Tackling education's digital divide
Online programme for teachers supported by UNICEF aims to improve remote learningTuesday, November 10, 2020
By Archibald Gordon
“I wanted to get my education,” says 11-year-old Joel Young as he scribbles in his notebook. At his parents' wooden house in Little Bay, a small rural fishing community on the west coast of Jamaica, the boy and his six siblings try to keep up with classwork during the novel coronavirus pandemic. But it's not easy.
Schools were closed across the island in March, when the first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed, leaving thousands of students at home.
“[It's been] difficult. Difficult,” says Joel's father, Wayne. “I think my kids them gonna drop back a lot, as they have no Internet,” he adds. “We have no smartphone. We have no laptop. Because we can't afford it.”
The pandemic has put the spotlight on the inequities of the education sector in Jamaica as never before, highlighting the digital divide in the country: in 34 per cent of households, children do not have exclusive access to an Internet device for education purposes. Also, there are glaring disparities between urban and rural areas.
“We have now seen that the digital divide has become wide and open and full-centre and we have to find a way to try and close it as quickly as possible and as equitably as possible,” says Rebecca Tortello, education specialist at United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Jamaica.
“We had to be catapulted into a new type of learning where school would no longer be a physical destination away from your home, but in your home — in whatever way that you could connect,” she adds.
In this context, UNICEF partnered with the Ministry of Education through its National College for Educational Leadership, to launch a Virtual Instructional Leadership programme in June.
The goal: share tools within the education sector to improve child-centred distance learning and present different options for remote contact with students. More than 1,200 school leaders have been trained so far.
The idea was to help school leaders get “a greater understanding of what kinds of support are out there so that they could motivate their staff and their administration, and find platforms that would work best for their school community,” Tortello explains.
Among those enrolled in the course was Keron King, principal at Little Bay All-Age and Infant School, where Joel Young studies.
Energetic and creative, King was already exploring online tools to boost learning when the pandemic hit.
“I think the virtual platform did an excellent job in terms of providing that kind of support [to] the teachers and equipping us to go out there and share that knowledge with our fellow colleagues — and not just our colleagues, but by extension, our communities,” he explains.
Over the past months, the school has incorporated a range of methodologies such as Google Classroom, alongside WhatsApp and phone calls, where possible, to try to boost learning and keep students on track.
King also encouraged all of the teachers to take the course. “I felt that this wasn't something just for my own self, but I think it should be shared information for all members of staff,” he says.
The online tools provided new possibilities for a school that was already exploring ingenious ways to tackle the challenges of remote teaching. In March, Little Bay Primary started a pick-up and drop-off programme using its staff to deliver lesson packets to its 186 students each week.
Staff closest to the school walk to homes or use drop-off points to send the lessons. But King delivers most of the material himself. And he does so by using a “bike taxi”, a phenomenon in the west of Jamaica: motorbike drivers offering paid rides on routes which might otherwise have no public transport because of the poor state of the roads.
A week after delivering the material, the drop off team picks up the completed assignments and delivers a new set.
Such an effort makes an important difference, especially for families who live far away from school, separated not only by the lack of technology — telephones or Internet — but also by the lack of safe roads.
For those children, watching their principal arrive on a bike taxi with their homework is quite a positive sight.
So far, this system, combined with the online tools, has worked — it has kept students connected to schoolwork on a weekly basis.
Twelve-year-old Sasheena is among the students benefiting from the programme. While her mother stirs a large metal pot in her sprawling restaurant, Sasheena sits nearby, completing her weekly lesson on her laptop.
“Things that I don't understand I'll go contact my teacher over WhatsApp or video-call and she'll help me — explain things to me so that I understand,” says Sasheena, who admits she still misses her classroom.
The system is proving successful for both students and parents.
“As it is, I'm a bit satisfied with the work that Mr King provides,” says Sasheena's mother, Kaedia Ellis Johnson. “She has access to the Internet. She go on EduFocal (a Jamaican online learning platform) and the teachers provide work on WhatsApp. I have a full-time business, gratefully the teachers are always there to assist if I'm not available and she needs help.”
For those living near the school, Little Bay Primary also has satellite Internet, allowing students with tablets and other smart devices to gather, as safely as possible, under a big tree in front of the school yard to use the free Wi-Fi and access educational platforms.
But many challenges remain, especially for those living farther away and those with no access to technology, like Joel Young.
As Joel sits with his siblings at the living room table turned make-shift school desk, the oldest, a 15-year-old, and Joel's father take turns supervising the schoolwork when they can. Unable to contact his teachers through online devices, Joel still follows the routine he would if he were in an actual classroom whenever he has a question. “I still raise my hand,” he says.
Despite these challenges, Principal King is hopeful.
“As we go along, we are working to ensure that we have the best results and learning and education continue with little or no disruption,” he says.