer on a stage in an empty theatre or perhaps even their own living room.  This has been very important for many people. I think as we move towards technology platforms driven by artificial intelligence (AI), we need to make sure that we hold on to these kinds things not just for the goods they produce, but for their process benefits, for the connections and emotional strength they facilitate.  Just because an AI can write music doesn't mean that we humans can stop doing so.

So what I see isn’t a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skill set, though it is a STEM-related one.  Rather than calling it a scientific or computer science skill set, then let’s call it a computational and scientific thinking skill set. It’s not the skill set that will let you build the COVID-19 app, but it will let you understand the app enough to make an educated and informed decision as to whether or not you want to put it on to your own device; whether it has been developed responsibly or whether it's going to be a threat to your own personal information. This skill set will also give us the ability to make ethical decisions about technology. There are strong impulses within technology companies to build things that people will buy or indeed what the engineers feel they can build - where the technical cutting edge is. This is very exciting but we also need these companies to build what communities need more than just what people will buy. We need technology to drive the economy, of course, but without letting economic imperatives overtake human needs.

Enabling every citizen to develop this kind of skill set would be a big challenge, but an important one to face.  The post-COVID world will not be without new difficulties to present us with, not just due to the economic and social rebuilding processes we know we must expect, but also as a result of the other social and environmental pressures that continue to build in the background.  If we can take steps to encourage resilience, critical thinking, empathy and creativity now, they will serve us very well in the future.

Jennifer Edmond is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at the School of Languages, Literatures & Cultural Studies and is also co-director of the Trinity Centre for Digital Humanities based at the Trinity Long Room Hub, and a funded Investigator of the SFI ADAPT Centre.  She also directs Trinity's postgraduate programme in Digital Humanities and Culture.  Outside of Trinity College Dublin, Jennifer serves as President of the Board of  Directors of the pan-European research infrastructure for the arts and humanities, DARIAH-EU.  Over the course of the past 10 years, Jennifer has coordinated or participated in a large number of significant inter- and transdisciplinary funded research projects, worth a total of almost €9m. She is also a supervisor as part of the 'Human and Computer Interaction' research strand for HUMAN+, an international and interdisciplinary fellowship programme led by the Trinity Long Room Hub and ADAPT at Trinity College Dublin.

Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

The Body and the Pandemic (18 November 2020)

Public Outreach and the Pandemic (11 November 2020)

A Global Contagion (4 November 2020)

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