Time for more action!

Time for more action!

The future of education and the fierce urgency of the now

Canute Thompson

Sunday, November 22, 2020

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Since the start of the new school year on October 5, 2020 we have seen more palpably many of the developmental deficits of our country, particularly those which relate to access to education, the challenges which face working class families, and the limitations of our telecommunications infrastructure. Happily, we have also seen the commitment of our educators.

The painful truth, however, is that many students and teachers are not coping. Estimates indicate that in some schools as few as 20 per cent of students are accessing classes and the national average could be as low as 50 per cent. These realities create an urgency for bold action if we are to minimise the catastrophic impact of the digital divide, the social imbalances, and the economic disparities which have defined our country for decades.

A hybrid model

I fully support the Government's decision for a phased face-to-face reopening of schools. In a series of reflections and analyses published earlier this year under the heading 'Exploring the lessons from COVID-19', I highlighted some imperatives which I suggested should be the focus of government policy if the new economy we are seeking to build is to be sustainable and resilient.

In Part 3 of that series, published on June 2, 2020, I made proposals related to the education sector and suggested, among other things, that given the need for social distancing and the way classrooms are constructed, on the one hand, and bandwidth limitations and shortage of devices, on the other, a hybrid model of delivery is recommended. This model would require that, in schools with large populations, a fraction of students would access classes face-to-face on some days and online on others, using a rotating model. In schools which have small populations, which are invariably those in deep rural areas, with limited connectivity, a full face-to-face solution could be used. And, in others, a partial face-to-face with students having alternate periods of face-to-face blended with online, guided by protocols on sanitation and social distancing.

The fact is that the Jamaican socio-economic landscape is diverse and complex, and so a one-size-fits-all approach is ill-advised and unworkable. I urge the Government to take an approach to solving the problem of access by adopting flexible, context-specific solutions within safety protocols. This is what large countries like Germany, which have several provinces, diverse demographics, and multiple departments of education, have done.

Radio and TV as solutions

Chris Dehring of Ready TV has made a pragmatic proposal some time ago concerning the use of radio and television as a solution for bridging the digital divide. Taking account of the level of Internet penetration, which he notes is 35 per cent after 35 years, and the time frame and investment that would be required to create the infrastructure to double that 35 per cent in any reasonable time, Dehring says we should turn to radio and television. He notes that over 90 per cent of homes have TVs, and thus the use of this medium for educational broadcasting would immediately reach most children. Dehring notes further that this solution is being used in countries such as Mexico.

I support the Dehring's call and had argued similarly in a conversation with former education minister in the last People's National Party Administration Ronald Thwaites on his radio programme Power Talk back in June. UNESCO, in a June 2, 2020 report entitled 'Learning through radio and television in the time of COVID-19', indicates that, despite the implementation of online-based learning, some 826 million students globally still do not have access to education as they do not have a computer at home. The report provides information of the findings of a virtual workshop of UNESCO and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) at which representatives from countries in Africa and Europe share how they have been using radio and television to reach students who do not have online access.

Interestingly, the report also highlights that these traditional means of broadcasting are being successfully used for intergenerational learning, addressing issues related to health and psychosocial well-being.

Time for urgent action

The experiences of the students, parents, teachers, education officers, and other major players in the education sector since the delayed start of the new school year show that there are many deficits. The failure to have looked ahead and to address some predictable challenges is one contributor to the current challenges. This failure includes the fact that we lost four years (2016-2020) on the Tablets in Schools programme, during which time no tablets were issued and so now we are playing catch-up, but we will nonetheless be behind for a long time.

Action needed

There are some areas that need urgent attention to reap more positive outcomes:

(a) The Ministry of Education, through partnership with relevant resource entities and professionals, should move quickly to facilitate the repackaging of the curriculum for more sustained and wide use of radio and television. Some of this is being done but needs to be scaled up.

(b) The Government and private sector must collaborate to invest in the expansion of the communications infrastructure over the medium to long term.

(c) The Ministry of Education ought to work with partners to package content for asynchronous online delivery.

(d) Train teachers in developing content for asynchronous delivery as well as improving skills in online (synchronous) delivery to move beyond merely talking through a computer.

(e) Retrofit physical learning spaces to allow for a more functional and sustainable face-to-face delivery.

Supportive policy measures

Some of the foregoing recommendations contemplate a substantial shift to school taking place while teachers and students at home. The sustainability and the effectiveness of this new norm will require six supportive policy initiatives, namely:

(1) teacher aides who would visit homes to provide support to families which are challenged — this is akin to that of education officers visiting schools;

(2) providing teachers with a grant to retrofit their homes to allow for more comfortable and appropriate teaching from home;

(3) revamping the school feeding programme to facilitate access despite students being at home;

(4) providing free or subsidised access to Internet in homes for teachers and students in homes which qualify;

(5) addressing issues related to increased consumption of water and electricity brought about by working and learning from home for extended hours; and

(6) equipping schools with the capabilities and facilities to enable teachers to do real online teaching.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as a senior lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of six books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com

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