This pandemic has shown how fragile our world is and for the last three months we have been focused on the daily problems of our classrooms, and we have lost perspective that these are real global problems. It was an eye-opening experience when my colleague invited me to an international virtual exchange session last April and we had the opportunity to discuss the student's lives and adjustments under COVID 19 with participants from four different countries including the USA, Jordan, Morocco, and Spain. During a two hour Zoom session the group discussed their experiences when the sudden change to remote learning and how it had affected their daily lives. We were all in different parts of the world and still we all where going through the very similar difficulties.
As we face the greatest challenge of the 21st Century with this pandemic we must come to terms and accept that the virus has no borders and that all over the world we are experiencing the same circumstances in many ways. Education is not an exception.
Last March 10th, the UNESCO has set up an ad hoc Commission of 11 ministers of education from different regions of the world charged with observing the consequences of this pandemic in the education scenario around the world. According to the statistics last March 2020 a total of 138 countries had closed schools and universities leaving 137 million students and 60.2 million teachers at home. In this page you can see the evolution of the countries and education institutions going virtual over the pandemic time.
Figures correspond to number of learners enrolled at pre-primary, primary, lower-secondary, and upper-secondary levels of education [ISCED levels 0 to 3], as well as at tertiary education levels [ISCED levels 5 to 8]. Enrolment figures based on latest UNESCO Institute for Statistics data. See methodological note.
In all cases, the academic community was rushed to move to virtual learning from one day to the next. Each country has turned to different digital channels, virtual platforms, TV, social media, or even WhatsApp or other apps as a means of instruction. Ever since this month of March, digital technology has taken a new meaning and a new space in our lives. Egypt Minister of education Mr. Tarek Shawki said that “We have made more progress with digital and virtual learning in 10 days than in the past ten years” and, many of us share this thought. Still, this sudden unexpected, almost shocking, shift towards virtual learning has not been easy and has brought lots of frustration to teachers and students alike.
There is no doubt that remote teaching and learning are here to stay, and now that the academic year is almost over (at least in Spain) it is time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that this digital future may bring to us. Let´s start by looking into some of the challenges of virtual learning that we will have to overcome, such as the digital generation gap between teachers and learners. There is a clear division between the digitally born students vs the more traditional teachers. Although millennials, Gen Z and Alpha students are very appreciative of the digital technologies and methodologies, teachers may not feel so comfortable with them.
There are other misperceptions that question the efficacy of on virtual learning are the concern for lack of social interaction among the students, disruption of international mobility, or the apparent absence of academic rigor or student discipline in a virtual setting. Although it seems these are perceptions more than reality. Regarding student´s social interactions Prof. Dodzi Amemado states that “for digital natives, (virtual communication) is a preferred medium for social interaction”, as for international cooperation he claims that, “online learning fosters a global knowledge of society, international partnerships, content sharing and regional collaboration among schools and universities.” In other words, it is possible to develop new forms of international virtual collaboration, if we develop new program structures and formats. I agree, and we propose that international hybrid programs may be part of the answer.
Other challenges that we may have to work through is the lack of digital training, the loneliness or frustration experienced by many teachers at the micro (in their own classes) and local level (in their own schools) during the pandemic. There is clear a need for learning new virtual teaching methodologies, to adapt curricular structures, develop a different planning, and create alternative materials. There are other issues such as the need for better infrastructures, equipment, and connectivity. But what is most important fact is that when we look at the larger picture and we observe the statistics and studies performed over these three months, we realize that this is not just our problem but rather, a common concern among most academics and scholars all over the world. It has become a global issue and thus, it requires global solutions.
There is no question that virtual learning is here to stay and that we need to adapt to it. Paraphrasing Mr. Shawki “We have learned more about the need for adequate digital training in academia in these three months than in the past ten years”. This is not a surprise anymore. Taking into consideration that we don´t know when we will be able to come back to the classroom, it is time to anticipate ourselves and start get ready to continue planning on remote teaching. Let´s don´t forget this valuable lesson and be prepared for the future.
For more information on teacher training programs refer to Infinite Spur.
Marta Walliser, Ph.D.