Connecting with learners

July 01, 2020

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‘OVERWHELMED’ is a word used very often for the health sector, and rightly so, in reference to the pandemic. Similarly, the impact of Covid-19 on the education sector has been broad and dramatic. In less than 90 days, around 1.5 billion students and 65 million teachers found themselves suddenly out of their classrooms in 180-plus countries around the globe. In the UK, for instance, schools which had managed to remain open throughout two world wars found themselves closed by government directive.

It is a unique, unprecedented and unexpected outcome of a highly underestimated crisis. Educational institutions were taken aback at first, but then started firefighting as a knee-jerk reaction. The first emergency action was to establish an electronic connection with students and hence the sudden burst of online teaching — the birth of mass ‘emergency teaching’.

At first, digital platforms were the only way to connect with learners. However, it is causing ‘cold spots’ and creating new educational disparities for those who are digitally ill equipped.

Quick fixes do not have inherent stability. Short term, reactionary, knee-jerk responses in the education sector are understandably problem focused, with the sole purpose of reaching students. In a few instances, the sector has witnessed heroic case studies of online outreach, ranging from WhatsApp calls to Zoom sessions.

Educational managers need to go beyond firefighting.

Pakistan’s reaction to the crisis has been arguably exemplary. Within the first 60 days of the pandemic, state and private sector had already established functional systems of online teaching. TeleTaleem and Taleem Ghar are reaching out to over 60m viewers through educational TV transmissions. Similarly, private-sector schooling through digital platforms is in full swing. While this is amazing as a first-aid response, some sensible thinking will be required to rethink and reframe the education offer for the future. While fully appreciating these war-footing efforts, short-term responses cannot be the basis for long-term policy and planning.

Covid-19 is now accepted as a long-term problem that might last for years. Educational managers and planners need to go beyond firefighting to stock take all the quick fixes and recipes adopted in the time of emergency. The education sector by now has all the proofs of concepts, including the test bed level beta applications which were used to roll out the educational response.

In planning for the future, the sector has a broad mandate. It will be important to differentiate between a content platform and a university. Currently, fuzzy lines between content producers, providers and delivery chains should be clarified.

Learning can be made possible through discourse, innovation and interpretation, rather than by a one-way flood of teaching content. The sector should come up with geographically segregated areas for providing a content marketplace based on creative commonalities and shared intellectual property. Those educational establishments that do not have the resources or capabilities to transform into new media of delivery should be supported under a global, participative and a democratised model.

Shared and co-created content could be made available as open educational resources or under a shared Creative Commons licence where applicable. This will allow several education providers to collaborate, co-create and coexist. There have already been successful transitions amongst many universities. For example, Imperial College London is offering a course on the science of the coronavirus, which is now the most enrolled class launched in 2020 on Coursera. Media organisations such as the BBC are also powering virtual learning, Bitesize Daily. Launched on 20 April, Bitesize Daily is offering 14 weeks of curriculum-based learning for kids across the UK with celebrities like Manchester City footballer Sergio Aguero teaching some of the content.

The government of Pakistan’s TeleTaleem and Taleem Ghar are excellent examples of collaborative efforts by the state, private sector and ed tech providers.

Alongside fairness, collective value and trust, many institutions can obtain economic and commercial benefits.

As an untapped treasure, students have always been on the receiving end of the process. If they are an active participant in content and delivery feedback, they will be the best resource in reshaping the offer. Students must become central to feedback and no longer be just passive recipients of criticism or praise. Getting employers, industry and the wider community meaningfully involved will also be crucial: what are their expectations and which skills and qualifications are relevant for them and why?

So, what could the glittering prize be? A responsive, resilient and equitable education provision for all for the demanding times ahead.

Nishat Riaz is director education, British Council Pakistan. Mark Crossey is deputy country director, British Council Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2020