By Sincere Educator
It is clear from the current COVID-19 situation, that come next Monday, Oct. 4, many students in St. Vincent and the Grenadines will not resume the pre-pandemic norm of schooling. Learning over the past 18 months has been severely impacted by the compounded challenges of COVID-19, dengue fever, and the eruption of La Soufriere. While we have yet to see the full effect this will have on our students, what we have seen so far is alarming to say the least. A number of attempts have been made to address the closing of schools, but it is imperative that we learn from past mistakes.
Thanks to the hard work of teachers, parents, principals, and ministry officials, some of our students have had a satisfactory experience. It was far from perfect, but they were able to pivot to remote instruction and take advantage of the available technology to prevent further disruption in learning. However, there were other students, perhaps a majority, who have been having a drastically different, negative educational experience since May 2020. These students cannot afford to have a continuation of this experience for the upcoming school year.
The limits of devices
One of the most prominent challenges reported during remote learning has been a lack of devices. To address this, the government has been able to buy and distribute devices for students and teachers at almost every grade level. Unfortunately, it is now being reported that many, too many, of these devices have been destroyed, rendered inoperable and are unavailable for use in this upcoming academic year. What is perhaps even more disheartening is that those of us who were in the classroom during the first iteration of this initiative, when the government supplied laptops to students, saw this coming. Today’s complaints of adults taking over devices, devices being destroyed are no different from those we were aware of from 2011 — 2016. We did not learn from those mistakes. In fact, there is no evidence to show that the provision of devices alone has improved educational outcomes anywhere in the world.
The One Laptop Per Child initiative, spearheaded by the MIT Media Lab, advocated for individual student ownership of devices and the provision of devices for every child and teacher. However, in practice, OLPC projects did not show statistically significant effects on student enrollment, attendance, intrinsic motivation to complete assignments or academic achievement.
In 2012, tablets exploded as the latest in the series of technologies aiming to cure education of its ills and governments from Russia to India to Jamaica invested heavily in these devices. In 2014, a Jamaican project sought to supply teachers and students with devices at a cost of J$1.4 billion and to my knowledge there are no publicly available evaluations of this project to inform any further investment in devices alone. The management of device-centred initiatives and their alignment with the existing curriculum determine the success of any one initiative and must be the central concern. It has even been shown in some cases that devices-centred interventions are no more effective than non-device-centered interventions, the latter being significantly cheaper.
The introduction of completely new devices is cited as bad practice in mobile learning, with the advice being instead to use technology that already exists. Yet, many governments across the region responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a renewed fervour for tablets, paying relatively less attention to the increased capacity required for technology integration, curriculum adaptation and teacher support. Global supply chains continue to face disruptions due to the pandemic, and this is hardly the time to continue investing in more devices. With the on-going chip shortage, it may not even be a possibility to buy more tablets for this academic year. If this does happen, perhaps a tablet loan scheme should be established for students who need new devices again. Like the book loan scheme, parents will pay a deposit to allow their children the use of a tablet for remote learning. Destruction or damage to this device will result in a forfeit of this deposit.
A multimodal education delivery system
Outside of devices such as tablets or computers, there are other options that already exist in SVG, including radio and TV. Some of the most successful responses to the disruption of learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic employed multimodal delivery systems. Educational content was broadcast on radio, television and distributed using paper-based materials. However, coordinating between channels to prevent duplication and maximise coverage was essential to this success. In the early months of the pandemic in SVG, lessons were broadcast, and recordings were available online. This was an excellent initiative, but this has not continued at its initial scale. Perhaps in the new academic year, standardised educational content should be broadcast through a variety of media, so that teachers can then meet with students to focus on practise, formative assessment and the reinforcement of concepts.
An emphasis on online learning through Microsoft Teams only is not sufficient. We all know the state of Internet connectivity issues in our country. It has been a perennial source of frustration and ire for anybody trying to conduct any business remotely for the last 18 months. It has improved in recent years, but it is nowhere near what is required and what we pay for. When we are actually able to connect to our platform, to maintain a stable connection, all participants must turn their cameras off. This severely limits the interaction teachers and students can have. Additionally, the ability to use multimedia presentations or to share our screens is limited by the poor connection. In lieu of an improved internet connection, it is necessary to explore other media and asynchronous forms of content delivery.
Responsibility and documented accountability
It takes a village to educate our children, and remote learning is no easy task. We are all juggling multiple responsibilities, some of us are working remotely and still trying to take care of our immediate and sometimes extended families. Remote learning is a shared responsibility, and it is essential that all parties fulfil their duty.
Parents must set the stage for a good home learning environment. They must ensure that students are up, dressed, and ready for class at the appropriate time. Students should ideally be in a distraction-free, low noise environment, using headphones and depending on their age level, under adult supervision. This is especially important for our youngest learners who need someone to sit beside them and support them. However, it is no less important for our adolescents who must be held accountable for their attendance, participation in class, and submission of assigned work.
Teachers and principals
SVG is home to some very dedicated and passionate educators who have been working tirelessly to provide some form of instruction to students in the past year, but this level of commitment is needed from all teachers and principals. It has been a challenge trying to reach all our students and to know how best to keep them engaged. Teachers must adapt their instruction to meet the current circumstances. Collaboration among teachers can help those who are more comfortable with online teaching to support those who are less comfortable. Teachers must identify missing students and submit a report on attendance to their principals. Principals must submit a school-wide report on absenteeism to the ministry. They must also engage with parents and ministry officials to track these students and implement structures that ensure students can access and benefit from remote learning. Generally, the relationship between schools and parents is very important. It is even more critical now since the school is depending on parents to help create an appropriate learning environment in the home.
The Ministry of Education
The ministry of education is charged with the responsibility of providing leadership for and managing the delivery of remote learning. This leadership must be visible beyond the implementation of donor-funded projects. The ministry must set and promote minimum standards for remote learning. These include guidance on an appropriate home learning environment, guidance on the minimum instructional time that students are expected to receive each week, and benchmarks for learning outcomes. In addition to providing guidance and professional development where needed, the ministry must support teachers and principals, ensuring that the necessary structures and resources are available to combat absenteeism and to maintain tablets and any other hardware needed to facilitate remote learning.
In summary, there is no shortage of guidance on the integration of education technology for remote learning. All of the sources cited here are publicly accessible. There is also no shortage of development partners willing to work with us, to provide funding and often technical guidance. This has always been the case and was even more evident during the eruption of La Soufriere. However, what we are lacking is honest self-reflection on our history with education technology, where we are now, and the political will and leadership to do what is required.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].