Covid-19, the global pandemic, is ravaging all that humankind reckoned to be ‘normal’. In addition to its impact on lifestyle, economy and agriculture, it has also disrupted the education system globally. We are living amidst what is potentially one of the greatest threats in our lifetime to global education, a gigantic educational crisis. According to the World Bank, as of March 28, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more than 1.6 billion children and youth to be out of school in 161 countries. This is close to 80 per cent of the world’s enrolled students. Furthermore, the world was already experiencing a global learning crisis for though many students were in school, they were not learning the fundamental skills needed for life. The World Bank’s “Learning Poverty” indicator – the percentage of children who cannot read and understand at age 10 – stood at 53 per cent of children in low and middle-income countries – before the outbreak started. We must understand that this pandemic has the potential to worsen these outcomes if necessary steps are not taken in this regard. On the other hand, it may also present an opportunity for education leaders to substantially re-think long-held educational practices that could use some improvement.
Consequently, the approaches taken to teaching, learning, assessing and monitoring students have undergone drastic changes – some of which are yet to be figured out by educators, students and their parents who are also important stakeholders in their children’s education. Online teaching has suddenly taken an upsurge, owing to the necessary social distancing measures advised by the government and the extended periods of nationwide lockdowns. Hence, the concept of a physical classroom which was the basis for all teaching practices till now has been shunned for an indefinite period of time as we don’t know when we will be ready to send our kids to regular school again. What this change has necessitated is that the age-old lamentable system of rote learning in classrooms initiated by the advent of the public-school system in 1635 and the regurgitation of the same material in examinations has been replaced by newer, technology-based solutions for imparting education to the students of today.
This unheralded change can be seen everywhere in the world. For instance, in Hong Kong, students started learning at home in February 2020 via interactive apps. In China, 120 million Chinese students got access to learning material through live television broadcasts. Closer home, the DIKSHA platform is being used across all government schools in India to ensure continuity of learning. So, we can see that now the traditional in-person classroom learning will be complemented with new learning modalities – from live broadcasts to virtual reality experiences. But at the same time, we must also keep in mind that not all students have access to devices and reliable internet connectivity. Therefore, the appropriate strategy in countries should be to use all possible delivery modes with the existing local infrastructure instead of exacerbating the ‘digital divide’ among students belonging to different socio-economic backgrounds. Online tools can be used to assure that lesson plans, videos, tutorials, and other resources are available for some students. But at the same time, podcasts and other resources that require less data usage should be encouraged. Schools and institutions can also work with telecommunication companies to apply zero-rate policies which can in-turn facilitate learning material to be downloaded on a smartphone, which more students are likely to have.
Researchers believe that in ramping up capacity to teach remotely, schools and colleges should take advantage of asynchronous learning, which works best in digital formats. As well as the regular classroom subjects, teaching should include varied assignments and work that puts COVID-19 in a global and historical context. Educating students of all age-groups about what the world is going through can prove to be a vital coping mechanism for students. Following this plan, learning can transform from being a ‘task that is to be completed’ to becoming ‘a habit that is integrated into daily routines’ something that educators and visionaries had intended it to be since a very long time.
Moreover, the way we assess students’ performance will also be upturned as we redefine assessment tools and scamper for newer strategies to carry on this task. Standardized tests have broadly been cancelled this year due to school closures. While there will be a need to assess where students are academically when classes resume, there will likely be more focus on mastery-based assessments already offered by many online learning platforms like Khan Academy.
In a webinar hosted by the Right To Education Forum, education experts and activists debated declaring this year a “zero academic year”, keeping in view the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Ashok Agarwal, a Delhi-based lawyer and activist suggested that the ongoing academic year should be cancelled and students should be promoted without exams. “A majority of parents of children across the country are also not in favour of opening schools. They do not wish to risk the lives of their children,” Mr. Agarwal said.
Secondly, the pandemic has also brought in its wake a dual challenge to educators as they now not only need to disseminate information to the students without the comfortable logistics of a classroom setting but more importantly, they also need to help their students negotiate with the prevalent anxiety, confusion and uncertainty that this time has unfolded in its wake. Katie Rosanbalm, a research scientist states, “Kids look to adults for cues about whether there’s reason to be worried, to be anxious, whether there’s danger in the environment. We’re all stressed right now, we’re all worried and anxious and kids are soaking that all up. They are losing their routine and their structure to the day. They’re losing their connection with friends and teachers and all these wonderful things they’ve looked forward to all school year or maybe for years. Things like sports and field trips and concerts and performances. So, there’s a lot of emotion going on for kids right now.” This is where the role of the parents becomes more pertinent. Reassuring students and parents is a vital element of institutional response. Teachers are taking up this task using targeted communication in a state of uncertainty about cancelled examinations and modified procedures themselves.
