Rob May, CEO ABE Global, Examination Body

(Part of a series on Covid-19, Learning Technology and Lost Learning)

This series explores the reactions of governments and educators in different countries to the pandemic and suggests that policy makers must now aggregate the best practice that emerged during lockdowns into a collective change programme and a robust contingency plan to deal with future school closures.

Working across a range of educational settings in the Global South, for me the pandemic has exploded the myth around the third world’s lack of resilience. It was useful to see how countries pivoted their learning offer (or not) compared to the UK’s reaction.

Differences across countries in responses to the education emergency

COVID-19 has in one sense had a levelling effect, as access to technology, money and resources was unable to guarantee consistency and quality in education provision. Some countries quickly co-ordinated learning populations into a single platform to avoid the problems I discussed in an earlier article in this series on the clashing mess of virtual learning platforms. In February 2020, the Chinese government instructed a quarter of a billion full-time students to continue studying through online methods such as Tencent Classroom, resulting in the largest online movement in the history of education. Alongside academic content, ​China mandated online provision of psycho-social support.

Around the world, there remains the issue of a significant accessibility gap between students from privileged and disadvantaged backgrounds depending on income brackets. In low-income countries, 3.8 billion people still have no access to the internet. To overcome this, traditional ‘low-tech’ media modes were co-opted in some regions of the world. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, radio broadcasting was used extensively to transmit lessons. Some school districts formed local media partnerships to offer local educational broadcasts, with separate television channels used to broadcast content for different ages. The government of Rwanda began a home learning initiative which supported children by co-ordinating a range of experts and partners in the basic education sub-sector to design scripts, content, and interactive sessions for radio broadcast lessons, providing an inclusive and accessible model circumventing the need for smartphones and internet access, and leveraging the 98% radio penetration in the country. Across Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Bahrain, governments co-ordinated content development sprints to move as much learning and exam preparation as possible onto television channels. All of this happened before the big push from the BBC in the UK to move learning into mainstream programming.

The impact of closures on developing countries

Moses Mkwichi is the principal of an ABE partner college, the K&M School in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. According to the International Monetary Fund, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with 25% of the total population living in extreme poverty meaning that Malawi displays many of the characteristics of a fragile state. With the support of international civil society, Malawi had started to make steady and positive gains in providing access to education. Between 2004 and 2013, the proportion of households with school-aged children attending school increased to 63%. For Moses, the impact of COVID-19 has been devastating:

As a college that is wholly funded and run by tuition fees, we were almost left for dead. Students who used to have face to face lessons could not attend tuition because of the government ban of gatherings. We have lost all of our expected revenue and tutors were not paid for the entire period leaving us with a massive a liability to settle. No government agency came to our rescue. This resulted in the abject poverty of staff members. Students lost so much learning which resulted in delayed completion of diplomas and hence lost future income for Malawi.

South Africa is in the grip of an energy crisis which began in 2007 and which continued throughout 2020 with supply frequently falling behind demand and destabilising the national grid. An ongoing cycle of widespread rolling blackouts, or ‘load shedding’ creates additional problems for learners ordered to stay at home. Whilst students were encouraged to access lessons online, this presented an obvious challenge for poor students due to lack of internet and data coupled with erratic electricity supply. Teachers adapted quickly to virtual learning, utilizing free platforms such as Zoom, Google and WhatsApp, but they also had to re-arrange their timetables to accommodate both the students who could engage during class time and those who couldn’t, monitoring power flows as well as trying to teach!

Ernest Mahlaule, CEO of Destiny Village Education in Johannesburg, reflects:

Mainly students from well off households were better placed to maximize on the new normal until a universal solution could be found including free data and devices for poorer students. Since digital learning is not going anywhere, the least that should happen now is an increased focus on a blended approach.

Other colleges I worked with across the global south reported a more positive response, despite facing similar deprivation challenges. In Trinidad and Tobago, more than 20% of citizens currently live below the international poverty line, but many schools and colleges demonstrated surprisingly seamless transitions to online delivery. SITAL College communicated changes with all students within one day, with all classes going fully online within a fortnight. Ann-Marina White, the college principal explains the process SITAL went through:

At first, we used Zoom mainly and subsequently a virtual learning platform. We used a variety of communication tools such as WhatsApp, FB messenger and email to contact students. We worked closely with lecturers to follow-up with students who appeared to be off the radar and provided best practice guides and training for online teaching, which included strategies to keep students engaged. Overall school enrolment began to increase because of the convenience of online learning. On the downside, physical interaction and the dynamics that contribute to softer skills such as collaboration and emotional connections were compromised.  

