Exploring the lessons of COVID-19 — Part 3


Exploring the lessons of COVID-19 — Part 3

Implications for educational planning


Tuesday, June 02, 2020

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In my reflections on the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic I have shared ideas on the psycho-spiritual implications, published on March 24. In that piece I called attention to the existential question of the fickleness and finiteness of human beings in the face of life's great challenges, but proposed that the pandemic offers the opportunity for us to rekindle the bonds of human community and to be mindful that our personal safety and well-being are connected to that of our neighbour.

A month later, on April 23, 2020, I examined the response of the Government of Jamaica and offered an assessment which showed a mixed performance. I held that in some areas the Government had done well, while in others it had not. One of the further lessons I suggest is found in the need for us to invest more heavily in the health-care sector. In this regard, preventive health care is paramount and thus, for example, the 'Jamaica Moves' idea, which up to now is a public relations project with no targets, must be structured into a programme tied to specific targets which can track outcomes.

The new normal in education

It is perhaps now universally accepted that the delivery of education in a post-COVID-19 era will never be the same again. It is safe to make two broad assumptions:

(1) that social distancing will become an operational mandate in classrooms; and

(2) that online learning will become far more commonplace than it now is, and possibly may become the preferred option.

If we assume that social distancing will extend into the future in classrooms, then one of the immediate consequences is that schools will have to be de-populated and the shift system will have to be expanded, not eliminated. Let's take, for example, classrooms at our primary schools, where two (and sometimes three) children share a bench and desk. That space will now have to be for one child. In other schools where the bench/desk combo is not used, as is the case with high schools, a classroom with 30 desks and chairs will have to be reduced to about 12 to 15, if the six-feet rule of distancing is maintained.

With this 50 per cent to 60 per cent reduction in available space, one of two options becomes inevitable under a shift system. Either we lengthen the school day to facilitate the same number of contact hours, or we reduce contact time to allow all students equal access by keeping the school day at the same length. The logistical headache is going to be plenty, but it is something that can be planned for and refined over time.

In my outlook, the most likely, and desired, scenario is a blended approach. This blended approach would see extensive use of online learning being used with face-to-face instruction. A few possible scenarios may be explored — contingent on the assumption that each student will have the same number of hours of contact time per week, even if not per day. I do not claim that these scenarios are the only ones:

(a) Rotating face-to-face engagements on alternate days or alternate consecutive days, such that on some days each set of students start school in the mornings, while others start in the afternoon, and then they switch. During those times when students are not being engaged face to face they would be working online accessing content being delivered live (synchronously) or via pre-packaged content which they access at later (asynchronously).

This approach has its limitations, one of which is that students and teachers could lose track as to which day that should be in face to face and which day online. The potential for people being dizzied could be overcome by (b).

(b) The alternative to (a) is that face-to-face engagements be done alternate weeks. This gives more space for planning. This obviously means that face-to-face contact would be cut in half, which further means that online will have to be a viable and working mode.

If online is to become a viable and working mode, immediate and focused attention must be given to three priorities:

Priority # 1 – Strengthen telecoms networks

Based on the lived experience of the last four to six weeks, wherein we have seen that perhaps only 50 per cent of students have been able to engage in online schooling, the first priority of the Government must be to work with the telecoms providers to strengthen the availability of bandwidth such that connectivity can be fast, seamless, and guaranteed, in excess of 95 per cent of the time. This means that the e-learning network being built around the island, which started several years ago, needs to be made ready for the demands to be placed on it. We may also need to issue more licences for network providers.

Priority # 2 – Provide resources to facilitate access

With reliable communication networks becoming part of the development landscape, a critical recurrent item of education expenditure must be free access to networks for teachers and students as part of the teaching and learning process. In other words, Government must budget for this activity. In addition to provision of funds to pay for data, we need to a reliable system of end-point equipment provision. In this regard, the failure of the Government to provide any single tablet, under the Tablet in Schools programme, after more than four years in office, is an inexcusable and unforgivable failure.

Priority # 3 – Train teachers

With online delivery becoming an equal partner with face-to-face teachers will have to become skilled and agile in using a vast array of tools and methods to deliver content online both synchronously and asynchronously. This necessity opens a big business opportunity for universities and university lecturers and others to become coaches, co-presenters, and consultants in preparing, packaging, delivering, and evaluating content, and assessing students' progress.

