With the fury of a category five cyclone, this pandemic sweeps away the cobwebs of confusion, the debris of the party line, and the rickety straw men of rhetoric. It cruelly exposes deep cracks in our economy, society and system of governance long papered over by people and politician alike, unwilling to embrace change, brook dissent or imagine a new future.
The shift to the online delivery of education in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools and colleges has been a steep learning curve for teachers, parents and students, requiring extraordinary reserves of patience and open-mindedness as we shift to a new future.
But no matter the gleeful hand-rubbing of technophiles, this is no effective replacement for face-to-face classroom instruction; rumoured triumphs of online learning and the demise of the school are greatly exaggerated. It does not follow that YouTube is the future of all education just because it is useful in learning how to bake a cake. Differential calculus requires a different recipe entirely.
But just as the Ministry of Education sought to shift teaching from classroom to digital device, thousands of children who lack the resources to absorb online lessons that no amount of instant philanthropy and political handout can resolve have been left behind.
This exposes already deep fissures of inequality that education itself is needed to address. A classroom of 30 students has now become a province of multiple islands – those who have the technology and bandwidth to accommodate e-learning and those who do not.
It has exposed the fact that the nation’s teachers training college has a long way to go to educate teachers on the significant differences in the way people learn in electronic platforms and to create homegrown digital content – almost two decades after the Edutech initiative, no matter how flawed in its scope and execution – presaged a brave new electronic world.
Little thought has been given to the incredible differences between primary school pupils, junior school students and senior high school examination candidates. Clearly, the Minister of Education is duty-bound to speak on the huge psychosocial needs of students, whose natural inclinations are counterintuitive to physical and social distancing in a pandemic much less learning off a screen.
But the Ministry of Education, faced with the outcry of harried parents and mindful of the rapidly approaching dates of much-vaunted tests and examination season, from Criterion Reference Test to CAPE Exam, acted perhaps too quickly. The entire chalk-and-talk timetable into a Google classroom after a couple of courses for already overwhelmed teachers may simply be too much.
The biblical analogy of new wine in old wineskins is no less relevant in the digital era.
Educational technology is not, we submit, a new and alien creature. In 1958, Premier the Right Excellent Sir Grantley Adams, ordered that the lone radio station, Barbados Rediffusion, wire all schools and provide portable loudspeakers. Through those speakers would come Schools Broadcasts, produced by teachers through the Audio-Visual Aids Education Department and pioneered by Nola Mayers, and in the 1970s, Educational Television, with the late Mike Owen.
But into the second decade of the 21st century, the digital elites have bypassed traditional broadcasting entirely as a means of delivering all-inclusive educational content to all. Unless one is an only child or the scion of well-heeled parents with data plans and devices to match, a Zoom or Google Meet video conference is as remote and as effective as the man on the moon.
What use is ‘free’ Google Classroom if a home lacks affordable, high-bandwidth Wi-Fi? What good is it to three or more children in a poor family to have only one phone, laptop or tablet – or none?
The Ministry of Education should adopt a more realistic stance on the impact of COVID-19 on children.
As the term has been given no adjusted end date, it should be lengthened to give students more time to absorb new information but each school day should not go beyond four hours – no matter how much parents want the school system to be digital nannies of their children.
Schools have been forced to recognise that screen time of any kind – television, tablet or computer – has been excessive. The screen interface for a seven-year-old is the same as for a 17-year-old; the classroom chalkboard has merely been replaced by a mini whiteboard in a virtual meeting. This is an unacceptable abuse of educational technology – merely pouring new wine into old wineskins.
Ultimately, any reopening of the country should be predicated not on the demands of merchants and hoteliers to fire up engines of the economy but on restarting the engine of social mobility – the school. This experience in the realm of eLearning threatens to deepen the fault lines of inequality in Barbados. Our children, our future, deserve better.
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