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COVID-19 shuts schools, colleges: Is the world ready for virtual learning?

According to the estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as of March 16, 56 countries have closed schools nationwide, impacting over 516.6 million children and youth. 

Renu MehtaRenu Mehta | Devdiscours | Updated: 16-03-2020 17:57 IST | Created: 16-03-2020 14:24 IST
COVID-19 shuts schools, colleges: Is the world ready for virtual learning?
Given that the coronavirus situation is evolving, governments and educational institutions must consider providing technical resources to support low-income students for creating an inclusive and effective learning environment during this difficult time. Image Credit: Pixabay

Education plays a fundamental role in promoting individual empowerment, socio-economic development, and peace around the globe. It is a powerful tool for individual freedom that also catalyzes the global efforts to meet the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Unfortunately, an unprecedented number of children, youth and adults are out of school due to the novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19. As the world responds to the novel coronavirus pandemic, many educational institutions including degree colleges, schools, universities have been closed as a precautionary measure to curb its spread.

According to the estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as of March 16, 56 countries have closed schools nationwide, impacting over 516.6 million children and youth. A further 17 countries have implemented localized school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, hundreds of millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.

As the situation surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, educational organizations are seeking alternative solutions to support good evidence-based learning practices for millions of students. To minimize disruption and transition teaching and learning beyond brick and mortar classrooms, many schools and universities globally are migrating to an online learning environment.

"Technology is often seen as cold, but in this case, we're using it to recreate the student community, give people support and help engage them. It's very much a team effort. It's about what students need to learn, and that doesn't actually change when you move a face-to-face class online," says Matthew Rascoff who leads Duke University's digital education efforts.

Online learning: Hope or hype?

On one hand, Coronavirus has disrupted education, but at the same time, it has also provided an opportunity for the education sector to start turning the educational technology, aka EdTech, hype into reality.

Primary and middle schools in China are using official educational websites to ensure uninterrupted learning opportunities for 180 million students who have been restricted to their homes due to the pandemic. Similarly, higher-learning institutes are offering cloud-based lectures to national and international students. For example, the Yenching Academy of Peking University has students from nearly 40 countries around the globe who are grappling with regional time differences to attend cloud classroom. To deal with this issue, teachers are using two different platforms, one for live broadcasting and the other for backup.

To ensure the continuity of its teaching and research mission, Harvard University has migrated to online and remote instruction for all graduate and undergraduate classes for the rest of the semester. The transition is expected to be complete by Monday, March 23.

Following the suit, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Michigan and Ohio State University, among others are transitioning to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester to minimize social interaction, and slow disease spread whilst preserving the educational experience for its students.

The Duke Kunshan University (DKU), a Chinese-American partnership of Duke University and Wuhan University, has launched a cutting-edge online learning program to assure that first-class education continues on track for its students. Using the latest technologies, the university has devised a dynamic digital teaching plan with updated course schedules and syllabi to ensure the online instruction our graduate and undergraduate students receive is high quality, engaging and effective. The University is also exploring alternative solutions to help faculty and students who encounter any IT difficulties including internet access.

In the face of the global crisis, many educational companies and online universities are offering free online learning tools to enable a quick pivot to remote learning.

US-based online learning platform Coursera is offering every impacted university in the world with free access to our course catalog through the Coursera for Campus Response Initiative. The program will provide free access to over 3,800 courses from leading universities and companies around the world. Universities will have access until July 31, 2020, after which we plan to provide month-to-month extensions depending on prevailing risk assessments. The Duke University is using the Coursera for Campus program to serve impacted students at their Duke Kunshan campus in China.

Similarly, Educational company Scholastic has launched a free, open-access digital hub, 'Learn at Home', to keep students academically active even when schools are closed. The platform allows open access to daily learning journeys divided into four grade spans- Pre-K–K, Grades 1–2, Grades 3–5, and Grades 6–9+, covering ELA, STEM, Science, Social Studies, and Social-Emotional Learning. Scholastic Learn At Home is accessible via all devices, including smartphones.

Zoom, a San Jose-based remote conferencing services company provides an easy, reliable cloud platform for both video and audio conferencing across mobile devices, desktops, and other devices. Zoom's free Basic Plan that hosts up to 100 participants allows an unlimited number of video meetings.

With the global coronavirus crisis, online universities such as the University of the People, aka UoPeople, that don't charge students for taking courses have started gaining momentum. In addition, technology giants like Google, Microsoft are helping teachers and learners make the switch to remote learning.

What about the digital divide?

Globally, 3.6 billion people do not have access to the affordable Internet, with most of the disconnected folks belonging to the least developed or developing countries. When it comes to online learning, the existing digital divide makes it really harder for the disadvantaged population to reap its benefits.

School closures severely students from low-income backgrounds with no access to the required hardware and software support such as good internet connectivity or a computing device and if the coronavirus trend persists the situation may get even worse, subsequently limiting growth and development opportunities for these disadvantaged students.

Given that the coronavirus situation is evolving, governments and educational institutions must consider providing technical resources to support low-income students for creating an inclusive and effective learning environment during this difficult time.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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