COVID-19 and university studiesSunday, March 21, 2021
STUDENTS, together with the rest of us, have had an exceptionally difficult time in the face of the existential threat of COVID-19. As widely publicised, many students have fallen victim to the digital divide. They have no proper access to their teachers and instructors, even as teaching proceeds in cyberspace.
At the tertiary level the problem of teaching presents itself in notable ways — in addition to the general issue of access. Many tertiary students have been able to garner access to their lecturers through remote means but they are, nonetheless, deprived of some elements of their studies.
This is immediately evident in the case of practical courses. If you need to be in the science laboratory, if you need to be learning through ward rounds, if you need practical exposure at the dentist's chair, you may be seriously deprived — or, at very least, your lecturers will be hard-pressed to present practically oriented courses to you through methods that are not practical.
Nor are the difficulties confined to the pure and applied sciences. In the humanities, social sciences, law and related fields, students will have found that their “human-centred” studies now have a blurred area of focus. If you wish to pursue sociological work on Caribbean reality, you may find, in the time of COVID-19, that your random sample is compromised because several people just lack the time for or inclination to indulge you. Alternatively, you may find responses clouded by perceptions that affect our personal and collective moods and attitudes in ways yet unstudied.
The lecturer guiding students will also need to be mindful of the access to information problem that has long bedevilled Caribbean studies. Many students lack ready access to material about the Caribbean. Books about the region have grown significantly in number, but some are said to priced at levels that are not always affordable to students.
This raises fundamental issues. Caribbean universities — together with other educational institutions — are dedicated to the cause of wide social advancement. The students constitute the raison d'etre of the institutions, and it is taken as a matter of course that these students enhance their life chances and the social weal through higher-level studies. But access to information is critical to the educational process — students, as well as the upliftment mission, suffer when books are scarce.
Surely, you may say, the students have access to the Internet. But, speaking very broadly, Internet resources may be inadequate in two contrasting ways — namely, through “overload” and “undersupply”. As to overload, you may find prodigious quantities of information online but this may be problematic, for the student in the early stages of learning may not be properly equipped to distinguish critically important issues from other matters online. This is a purpose undertaken by many books. Also, some Internet sources are misleading or inaccurate traps for the unwary.
And as to undersupply, it remains true that many profound works of Caribbean scholarship are not available online — even though no student is intellectually well-equipped without them. Added to this is the fact that information from archival and governmental sources that frequently constitutes the foundation for research in the social sciences and the humanities may be available only through a subset of national libraries.
A few examples are in order. No student of public sector management in the Caribbean may reasonably claim credibility in the field without having studied books and articles by our much-respected hero, the late Prof Edwin Jones, a Caribbean legend: see, eg, Contending with Administrivia: Competition for Space, Benefits and Power (2015). Enduring publications from the Department of Government by other leading scholars including, among others, profs Gladstone Mills, Carl Stone, Trevor Munroe and Rupert Lewis, as well as Ms Ann Spackman, are also required reading about Caribbean reality, even though they may not be downloaded on the touch of a keyboard.
Which takes me to a brief point on libraries. Many of our libraries are first class repositories of information, carrying items ranging from the grimly obscure, the emanations of the popular press, on to manifestations from social media.
The libraries, however, are not designed — and perhaps could not really be designed — to provide access to books for 200 students in particular courses, and for 30 courses over three years. Authors write books for recognition and sometimes for sales, and in all cases they expect their copyright to be respected. If our libraries, and especially our university libraries, the disregard of copyright law to furnish book information to students could be the path to institutional discreditation.
Students, therefore, need to be encouraged to read books. In COVID-19 time, though, they may not have ready access to physical books and possibly not to electronic versions. My fear is that this will promote, or reinforce, the idea that books are inessential to the academic mission. This, too, will undermine the legitimacy of our educational processes. The importance of books cannot be overemphasised, and bookstores cannot be allowed to die.
On an even broader point, COVID-19 should cause lecturers and students to reflect on the core purposes of higher education. Among other things, the student pusuing a degree in most disciplines should be able to demonstrate that s/he has acquired knowledge of a core set of facts. To put the matter in rough terms, the award of a degree should be a statement to the community that this knowledge is in the award-holder's brain.
Secondly, the higher education process must promote analytical skills and judgement among students. As noted above, it must also ensure that the student has the marked ability to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in a mass of facts. And the student leaving university must have the power to express him or herself in writing and through the spoken word, in the English language.
Starting with these elements of higher learning, universities are seriously challenged by COVID-19 in the areas of testing for knowledge, analysis and powers of expression. Most testing today is by remote means. The student sits in the electronic distance, without direct supervision or invigilation, and ploughs through a multiple-choice or essay paper on the semester's work.
This is not likely to be a good test of knowledge if the student has a lot of time to do the test, for the student will be able to look up the information online or go through his or her class notes for answers. To counter this a bit, the time offered for answers may be limited so that “looking up” answers is a more difficult proposition. But if this route is taken the problem of online connectivity arises — if the time is short and there are breaks in connectivity, the examination can become a nightmare for the student.
With respect to analysis and powers of expression, it should be possible to set an examination using the open-book, essay format, which allows students to offer opinions and assessments befitting their powers and knowledge. But how does the system know that this is the student's work? And what does the system do if the student simply repeats what is stated in online sources or books? Various examination bodies in different parts of the world are grappling with such problems.
Finally, lecturers may need to consider whether all courses of a similar nature at a given university should be tested in the same way. Normally, the answer to this question is no, for lecturers, in their independent judgement, should know what is best for their courses. But, for testing in COVID-19 times, it may be necessary to apply uniform rules. This may help to promote the integrity of the testing process if — but only if — the process is sufficiently rigorous.
Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is a professor of international law at UWI, Mona.
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