The implications for higher education

The management of teaching and learning, using blended modalities, has long been a part of the practice in higher education to varying degrees and over different time frames in the higher education sector. The University of the West Indies (UWI), for example, has had a long history of using a blended modality. The UWI's Master of Education (MEd)online and summer programme started in 2000. Under this programme, students would do some courses online and then do face-to-face classes in the summer on the campus.

Prior to the establishment of the MEd online programme The UWI established the online initiative called the University of the West Indies Distance Teaching Experiment (UWIDITE) in 1983. UWIDITE later morphed into the UWI Distance Education Centre (UWIDEC) in 1996. UWIDEC was further expanded to become the Open Campus in 2008.

With this depth of experience, The UWI is expected to be adept at online, but, more critically, blended delivery, and thus take advantage of the seismic shifts which the COVID-19 pandemic has visited upon the higher education landscape globally. But long before COVID-19 the need to reposition the delivery of higher education (to take account of learning preferences of millennials and the advantages of new technologies, among other things) had become apparent, indeed mandatory. I examine some of these opportunities in my latest book, entitled Education and Development: Policy Imperatives for Jamaica and the Caribbean.

Thus, one of the immediate implications of COVID-19 for higher education is the business and development opportunity for The UWI to become a major resource in capacity development in online and blended learning in the Caribbean and Latin America Region and possibly even Africa. This opportunity calls for more strategic engagements with community and teachers' colleges across the region. These strategic engagements, which must include collaborative research using online modalities, will require the existence of a dedicated higher education network. The higher education community across the Caribbean must therefore collaborate to convince governments of the region of the need for CaribNET. This important project, which was being spearheaded by the Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network (CKLN) was shelved by governments of the region, reportedly on grounds that it was too expensive, and we could not afford it. One sure lesson of COVID-19 is that we cannot afford not to afford CaribNET.

In the same way COVID-19 has forced us, as human beings, to answer the existential question of the purpose and value of human life, it is calling universities to answer the existential question of the purpose and value of universities.

Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania; Sjur Bergan, head of the Education Department of the Council of Europe; and Tony Gallagher of the Queen's University of Belfast, articulate this existential issue in a most compelling way in a piece in University World News, entitled 'Universities must help shape the post-COVID-19 world'. The thematic contention of the piece is that universities cannot simply watch to see how the post-COVID-19 era unfolds and react to what happens; rather, universities will have to shape the future.

Among the ways in which universities can shape the future, according to Harkavy et al, are:

(i) Sustaining a culture of democracy: This includes ensuring that we develop and maintain our systems of democratic laws and protect institutions.

(ii) Informing public discourse on the key ingredients for the creation of a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society: One of the key data points from COVID-19 is that, while anyone can contract it, it is mostly the poor and dispossessed who die from it. In this regard, COVID-19 has worsened the existing structures of injustice.

The UWI has a central role to play in exposing and assaulting the structures of injustice and inequity in our region. This task is rooted in a broader and more fundamental task; that of informing public conversation on the kind of society we want, and thus the kind of education system we must have in order to attain that kind of society.

(iii) Stimulating reconsideration of the idea of education as a public good: The neoliberal notion which is being promoted by some Caribbean governments which contend that higher education institutions must be self-sufficient and, in the case of the Government of Jamaica, that it has no obligation to finance The UWI, it merely chooses to contribute, is dangerous and short-sighted. Countries which are handling the COVID-19 crisis best are those in which a significant percentage of the population is tertiary-trained, most with substantial governmental support.

In several previous articles I proposed ways in which the Government of Jamaica could fund tertiary education sustainably and strategically as part of a national development agenda. I will mention only two here, both of which are applicable to other countries of the Caribbean.

(1) Use of funds in dormant bank accounts: I recommend that governments put in place a policy to use a designated substantial share of funds in dormant bank accounts to fund tertiary education. This provides funds in the immediate term.

(2) In the longer term, I propose the establishment of the Child Opportunity Trust. I discussed this idea in a piece published on November 5, 2019, and since then refined the model.

If Caribbean countries are to attain levels of sustainable resilience to economic shocks and natural disasters a larger percentage of our populations must attain increased resilience to said shocks. Having a sound post-secondary education is a major contributor to this, as being in such a position means better income, improved ability to generate income, better housing, increased ability to afford proper health care, and being better able to save. This means that governments need to see themselves as having vested interests in funding access to higher education.

Let's get going!

Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and senior lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of five books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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