The Protestant Reformation, the invention of Gutenberg’s Printing Press in 1440, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand II (1914), the Coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) – struggling to find a correlation among them? These are some events that have significantly shaped the world as we know it.
The ongoing pandemic has had ramifications for every sphere of life, and fewer have been more impacted by it than the formal education sector.
At the height of the pandemic, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report published in April indicated that the education of approximately 1.725 billion learners had been affected; particularly as a result of school closures. Inasmuch as the impact has varied from place to place and across the spectrum of the education system, it is undeniable that every student has been affected directly or indirectly.
The pandemic has created an unprecedented challenge for humanity. A report by the Education Commission estimates that 90 percent of children in low-income countries, 50 percent of children in middle-income countries and 30 percent of children in high-income countries fail to master the basic secondary-level skills needed to thrive in work and life.
Closer to home, the significant inefficiencies and inequality which plague the educational sector – most notably barriers to access and infrastructural constraints – have been brought to the fore. Nevertheless, it has also offered a unique opportunity to address these shortcomings by redefining education and our school systems moving forward.
The closure of schools, among other public gatherings, was swift. This was particularly due to the novel nature of the disease, as details such as the exact modes of transmission, best measures to curb the spread as well as the most vulnerable groups were unknown.
Equally swift was the transition to digital modes of learning. With students of education already exposed to the use of digital platforms, they formed some of the earliest adopters of technology for learning.
While some institutions had tailor-made platforms – most of them asynchronous – to utilise for the purpose of learning, a vast number of them had to adopt services such as Zoom and WhatsApp to sustain education.
In addition to these measures, when it became obvious that schools were unlikely to reopen quickly, the media, led by state broadcasters, introduced dedicated educational programmes on radio and television. Chief among these has been Ghana Learning TV, a 24-hour station hosted by the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC).
These interventions, which have had various degrees of success, demonstrated the potential of technology to revamp the education sector. The progress made must now be accelerated toward a new model of education – one that encompasses an emerging need for digitisation.
Recent widespread reforms in the education sector, especially in relation to composition of the curriculum with a greater emphasis on the teaching and application of technology, had begun to lay the groundwork for remote learning.
However, it is apparent that across the board, teachers and students were not entirely prepared to deal with the very sudden and wholesale shift toward remote learning, and it required some adjustments. Furthermore, the incorporation of technology was skewed toward institutions of higher learning as well as pre-tertiary level schools in non-rural areas.
A huge chunk of the barrier to technology adoption, particularly in rural areas, has been its accessibility. While the devices required for remote learning are relatively expensive, they are oftentimes one-off payments which can be shared by a number of persons. The true challenge comes with the ‘fuel’ for e-learning – Internet data.
This was highlighted at the recently held 30th edition of the MTN Executive Breakfast meeting – where senior lecturer at the Ashesi University’s Department of Engineering and MIT alumnus Dr. Heather Beem made a startling revelation, that over 70 percent of public school teachers undergoing training in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) have expressed concern over the cost and accessibility of data for remote learning.
According to Dr. Beem, this came as a result of engagement with public primary and Junior High Schools in the Ahanta West and Nzema East districts of the Western Region as well as Kumasi in the Ashanti Region, through the Practical Education Network (PEN) which she founded and heads.
This is especially concerning as, according to an Education Sector Analysis published by the Ministry of Education in 2018, public schools account for almost 80 percent of basic schools in the country and the distribution has a wide variance – less than 40 percent in Greater Accra as compared to more than 90 percent in the Upper West Region, for instance.
She further revealed that less than 30 percent of the teachers engaged had used any online communication platform for educational purposes, while less than 20 percent said they had partaken in an online course or training session. This exposed a deficit in capacity of the educators themselves to lead the charge toward further adoption of e-learning.
Another challenge highlighted on the same platform was the lack of conducive building infrastructure to aid learning.
A senior lecturer from the Department of Mathematics at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Dr. Peter Amoako Yirenkyi, suggested that the environment in which many remote learners have had to undertake their tasks leaves much to be desired.
Students engaged in e-learning, by virtue of the platforms on which it occurs, are more prone to distraction. This is exacerbated when, in addition, there are factors such as noise pollution and domestic engagements.
Dr. Yirenkyi suggests that more must be done to address the situation, and it might require legislation to address the problem. He concedes that this is not a problem limited to homes but it affects even schools, and suggests that the response to this particular problem will be indicative of stakeholder commitment to the future of education.
