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Education post-coronavirus: Schools to rush for more digitalization

Digital education would undoubtedly boom in the post-coronavirus world, supported by educational institutions that have discovered its efficiency during the crisis, but it is still not expected to outshine traditional classroom learning.

Parag NarangParag Narang | Updated: 29-03-2020 18:34 IST | Created: 29-03-2020 18:34 IST
Education post-coronavirus: Schools to rush for more digitalization
Over 1.5 billion students, representing more than 87 percent of enrolled learners, are out of school due to closures. Image Credit: Pxhere

"There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected," said Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and a Nobel laureate, at the beginning of the century while releasing a report called 'The State of the World's Children 2000', and just about two decades later, the world is changing and educational institutions are going virtual overnight to ensure the student population does not miss out on the crucial learning time.

Billions of children are forced out of playgrounds and schools, and are confined in their homes as the world scrambles to respond to one of the biggest threats to human civilization. The coronavirus outbreak has impacted daily life in at least 171 countries and has prompted authorities to impose lockdowns in hundreds of cities in the world. Not even Prime Ministers and Royals of the most powerful countries on the planet are safe from the COVID-19 infection, which has climbed to become the top priority of world leaders.

Due to the lockdowns, millions of classrooms across the world are empty as the education systems come face-to-face with their biggest roadblock in recent history. Over 1.5 billion students, representing more than 87 percent of enrolled learners, are out of school after 165 countries imposed nationwide school closures in an attempt to stop the spread of novel coronavirus.

The unprecedented crisis, which has sparked school closures at an unparalleled scale, has left the world looking for answers on how to ensure that no one is left behind during these challenging times.

What are the challenges and what is being done? While children seem less susceptible to the worse effects of the virus, they can act as carriers and can transmit the infection to their teachers, their parents, and fellow classmates, prompting authorities to invoke emergency measures to announce school closures at an unprecedented scale.

While school closures in some countries were imposed only recently, they have been in place in other countries for weeks, highlighting the need to take tangible steps to ensure learning never stops.

Digital Divide

More than 87 percent of the global student population is out of school and many institutions are going online to make up for the lost academic time. But the biggest challenge that the sector faces is to ensure that children from marginalized backgrounds don't lose out on their education.

Learning has radically changed overnight and stakeholders are confronted with a never-before challenge to avoid disruptions in education, especially for the vulnerable students, in ensuing weeks.

Governments are offering subsidies for computer purchases and internet access, while schools and higher education institutions are lending out laptops and digital devices to students during the crisis.

But the digital divide is too broad to be filled in a relatively short period of time, even one of the most developed cities like New York City has an estimated 300,000 students without access to electronics, according to Richard Carranza, the Department of Education's chancellor. While in Hong Kong, 237,100 children out of about 1 million come from low-income families, according to estimates of the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), a non-profit organization that works on poverty alleviation. A SoCO survey of nearly 600 low-income students shows more than 70% of them don't have computers while 28% don't have access to broadband.

To overcome this, UNESCO has also launched a Global Education Coalition that brings together multilateral partners and the private sector to help countries deploy remote learning systems and facilitate inclusive learning opportunities for children and youth during this period of sudden and unprecedented educational disruption.

Missing out on free school meals

Another challenge that has arisen due to school closures is the lack of access to free meals provided by educational institutions. Millions of students from marginal backgrounds are dependent on these meals provided by schools for healthy nutrition.

In India, the Mid-Day Meal scheme to provide a free lunch covers over 120 million children and these lunches reduce protein deficiency by 100%, calorie deficiency by 30% and iron deficiency by 10%, according to a study. Several Indian states have taken initiatives to keep the program running even during the school closures.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that eligible children will get meals or vouchers for meals during the school closures and has also promised to reimburse the cost to the schools that are already doing it.

The rest of the world is also trying to provide nutritious meals to the children one way or the other but challenges remain since the outbreak has grown at such a quick pace and school closures have been among the first course of action, being announced overnight in many cases.

Protecting children's mental health during social isolation

Parents and caregivers are also under extreme pressure as they scramble to support the children while working and managing household chores themselves. With lockdowns firmly in place, parents are already panicked about how to keep their children busy without any access to playgrounds, childcare or camps. Then comes the additional burden to support their education as schools scramble to set up a virtual teaching system.

Schools and colleges are also the primary source of social activity and human interaction for children. Many children are missing out on essential social interaction and to address that parents are organizing virtual playdates for their children with the help of communication apps like Zoom and Google Hangouts.

Interactive online classes through video conferencing apps instead of pre-recorded videos are also being preferred by schools and universities for this same reason. They provide opportunities for social interaction essential for learning and development.

Social isolation can be just as tough for the mental health of children as it is for that of adults which makes it important to check up on the children, especially teenagers. Dr. Lisa Damour, an expert adolescent psychologist, while talking to UNICEF said, "The first thing that parents can do is actually to normalize the fact that they [teenagers] are feeling anxious. Many teenagers have the misunderstanding that anxiety is always a sign of mental illness when in fact, psychologists have long recognized that anxiety is a normal and healthy function that alerts us to threats and helps us take measures to protect ourselves."

She recommends having a schedule that includes playtime, screentime to help children connect with their friends but the schedule should also have "technology-free time". "Kids need structure. Full stop. And what we're all having to do, very quickly, is invent entirely new structures to get every one of us through our days," she added.

The world will eventually get through the outbreak but the changes happening today in the education sector will leave a lasting impact on the trajectory of learning innovation and digitalization.

Is digital the future?

The outbreak has forced digitization into the education system at a much faster and much wider scale than previously thought but it has also exposed the digital divide that exists even in developed countries, and getting children safely back to school still seems to be the best option for their education.

Schools are not merely a place where children go to get an education, instead, they are a vital part of the development process of a child, which can not be replaced by technological solutions that are available right now. From nutrition to social needs, schools impact every aspect of children's lives and give them some of the biggest moments of their young lives.

But the pandemic has addressed the stigma behind digital education and has pushed educational institutions worldwide to search for innovative solutions in a relatively short period of time. Lesser educators believe that online classes are only for tech-savvy teachers and the outbreak has pushed even resistant teachers to adapt to new methods to ensure the well-being of their students. Fast-pacing the lackluster change in the education sector, coronavirus has paved the way for surprising new innovations and approaches in the future.

Although it is too early to judge how reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic will exactly affect future education systems around the world, digital education would undoubtedly boom supported by educational institutions that have discovered its efficiency during the crisis. With digital education, regular tests could go online and summer break assignments could be made interactive but it is would still take more time to get digital education at par with traditional classroom learning.

Contrary to the popular belief, the world just doesn't seem ready for out-of-school learning at a large scale yet but the post-coronavirus education sector would be more supportive of it, paving the way for the adaptation of new innovations and approaches in the direction.

(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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