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An opportunity to reinvent school

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Seven-year-old Nelly studies on her tablet at home in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, April 2020. Educational videos produced by UNICEF and the country’s Ministry of Education are also broadcast on national television.

More than 1.5 billion students – or ninety per cent of the world’s student population – have been affected by temporary closures of schools and universities in 2020 due to the health crisis, according to UNESCO. Educational institutions have been forced, almost overnight, to switch to remote learning platforms and devise alternative teaching methods.

Poornima Luthra

Educator at the Copenhagen Business School, and founder and chief consultant of TalentED Consultancy ApS, a training and consultancy firm based in Copenhagen.

With over a third of the global population under some form of lockdown due to COVID-19, the health crisis  has caused an unprecedented disruption in education. From kindergarten to university, schools worldwide have been temporarily closed, forcing educators to find alternative teaching methods. This situation is likely to leave a lasting footprint.

“We will feel the effects of COVID-19 on students globally until a vaccine is widely available, at the very least,” says Amy Valentine, executive director of Future of School, an American public charity that supports the growth of innovative school models. “The way systems and individual districts have responded to this crisis will have a ripple effect on students as they advance, ready or not, to new grade levels.”

The negative impact on the mental health of students being away from the social interaction and routines that a school environment provides, is of prime concern. Even the technology- saturated generations of Z (children born in the years 1996 to 2015) and Alpha (children born after 2015) have been craving social interaction and physical experiences away from their devices. This has been perhaps the biggest challenge for educators to address through online platforms. “Human contact is important when it comes to education, especially for teens,” a high school teacher in Singapore said. “Most students would definitely rather go to school, to feel included in a community, where there is more structure to their learning.”

With stringent social-distancing requirements in place, it will likely be a while before social interaction levels return to pre-COVID-19 times.The impact of this on today’s generations of learners may be felt for years to come. “Once schools reopen and a sense of normalcy prevails, the job of educators will be tough – to bring students up to speed, plug gaps in learning and provide greater social and emotional support to students who require it,” Sarita Somaya, a primary teacher at an international school in Singapore, explained.

For many children around the world, schools provide their one main meal of the day. The closures have forced these children to seek out alternative options, often unsuccessfully. Gayathri Tirthapura, co-founder trustee of the Tejasvita Trust – an organization based in Bengaluru, which provides education to underserved communities in south India – explains that “families are struggling to have three meals a day, and are depending on private donors and relief packages announced by the government.”

Diplomas received by robots

Yet, in spite of the grim scenario, educational institutions around the world are finding creative and innovative ways to address the challenges posed by COVID-19 – from holding university graduations with robot avatars replacing students in Japan, to using social-distancing hats in China. Educators have also had to get creative about designing content to deliver academic lessons in an engaging way across the digital platforms available.

To address the lack of social interaction, counsellors in some schools have created themed activities to engage students – some educators have even organized virtual picnics with their classes. In rural schools, teachers have had to think of different ways to engage with students – often via text messages to parents’ mobile devices and phone calls. Where children do not have access to even a pencil at home – let alone a computer – teachers have had to think on their feet to find new ways of teaching them.

In countries including the United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand, concerted efforts have been made to ensure that disadvantaged children are provided laptops, tablet computers and mobile hotspots. In India, the team at Gurushala, a learning portal which provides digital education for teachers and content for students, explain that “access to education has never been easy for India’s children from disadvantaged groups. With mobile and internet penetration growing by the day, there is a sudden spotlight on technology”.

The end of group activity?

What does this health crisis mean for education in the long run? “Primary classrooms have become more clinical – where students can’t share, use shared resources or work in huddles, excited over a science experiment. I hope I’m mistaken, but will this be the end of group work and rotations? Will we go back to classrooms with the teacher lecturing at the front and students sitting in their seats all day?” Taryn Hansen, a primary school teacher in Perth, Western Australia, where schools reopened in late April (2020), wondered.

Sankalp Chaturvedi, an associate professor at Imperial College Business School, London, believes that “in the long term, higher education will still be done in the classrooms. People will be more comfortable with online education as an alternative, which was not as evident or effective before the lockdown.”

“There is the chance that COVID-19 will be disruptive in a positive way,” Sandy Mackenzie, director of the Copenhagen International School, predicts. This may lead “schools to discard what was obsolete, to employ technology effectively and to ensure that educators are developing the skills that new generations need for the decades to come.”

Reduced inequalities in education

The use of digital technology implies widespread access to it. The pandemic has highlighted the inequality in both the quality and accessibility to education globally, and the digital divide that exists, even in developed nations. With only sixty per cent of the global population being online prior to the pandemic, governments, publishers, technology providers and network operators have had to work together to enable educators to provide asynchronous and synchronous education online to as many students globally as possible.

One programme that does this is the Learning Passport, a digital remote learning platform, originally developed for displaced and refugee children by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with Microsoft. Due to start as a pilot programme in 2020 – with children in Kosovo, Timor-Leste and Ukraine being the first to experience it – the project has rapidly expanded its reach to include schools affected by closures worldwide. Now all countries with a curriculum capable of being taught online have access to the programme’s content through online books, videos and additional support for parents of children with learning disabilities.

To achieve Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the next decade, we will, hopefully, see more public and private institutions come together to make our educational systems more resilient, inclusive and equitable for all.

Rethinking the role of the educator

The new remote learning environment has meant that educators have had to think creatively about content and the best possible ways to teach online. This provides the catalyst for rethinking the role of the educator, while adding value to what is taught. 

This experience has also shown us that there is potential for flexibility in how education is delivered – creating alternatives to more traditional educational formats and structures. Educators and parents have observed that some of their students or children are flourishing in the new context. This could lead to the development of more sophisticated remote learning, or blended learning options for students who prefer such an educational experience.

This crisis has resulted in a digital disruption, but also underlined the need to rethink what future generations are taught. This has been driven more recently by research from the World Economic Forum (and other organizations) on skills required by the future workforce. These future skills include higher cognitive skills of entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation, and social and emotional intelligence skills – such as resilience, adaptability and having a growth mindset.

To solve some of the world’s most pressing global challenges in the future, education will need to focus on the development of these skills.

Redefining what education will look like for future generations in a post-COVID-19 world will require the combined efforts of the various stakeholders. They will have to think hard and honestly about the issues involved, and then take the necessary actions to address them.

 

Discover the Global Education Coalition, a multisectoral partnership launched by UNESCO to facilitate appropriate distance education for all learners during the health crisis, and to ensure that #LearningNeverStops

 

READ MORE:

Teachers: Changing lives,The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2018

Helping teachers to help refugees, The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2018

Forging new lives, using mobile technology, The UNESCO Courier, October-December 2018

 

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