Most parents are hitting the panic button as they feel that their child will lag behind if education based on a strict curriculum is not provided in a timely manner. Where households are confined to their residences by COVID-19, parents and guardians may be deeply anxious about their own economic future, so studying at home is not easy, especially for children with low motivation. But one must keep in mind that this is not the time of normalized learning. Parents must utilize this time to upskill their children and make them help around with the daily chores, teach them life skills and values beyond academic learning which are core to surviving through unprecedented times such as these. They must value the fact that being well may not be an alternative to being successful. But it surely is an essential precondition for achievement, especially among our most vulnerable children.
Kristen Stephens, an education professor opines that this type of learning should be termed as ‘pandemic learning’ rather than ‘online learning.’ She rightly points out that, “When you transition to online learning, typically it’s very well thought out and you have time to plan. In this case, in the period of one or two weeks, teachers took everything that used to be face-to-face in the classroom and took it online. It’s been challenging for them but they’ve risen to the occasion out of their care for their students.” Some of these approaches such as blended learning, flipped classrooms and e-learning platforms are not entirely new but circumstances are forcing adoption instead of blending it smoothly in their fabric. This has made everyone realize the importance of teachers as the essential unsung heroes who are struggling with these softwares, creating materials, preparing lessons, reassuring parents, supporting the weaker students, and also managing their own homes.
“The pandemic has truly reiterated the much clichéd skills of the 21st century: Decision-making, problem solving, ability to innovate, and most importantly, adaptability,” opines Mrs. Ameeta Mulla Wattal Principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi.
Thirdly, this life-altering situation has made everyone realize the value of teaching vocational skills to students. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the global economy to collapses in essential supplies. It is quite clear now how much we depend on and need to value all our essential workers like care workers, construction workers and retail staff. So, when the regular economy starts up again, some people will feel proud to call themselves as the ‘working class’ and insist on the financial and broader recognition that goes with it.
Finally, during this time there is more emphasis on personalized learning – a term that had been the buzzword in the education industry for a long period of time. Students will eventually return to classrooms and campuses, but virtual education will stay part of the mix. “Blended learning options where students are split up for classroom learning for a few days a week and online for the remainder will likely become the norm,” says Andy Rotherham, co-founder of non-profit Bellwether Education. He also predicts a transition to competency courses where students can move ahead at their own pace instead of logging into classes for the entire school day. The most important adjustment, for those used to teaching and learning in classrooms in real time, is to take advantage of asynchronous learning. For most aspects of learning and teaching, the participants do not have to communicate simultaneously. Asynchronous working gives teachers flexibility in preparing learning materials and enables students to refer to them as per their own time and convenience. Teachers can check on student participation periodically and make online appointments for each student who has particular needs or questions, thereby facilitating focussed one on one interactions.
This time is a stark reminder of the critical importance of school not just as a place of learning, but of socialization, care and coaching of community and shared space which technology cannot fulfil. The pandemic is giving us massive insights as to what human development and learning looks like, allowing it to potentially shift from just content dissemination to augmenting relationships with teachers, personalization and independence.
Institutions, teachers and students will continue to look for flexible ways to repair the damage caused by COVID-19’s interruptions to the learning trajectories. In this context, the open schools (e.g., India’s National Institute of Open Schooling; the New Zealand Correspondence School) and open universities (e.g., The UK Open University; Athabasca University, Canada) – most of which have continued to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic – would help provide a variety of courses and the flexibility of time and place of learning to help students regain their sense of normalcy and confidence. Disease, toxics, climate change and pollution are by-products of the global economy that we all benefit from. Educators are responsible for ensuring that the expertise needed to maintain this complex world continues to be regenerated.
The mission of all education systems across the globe is the same – to overcome the learning crisis we were already living with and to respond positively to the pandemic we are all facing. The challenge of the hour is to reduce as much as possible the negative impact this pandemic will have on learning and schooling and build on this experience to get back on the track of faster and more efficient improvement in learning. As education systems cope with this crisis, they must also be thinking of how they can recover stronger with a renewed sense of responsibility and with a better understanding and sense of urgency of the need to close the gap in opportunities and assuring that all children have the same chances for a quality education.
The author holds a Master’s degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. As an English language assessment specialist, she has extensively worked on developing content for various English language assessments offered by Cambridge Assessment English. Her love for publishing brought her to her current job as an ELT editor wherein she developed an entire English Grammar series for classes 1-8. She loves to fill in the crevices in her day by writing about the changing trends in education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.