by Dylan Storan, Biomaterials Cluster, Bernal Institute, Department of Chemical Sciences.

This article was written for the YESBernal Writing Competition, July 2020.

Times of crisis often result in the implementation of new technologies in order for society to overcome the crisis. Though hastily developed and primarily for military purposes, if we look back throughout recent history we can see that many of these innovations often lead to useful technologies that ultimately benefit greater society. For example, the first plane was famously flown by the Wright brothers in 1903 with an impressive 12 second flight.1 World War I (WWI) broke out in 1914, just 11 years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight.2 Scientists and engineers quickly accelerated the development of the airplane which would help in their respective nations war efforts. This research and development lead to incredible advancements in aviation technology in a very short period of time. By the end of WWI, Britain boasted aircraft capable of flying speeds greater than 200 km/h, and France who began the war with 140 aircraft, finished it with over 2,500.3 If it was not for WW1, the rate of technological progress in the area of aviation would undoubtedly have been much slower and we may not have the commercial aviation industry that we take advantage of today.

If we look at World War II (WWII), another period of global crisis, once again warranting rapid technological and scientific advancements. The development and production of penicillin was speedily progressed during WWII. While penicillin and its potential benefits were discovered in 1928, it wasn’t mass produced until 1943, when the US War Production Board drafted plans for the mass production and distribution of penicillin to Allied troops fighting on the front lines in Europe. Thanks to the research and development that took place to ensure penicillin was made available to troops during WW2, this then opened the door for the availability of penicillin to civilians thereafter. This time of crisis development for the mass production of penicillin has certainly saved millions of lives in the years following.

Having discussed just two examples of technological advancements, out of many, that were spurred on by global crises, what opportunities do we have now during the current COVID-19 pandemic? We have already seen with the closure of many physical shopping outlets, the extraordinary growth in popularity of online shopping. While it does seem likely that the heavy use of online shopping will remain long after the pandemic is over, there is another online facet that has huge potential for implementation post-pandemic. With virtually all primary, secondary and third level institutions forced online, we may currently be witnessing a revolution in education delivery. With the sudden closure of these institutions, teachers and lecturers alike were required to rapidly modify their courses for online delivery using virtual platforms like Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Though this transition has been challenging for both educator and student, due to the sudden nature of the pandemic, the transition has been largely successful and much of the hard work has been done for incorporating elements of online learning in future semesters.

Online learning brings with it some major advantages over traditional classroom or lecture hall-based lesson delivery. With the reduction of face-to-face teaching comes the lack of physical restrictions in terms of how many students can fit in a classroom and take classes. This provides access to an education to anyone with an internet connection. Obviously, with an increase in student numbers, comes a higher workload on teachers and lecturers in terms of assessment, but it is worth exploring solutions to this. Perhaps postgraduate students could volunteer, be paid or given credits for correcting online assessments for third level courses, while I’m sure budding primary and secondary school teachers could benefit from correcting coursework for primary and secondary school students on a part-time basis. This is a detail that will need to be ironed out before student numbers can be increased due to the advancement of online learning tools.

With respect to third level institutions, an increase in student numbers will also lead to an increase in income due to the higher amount of fee paying students which would help fill the gaping financial hole that currently exists in the higher education sector. Finances aside, the potential that online learning brings with it could truly be revolutionary. With the transition to online learning comes the availability of education to everyone. There is an opportunity here which should not be missed. However, it is important to be aware that online learning is not a direct substitute for classroom based learning, especially in primary and secondary school education facilities. Here, students might need more hands on guidance, while parents cannot be expected to work from home and home-school their children simultaneously. In this regard, a blend of online and face-to-face learning with students rotating through blocks of residential teaching may need to be looked at.

Perhaps COVID-19 can become to education what WWI was to aviation or maybe COVID-19 can become to education what WWII was to penicillin.
Figure 1: Timeline showing selected advancements during global emergencies.


Global emergencies typically result in the rapid advancement of technologies. For example, the advancement in aviation during World War I and the development of the mass production of penicillin during World War II. With a global emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, comes the opportunity to advance the area of online learning. This could potentially revolutionise the education sector and in particular the third level education sector, giving virtually everyone access to a good education. Necessity is the mother of invention.
1. Telegram from Orville Wright in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to His Father Announcing Four Successful Flights, 1903 December 17.
2. Joll, J.; Martel, G., The origins of the first world war. Routledge: 2013.
3. Unikoski, A. The War in the Air – Summary of the Air War
4. Gaynes, R., The Discovery of Penicillin—New Insights After More Than 75 Years of Clinical Use. Emerg Infect Dis 2017, 23 (5), 849-853.