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Education in the Time of COVID-19 #046 – Duraiappah

By CEID Blogger, on 4 March 2021

COVID-19: Will it be a game changer for Education?

By Dr. Anantha K. Duraiappah, Director, UNESCO MGIEP 

The first pandemic of the 21st century practically crippled the world, bringing it to a complete standstill. It is not the disease itself that caused the shutdown but the policies implemented to curb the spread of the disease. Travel, trade, manufacturing and service sectors were all shutdown. Lockdowns, confinements and social distancing practically made our present economic and social systems inoperable. The education sector was not spared either. UNESCO estimates that about 1.2 billion students from over 140 countries as of March 2020 were out of school. The situation has not really improved since then about 12 months later.

The sudden closure of schools caught most education administrators unprepared. However, after the initial period of shock and with the key focus on containing the spread of the disease and keeping the students safe, educators are now increasingly coming to terms that this pandemic will be with us for some time or at least until a vaccine reaches the masses. Therefore, until a safe return to school strategy is ironed out, alternate solutions are urgently needed for the following issues:

  • Continuation of classes until the completion of the academic year
  • Providing assessments to evaluate students for advancement and/or completion of courses
  • Provisioning for the upcoming academic year
  • Undertaking a situational analysis of what options are available for providing learning under the conditions of confinement, lockdowns and social distancing
  • Preparedness of students, teachers and other relevant educational admnistrators to facilitate learning and teaching under the present conditions

As we navigate our way through these challenging times, a clear message has emerged: online learning offers a viable and – in all practicality – the only alternative. The good news is that even pre-COVID-19, online learning was gaining momentum and educational institutions were already providing online learning and teaching. These were far more developed and advanced at the university level but still in their infancy in schools. My focus in this article will be on the school system – in which there is an urgent requirement to seamlessly advance towards online learning.

Some countries have already had prior experience working with online learning systems. In the lesser economically developed countries, most of the schools using online learning systems have been private and affluent schools. While in the case of the more economically developed countries, the extent of online learning has been spread across both private and public schools.  We can confidently say that the majority of advancement in online learning rests with the private and financially well-off schools. This disparity raises real concerns of a growing educational divide between the haves and the have nots.

An online learning system will need to have a number of key inputs to make it successful. At the moment, the focus has largely been on the hard infrastructure with little attention paid to the soft infrastructure. We are trying to duplicate our present “physical” education system in a virtual world.  Most schools are using tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to primarily connect teacher and students in order to conduct a typical classroom session through video software packages.

However, schools which have been working pre-COVID-19 with online learning systems have advanced further by using more sophisticated packages such as Google Classrooms, Summit, and FramerSpace among many others. These offer teachers a platform whereby students register, access online materials, work online and progress through a cohort management facility built within these packages. Some software, such as that offered by Squirrel, has Artificial Intelligence algorithms to provide personalised learning.

Now let me come to content and pedagogy. The content on online learning platforms can vary from simple PDFs of printed textbooks used in physical classrooms, to presentations prepared by teachers and content developers to videos from YouTube. The question we must ask ourselves is if this is the face of modern education. Will this be “better” than what we have presently and will it address all the criticisms we have of our present school systems? These are key questions we must ask and reflect on as we design and implement online learning and teaching. Equally important to content development is pedagogy. The way delivery is carried out influences the learning that happens. The digital learning space offers a number of new opportunities conducive to learning but which to date have not been fully exploited.

Immersive, interactive, experiential and instantaneous feedback as learning assessments are key features of digital learning. The notion of digital learning and digital pedagogy are key terms to acknowledge in the new learning space. It goes much further than what we have at the moment which in many ways is a simple replication of the typical physical classroom but in the digital space. This is not what digital learning and digital pedagogy can offer. The digital medium must be seen as a transformative learning environment, not a transmissive medium.

While the digital medium offers tremendous opportunities, a number of challenges have emerged ranging from teacher preparedness, internet access, digital content suitability and student flexibility among many others. These are all ongoing issues many countries have been grappling, long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another important issue that has not received enough attention revolves around data ownership and management. As students are enrolled in online platforms, the data generated about themselves of their learning is documented without much regard to privacy, ownership and accountability. The ethics underlying data ownership is yet to be discussed and the rush to get learners online on a host of predominantly privately owned learning platforms suggests another potential social virus that will be deterrent to individual learners.

We need to explore the development of an international treaty designating a custodian for such data. A special purpose organization could oversee and manage such exchanges modelled on the basis of ICANNS’s (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) stakeholder structure but with the exception that this new proposed body must be multilateral and multi-stakeholder.

That said, while we are in a crisis now and establishing such a body can take time to establish, there is no time for complacency. We can’t afford to wait to resolve all privacy and privatization concerns. we must start work immediately. One intermediate step is to ensure that all private data collected during this crisis is purged by private corporations on a periodical basis and the identity of users remain anonymous until such an agreement can be put in place.

I leave with a sobre warning. Online is here to stay. We need to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of re-producing our present system in the digital space. We need a whole new digital learning space with its own rules and regulations. A new space that will embrace individuals and their learning experiences in relevant and fun ways. A space that allows students to navigate rich and deep knowledges, creating a journey into a digital matrix world of education.                                                                                                   

Dr. Anantha Duraiappah took the position as inaugural Director of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) based in New Delhi, India in 2014. A science-policy pacesetter, with over 33 years’ experience, he now plays a key role in positioning UNESCO MGIEP as a leading research institute on education for peace, sustainable development and global citizenship.


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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