Online learning fatigue, reduced socialisation and its effect on the mental health of learners, was identified by Campus Director of the Webster University-Ghana, Christa Sanders Bobtoya, as a subtle yet very significant problem faced by learners in the era of a ‘new normal’. She believes that this has exacerbated the plight of students with special needs as they have been at a significant disadvantage, and called for the engagement of counsellors and other professionals to address these concerns.
According to her, it would be premature to expect a total shift to online learning; and hence she advocates a fine balance of blended learning, saying it will play a central role in education. She suggests that a combination of in-person and remote learning, as well as synchronous and asynchronous, will define the post-coronavirus era. This will, in some measure, help address the mismatch between education system outcomes and labour-market needs.
Urgent steps required
There more than enough evidence abounds to suggest that the pandemic-necessitated changes will not be short-term but rather redefine education going forward.
While debates rage over the most ideal reforms to education, renowned education consultant and founder of the GATES Institute, Anis Haffar, believes that the most important factor in the discussion on education’s future is the building bock on which it stands – literacy.
According to him, it would amount to a grave mistake to make grandiose plans for the educational sector without first addressing the subject of literacy.
He hinted that it is not only derogatory but plain lazy to assume that people on the continent have an intrinsic problem with reading, as examples abound to the contrary.
Like many Eastern cultures, there has been an emphasis on oral education; however, this does not negate the use of writing and reading, and Haffar believes a revival of reading-culture is the first step that must be taken in redefining the country’s education.
He suggests that parents – who either as a result of career engagements, a feeling that teachers are paid to educate their children, or just plain apathy and laziness have abdicated their responsibility of personally educating their wards – have been shocked by their ineptitude but have come to a greater appreciation of the teacher’s role.
The role of the teacher, however, must be redefined. The notion of an educator as sole knowledge-holders who impart wisdom to their pupils is no longer fit for purpose in post-pandemic education. With students being able to gain access to knowledge, and even learn a technical skill, through a few clicks on their phones, tablets and computers, we will need to redefine the educator’s role in classrooms and lecture theatres.
This may mean that the role of educators will need to move toward facilitating young people’s development as contributing members of society, by leveraging technology to transcend the subject-based sage-on-the-stage model of learning.
The development of career-relevant, higher order cognitive skills is more crucial today than ever. Students need these skills to navigate the constant influx of information to make full use of the learning process. Despite their position as digital natives, it remains unlikely that students will effectively navigate the world of online learning on their own without considerable guidance. This calls for dedicated training to be given educators of the future.
The pandemic has paved the way for private-public partnerships formed around a common educational goal beyond government-funded initiatives.
Many non-state institutions have risen to the challenge – but head and shoulders above all has been MTN Ghana. MTN Ghana, in March, introduced a ‘Y’ello care package’ to give customers access to a variety of learning channels to support educational needs. This is in addition to expanding its network infrastructure, which will drive accessibility upward and costs downward.
Furthermore, it has demonstrated its commitment to addressing the building infrastructure deficit by providing classroom blocks; most recently, a three-unit classroom block for New Mangoase Roman Catholic Basic School in the Eastern Region estimated to benefit some 420 learners, as well as a number of scholarship schemes.
As has been noted, the shift to online platforms and reshuffling education outcomes demands a new role for the educator.
The remote learning approach will allow very qualified and competent teachers (but also seasoned professionals from other spheres such as accountants, engineers and biological scientists) who would otherwise be constrained by factors such as distance, to become more accessible to learners in underdeveloped areas.
With the future of work looking likely to depart from the rigid 9-to-5 structure, this will result in adjustments and implications for migration and settlement. It is possible that we might see a reversal of the rapid urbanisation which has been witnessed recently, as workers might seek the more serene environment and comparatively lower cost of living in rural areas.
Were this to happen, there would be implications for the aforementioned building infrastructure problem, as well as other infrastructure such as roads and communication networks.
One takeaway from the pandemic is that the desperate need for multi-stakeholder partnership couldn’t be more urgent. Borrowing from the words of UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay: “Partnership is the only way forward. This is a call for coordinated and innovative action(s) to unlock solutions that will not only support learners and teachers now, but also through the recovery process – with a principle focus on inclusion and equity”.