Looking Beyond the Curve:
Education During a Pandemic by Sangeeta Doraiswami

A crisis, it is said, is equal parts a challenge and an opportunity. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought to humanity both aspects in equal measure. As the world examines the prospects of an uncertain period of calibrated lockdowns and reopening for the foreseeable future, education is one sector where the process of adapting to what may well be a ‘new normal’, of digital-based homeschooling as the default system rather than a considered option.
Put differently, this article considers the pros and cons of our recourse to virtual classrooms and digital learning as a compulsion, and not as an elective option. It presumes that the current conditions of lockdown and enforced quarantine will remain in some form and in some areas at least, requiring educators to demonstrate a high degree of versatility and flexibility, to ensure delivery of content to students, manage assessment and at the same time ensure that learners remain engaged.
This is a very different circumstance for everyone to come to grips with — students, educators, parents, administrators — because it presumes that such an enforced lockdown also means that children are being restricted from all other forms of external activity, including sport, music and even play-dates and outdoor contact with friends. It is, in short, a preparation for the current world with which we are all grappling, in which normal activity as we knew it, has ceased.
In exploring these unchartered waters, educators will need not only to tap into their well-used digital resources but also to find new ways to ensure that their students are kept engaged. Parents too need such support from educators, as they struggle to balance work from home requirements with household chores and parenting responsibilities. Undeniably, this sudden and non-optional shift of almost all users to online education poses a significant challenge for many. But there are also upsides.

For Educators
In times of social distancing, teachers may be physically away but are still right in front of students/parents digitally. The task of finding new ways to package material can spur intense professional growth, as teachers dig deep to find new creative ways of keeping children engaged with learning material. Those educators who display the patience to sift through the online will find enough valuable information in the form of new tools, resources, and approaches, thus upgrading their skills and their practice. Experiment with multiple ways to use common household items.
Flexible timings let educators manage life at home while preparing school material; it also allows younger learners space to adjust their waking hours naturally. Online tech resources enable teachers to use audio and visual aids to share data, skills or information with their students virtually. For instance, teachers and students can mutually share slides or uploaded pages, both in duplex mode, but also in groups. Chat boxes or other features facilitate open or closed group discussions. Teachers are learning to troubleshoot issues from learning how to use online apps to identifying gaps in existing software. It has enabled teachers to focus on values, knowledge and life skills development that are most important for the students. Teachers are developing a range of ways to hook the students’ interest. For instance, have students answer questions posed by classmates, complete a mini-quiz, etc. It is the best time to break down silos in teaching and learning.

For Students
Younger learners may need to more deeply involve parents in the learning process. After all, preschoolers and primary schoolers develop social skills through interaction with peers: by taking turns, sharing possessions or their teachers’ attention; eating, playing and negotiating together. Parents and older siblings can help with some of these aspects.

Remote learning can be carried out asynchronously, meaning that both teachers and students can work when convenient, and not at a predetermined place and time. This helps to ‘normalize’ the schedule, despite the abnormality of the situation with bedrooms, kitchen and living rooms have doubled up as classrooms and creating innovative uses for students using platforms to join daily meetings with teachers and classmates via Google Hangouts Meet. Zoom, Skype, Class Dojo, Whatsapp etc.

For Parents
It helps to follow a “Less is More” approach: parents should not over-prepare for learning at home, but let the child find his or her comfort level naturally. Most importantly parents must be empowered, recognizing that they are the child’s first, and full-time educators. This extraordinary global situation does not change this fact.

For Schools
Schools must necessarily adapt their planning to factor in home-schooling, bearing in mind that online delivery of instruction at home cannot be a mirror image of classroom instruction delivered online; content needs to be adapted, as also the school management’s capacity in this regard. The need for constant communication to ensure that all students can access their lessons, and each one feels supported.
Sensitivity is essential: schools must recognize that each student’s capacity to absorb lessons in this current context may vary. Schools must work to expand each student’s ability to focus, prioritize and plan for an unpredictable future
Flexibility must be ensured in how the leadership adapts expectations of their teachers to enable them to meet the needs of individuals (and their family circumstances) in their cohort. In approaches to learning beyond the classroom so that every student continues to make progress in their learning journey – inquiry-based learning approach is process-driven rather than product-driven.

Dynamic Collaboration in Community
Online programmes are now shared between teachers to help create a vibrant learning experience for students. Also, by creating a student-led learning community has increased student motivation and engagement as students have been turning in higher quality work. With teachers having little time to prepare, most have been “learning on the go,” students and family are all coming together in this new online teaching-learning process. Teachers and parents must remember that technology is not the only answer! It is equally important to play with children, engage them, include them in age-appropriate conversations, remain receptive to their feelings, and invite input from them by encouraging virtual play sessions with friends, and facilitate family activities, including online, to enable children to play collaboratively, and to let them give expression to their creativity.

Challenges of Online Learning
The biggest hurdle to online education, of course, is the lack of access to the internet; worldwide, there are large numbers of families that don’t have a computer, or stable access to the internet, or computers that can handle software for online instruction.
Virtual learning adds to the existing pressure on parents who may already be working from home; or parents who may not feel adequately equipped to meet the expectations of a contemporary curriculum. Many rely on teachers to educate students with a ‘w’holistic approach; they may well feel unable to support their children at home, especially with conflicting demands on their time.
Since teachers will need to learn how to make engaging lessons for delivery online, it may be that students will not find the initial sets of lectures and classwork entertaining enough; and being at home then provides its own distractions. Not all subjects transfer to online teaching well. It may be challenging to keep up with science lessons, especially lab work, which obviously needs to be done in lab conditions, and under professional supervision. At best, virtual science labs can be considered, but the hands-on portion of this work is difficult to replicate. Similarly, collaborative hands-on projects are hard to execute in an online mode: alternatives will have to be found to facilitate peer-cooperation in classrooms.
Also, discipline at home may be different, and less rigorous, from what is applied within the four walls of a school system. Kids today grow up on fast-paced games and entertainment and with online classes and access to various digital platforms may increase the further permitted exposure to screen time. There is also the risk of excessive strain imposed upon young eyes by extensive exposure to online classes.

Happy Ending
When schools reopen, students will return with a new appreciation for their capacity to navigate in both the real world and the virtual world. In fact, both teachers and students are going to need digital skills for the future. This might not have been the modality we would have chosen to disseminate such skills, but there is undeniably value from using the opportunity provided by these trying times. The students will be prepared and help develop skills that enable them to become more independent and greater contributors to their local community now and later to their family, school community, clubs, teams etc. What the students, parents, educators, leaders and administrators are learning now will prepare them for future disruptions — and not just pandemics. This experience will change how we deal with school disruptions in future, including for bad weather days, with the intention that next time we need to use remote learning, we will be prepared.