Education is one of the biggest casualties of the pandemic. UNESCO estimates that almost 320 million children across India have been affected by school closures, with those from the most vulnerable sections of society the worst impacted. With schools shut, these are the learners most likely to lose the most in terms of educational outcomes if sufficient measures are not taken to promote educational equity and inclusion.
Amid concerns that the third wave will hit the younger population the hardest, the focus should be on maintaining learning continuity through remote learning. Until a vaccine is widely available for the younger population, any idea of returning to school may have to be deferred.
Until a vaccine is widely available for the younger population, any idea of returning to school may have to be deferred. (Photo: Reuters)
Reimagining education post Covid, should hence not be viewed as radical change, but instead a systematic enhancement of current interventions. There may never be a return to the old normal, and we may have a golden opportunity to disrupt the century-old 'factory model of education' that has been blocking progressive innovation in learning design, fuelled by modern technological interventions. We can move towards a well-balanced combination of both synchronous and asynchronous modes of learning.
Bridging the technology divide
While we have realised that digitising education is the future, there is a long history of introducing new tools in education, such as digital whiteboards or computers, in the hope of radically improving teaching effectiveness in school, only to end up with incremental change achieved at a higher cost and greater complexity. Hence, not all change is necessarily good. This, coupled with the lack of infrastructure across regions, further deepens the urban-rural-tribal divide in terms of access.
This highlights the need for a ‘whole of society’ approach, where innovative learning solutions are viable and sustainable and available to more people, paving the way for a more level playing field for the adoption of technology in schools across the economic spectrum.
Technology as the enabler, pedagogical innovation as the driver
There has been much emphasis on technology as an outreach solution during the pandemic. However, we must realise that technology is only an enabler. There can be no real impact on learning without pedagogical innovations mediated by technology. This calls for incentivising educators who engage in progressive research, in addition to revamping existing teacher education programmes to make it research and innovation-based. Thus, investing in capacity development and change-management skills will be critical, and it is also vital that teachers don’t just implement technological innovations, but help design them too. It is only then that the blended learning model of education that is being envisaged for post-Covid classrooms can truly be achieved.
Cultivating student autonomy
Along with using technology to support teacher professional development, innovation, and collaboration, significant efforts must be made to cultivate student autonomy and independent learning, particularly for older students. The Alternative Academic Calendar published by NCERT for the Academic Year 20-21 exhorts students to “self-learn”, with different activities specified for home learning. This was augmented by digital learning resources available on the government's DIKSHA platform.
If self-learning is to be strengthened, the education-digital knowledge ecosystem requires a revamp. The academic delivery model must adopt a modular learning programme structure, where students can engage with content at their own pace. Opportunities to connect digitally with subject experts/mentors and closer collaboration with peers must be provided. The plans to return to school should therefore promote essential self-learning skills amongst students.
Mitigating learning loss and focussing on core competencies
Reopening schools also calls for remedial programmes to mitigate learning loss, which has reached alarming levels. According to a study by Azim Premji University that assessed academic regression among children, over 82 per cent of children have forgotten foundational abilities in mathematics and over 92 per cent have forgotten foundational abilities in the language in the last year.
Strategies to remedy learning loss should take into consideration multiple factors, such as a learners' age, duration of learning gap, specific academic time of the school closure (eg. beginning, mid or end of the academic year), and access to continuity of learning during the closure. The unique learning ability of every learner is another key angle.
While the loss of learning time can never be compensated for, it can be mitigated by developing alternate curricula that focuses on developing core competencies. For instance, the loss of learning for students in the Foundational Learning years has been in the area of literacy and numeracy skills. Hence, the alternate curricula for these grades should focus on developing core competence in these areas over other subjects. Educationists should prioritise skill development over syllabus completion.
Re-evaluating the examination system
If learning in the post-Covid era is to extend beyond the classroom, the age-old examination system must undergo a radical change both in format and purpose. As learning in a post-Covid world becomes more individualised and learner-driven with a curriculum focusing on the development of core competencies, we should assess the learner’ skills in real-life contexts in addition to their core competence and ability to self-learn. The logical shift is towards an assignment-based evaluation pattern where students self-assess the synthesis of their learning, express their world view, and create novel designs and prototypes.
Education ecosystems stand at a crucial inflexion point. The decisions we take next will prove pivotal to an entire generation, and the manner in which they face future challenges. By carefully examining the past and looking to the future, and blending the timeless with the trailblazing, we can rebuild and reimagine our education systems to be more equitable, inclusive, and resilient. It is a golden opportunity we must grasp with both hands.