At neighbouring CTS College in Port of Spain, initially 8% of students dropped out of full-time education due to parents’ job losses and uncertainty over continuing their studies online. But as the stay-at-home order continued, CTS noticed an increase in engagement as the school adapted to using technology. Nine months after the initial lockdown order, schools remained closed with all learning taking place via online classes, but at CTS, student numbers have rocketed far beyond enrolments prior to COVID-19 as online learning has removed many of the physical and financial barriers to accessing learning.

Education in the national interest

It’s perhaps unusual to think of education as a key part of our national defence, or any nation’s security. But as I watched governments take on more powers whilst sending students and teachers home, I had a chilling realisation of just how critical it is to have a consistent, high-quality education system in the struggle against creeping authoritarianism

Policymakers should be aware that education does not just affirm human rights and dignity and deliver personal economic advantages, but quality education is also a matter of national security.

In 1958, the U.S. legislated the National Defence Education Act primarily in response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik. The Act prioritised the continuity and improvement of not only science, but of history, languages, and political science under the principle of national interest.

In a world where geopolitical and economic power is being redistributed, and where an uncertain future means that medical breakthroughs, entrepreneurship and frictionless trade will become ultimately important, the former U.S. National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster today believes that “lawmakers should approach education reform with similar urgency … [because]… improvement in education may be the most important initiative to ensuring that future generations are able to innovate and create opportunities for their children and grandchildren.”

The government cannot rely solely on the private sector, or individual acts of leadership to protect and advance our education system, nor should it shoulder the entire burden… but help is available.

Throughout COVID-19, it was NGOs and supra-national agencies such as the UNESCO Global Education Coalition for COVID-19 Response, UNICEF, Global Partnership for Education, Education Cannot Wait, Education Development Trust and ABE, and many more that worked alongside ministries and providers on effective responses. Ultimately, the structure of national education systems resides within the political constraints and possibilities of sovereign states, yet the labour market and the higher education sector is ever more globalised. NGOs are best placed to observe and filter best practice from around the world and to work with governments to set a common, far-reaching agenda.

Structural changes are inevitable

During the pandemic there was an increase in disintermediation as students demanded access to materials and assessments directly from the awarding bodies and schools set and marked exams without the usual processes provided by exam boards. This raises questions about the future architecture of education and suggests that the sector is now reaching an inflection point, which may be accelerated post COVID-19. But we must be careful not to calcify the more damaging consequences of Covid-19, such as the muddle to try to calculate (guess) how exam candidates would have fared in one of the most important events of their lives.

Awarding organisations also need to take responsibility for exam reforms. According to a November 2020 ‘barometer of trade’ survey of 21 UK exam boards, less than 13% of units could be taught online and less than 16% of units offered could be assessed online.

Countries have been talking endlessly about revising exam systems but de-emphasizing high-stakes exams is not the same as trashing assessments altogether. Society still needs a reliable indicator of an individual’s strengths and competencies, and qualifications form an indispensable social contract.

Final thoughts

This series has looked at the true cost of lost learning, it has explored reasons why learning technology wasn’t as effective as it could be, and it has shown that the global education emergency also offers a broad, paradigm-shifting set of solutions. So where do we go from here?

We should start with rapid sprints to codify the best practice that emerged from global COVID-19 responses, involving panels of technical experts from the learning coalface. The UK has a distinguished heritage of distance learning providers and some of the world’s best digital delivery software and artificial intelligence developers which must also be consulted. Schools and colleges must seek to consolidate digital platforms and practices at the micro-level, with more funded capacity geared towards the training needed to deliver blended and remote, or ‘flipped’ learning.

Finally, energy and resolve is needed to guide a transformation in serious structural reform. Technology can allow for more customisation in learning and more effective instruction, which in the pandemic would have enabled more continuity in personal learning journeys and promoted social equity. Gathering students together in large halls for memory recall tests is now looking more like an out-dated concept and barely resembles the way that problems are solved in the information-rich real world of work. COVID-19 has been a vehicle for creative disruption in the education sector, now all of us must learn the lessons.

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