The Corona Holiday and The Education Deficit

Whatever the merits and demerits of online learning are, I have a conundrum.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Montreal

No more pencils, no more books
~ The Economist, May 2nd, 2020

A recent issue of The Economist cites UNESCO as having said that the Coronavirus spread has effectively precluded “over three quarters of the world’s roughly 1.5 billon schoolchildren from attending school”. BBC reported on Wednesday the 20th May that schools in South Korea have reopened. The BBC newscast recorded the absolute joy in a returning student’s face and words. He said it was so wonderful to return to the teachers and his friends at school. The famous Indian author Arundhati Roy when interviewed by CBS last week in its programme in 60 Minutes said astutely that we have lost the present, which usually connects our past with our future.

Future of the Education after Covid-19 Pandemic?
The Economist gives some interesting facts: “Statistics Norway estimates “conservatively” that the country’s educational shutdowns—from crèches to high schools—are costing NKr1,809 ($173) per child each day. Most of that is an estimate of how much less today’s schoolchildren will earn in the future because their education has been disrupted. (It is assumed they are learning roughly half of what they normally would.) The rest is lost parental productivity today”...

online classes may not always be the answer… “At the Alan Turing primary school in Amsterdam, it quickly became clear that 28 of its 190 pupils could not take part in online classes. The school now opens its doors for 15 from this group three mornings a week and has found other ways to help the remaining 13, such as arranging for them to get assistance from their neighbours”.

At the university level, the story is the same although learning still goes on in most instances with the use of online services. Most universities, at least in North America and Europe, have taken to online teaching. In all fairness, education institutions throughout the world are destitute of an alternative.

In this context, this debate calls for disinterested look at the benefits and disadvantages of online learning. In an article in Issues in Information Systems of 2012 titled Expected Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Learning: Perceptions from College Students Who Have Not Taken Online Courses, the authors say: “Online courses provide opportunities for students all over the world. Students in online classes can work together with others from various places to share diverse opinions and collaborate in solving problems. Yet even with numerous benefits, online educators and administrators have various issues to overcome. Although many students have reported positive experiences with online courses, negative experiences have also been conveyed. While course evaluations indicate students would rather take online versus traditional courses, students report online courses require more time and commitment, and may have limited communication with fellow students. Academic dishonesty is another serious issue and ensuring the person doing the work is (in fact) the student enrolled in the class is critical. Identifying safeguards to prevent dishonesty is an area which will need to be addressed in online course designs”.

Whatever the merits and demerits of online learning are, I have a conundrum. In the university where I teach aviation law to graduate students, the entire educational programme has been turned into an online curriculum, rendering me bemused as to how a subject like law involving deep Socratic inquiry and robust intellectual engagement can be reduced to staring at a screen. How does a teacher gauge the attention span of the students? Where is the drama of teaching? Where is eye contact? Where is that dynamic intellectual connect between teacher and student? And more importantly, what about Aol (Assurance of Learning) which is a shift from the traditional mode of measuring the success of teaching techniques per se to the level of assurance a university or lower educational institute has, that the student has learnt what was expected before that student graduates and seeks employment. Major determinants in AOL are communication, ethics, analytical skills, and the ability to use information technology, multiculturalism, and reflective thinking.

Any teacher instinctively knows that, at whatever level, the inarticulate premise of learning by physical contact is an integral part of the learning process. This is infused in the student through the character and integrity of the teacher as well as the students themselves who influence each other. While online learning will teach the student principles syllogistically, face to face teaching conveys a certain moral rectitude that is attenuated from the principles taught. This extends beyond the teacher to the students themselves in the classroom and beyond, transcending intellectual symbiosis from the classroom to out of class social discourse and recreation.

I have seen my students sharing their lunch or supper, exchanging views on assignments in groups before a class commences. They even “conspire” to stumble the teacher by engaging him in healthy discourse, which is what creativity is all about.

A teacher must have cognitive empathy, i.e. an awareness of how a student sees the world and what their worries are regarding their future. A good teacher would then know how to help a student if help is needed with the overall learning experience. They say that a good teacher makes the student think but a great teacher makes the student wonder.

On a personal note, I begin my course by encouraging students to attempt writing, not only for evaluation and assessment but also to publish their work eventually. I tell them stories of some of my students whom I have helped publish their papers and independent writing. They look at my face, and my unbridled enthusiasm when I say this and believe me. Most of all, they see in my face a certain indescribable sincerity when I encourage them. I do not know how to do this online.

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