Education in the Shadow of the Pandemic – Remarks in the Context of the Zimbabwean Paradigm
As Covid-19 infections worldwide reach the 3.2 million mark, sentencing three-quarters of the planet’s population to the seclusion of their homes and sequestering most of our known liberties, it has become evident that while the biological makeup of the virus may not discriminate in terms of gender, ethnicity or economic status, the sociological footprint of the pandemic is very much divided into two radically opposing demographics. There are those who can afford to ride out the pandemic age and those who cannot. Just as evidence is mounting in the global north that there are alarming discrepancies in the number of Covid-19 victims from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, it is becoming evident that surrendering to a lockdown mentality is costlier for some than logic may have originally dictated. Here in Zimbabwe, the division is startling. While a tiny percentage can afford protracted social distancing impositions, the vast majority cannot. Everyone here knows the reasons why.
As the traditional school term is set to resume next week it has become apparent that the education of our youth will be one of several major facets of our national fabric to remain indefinitely subject to severe restrictions, or at very least, be allowed to function in only very atypical ways. And yet the winter term is strategically one of the most significant in relation to academic preparation: it is largely when syllabi are completed, learning cemented, essential practice examinations undertaken, personal feedback provided and vital revision of content material commenced. Given our usual positioning of the August holidays in this country (granted, now likely subject to change) and the ever-earlier commencement of formal examinations at the very start of October (unlikely for logistical reasons to change), any significant disruption to education is going to prove considerably risky to the determination of student outcomes. For those entirely cut off from access to education in the coming weeks, the impact on their future livelihoods may prove everlasting.
Of course many of our more capitalised schools have already embraced radical changes in the way they conduct lessons and disseminate knowledge by deploying available technologies which comprise a blanket suite of online classrooms and virtual learning. In some cases, a hybrid system of live teaching blended with complimentary online resources and support has already been in use for some time now. Such institutions are now finding the investment in this infrastructure to retrospectively be their saving grace: who could have foreseen the arrival of the virus? However, while schools which can afford to do so have no option but to shift their entire pedagogical focus to online learning platforms, there are some significant risks to student welfare with such a move and, more so, the very fact that this has become, suddenly, our de facto method of teaching has considerable implications for the vast majority of our students, not to mention consequential implications for the rest of our already beleaguered economy.
There is a sense of national complacency when jumping to name the likes of Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom as a ready substitute for the live learning experience. The availability of global technology is no substitute for focalised, area-specific policy. It is far from a ubiquitous solution and, for most of our population, it provides no solution at all.
As this is likely to be read by the minority of our population who already have a compatible computer device and internet, parents would be advised to appreciate that the simple readiness of lessons to be conducted online does not mean an equitable substitute for learning is in place from next week. Instead, extra vigilance about the growing body of international evidence which is beginning to point to the various deficiency issues attendant with a student learning in front of a computer screen should be adopted. Research carried out in America and Europe not only points to the obvious common sense inadequacies of online learning – much lower learner motivation and buy-in from students, a feeling of dislocation, greater challenges in remaining focused, far lower attention span ratios, lack of ambient learner simulation, increased anxiety, issues around lower self-esteem in the context of a ‘broadcast environment’ (especially for introverts: half of all students), greater risk of already struggling students floundering even more – but also, significantly, there is an ‘X-factor’ element which accompanies live classroom teaching which is known to be essential in the cognitive reception of material and retention of recall information.
Essentially, the physiological aspects of auditory nuance, eye-contact and body-language reinforcement signals in teacher-centric education cannot be so easily transmitted via online contact time or in a digitised landscape. The synapses in the cerebrum responsible for learning are significantly stimulated at a subconscious level when information is being processed: while conscious language transmits the verbiage of content at a manifest sensory level, a whole ‘second language’ just as vital and even more stimulatory is being deciphered at a latent extra-sensory level. This is why dynamics of voice, intonation, emphasis, tempo and articulation are such an essential part of a really good teacher’s armoury. This is why the very best teachers engage their students eye-to-eye as a reinforcement method, or why they gesture, posture and move around the classroom conveying positive signals through body language. These vital connections are severely retarded or negated by the barrier of a screen.
Medical research has measured brain frequencies of students engaged in live learning versus those learning online and have found that there is considerably more activity going on in the brain of a student in an actual classroom with his or her teacher present, in addition to his or her peers. While some degree of learning can certainly take place online, the evidence suggests that the system is going to be a strenuous challenge to sound, comprehensive learning and academic outcomes quite likely compromised as a result. Interestingly, a similar study found that students react more favourably to a teacher’s specific handwriting too, which is why, in a growing number of institutions, newer technologies which have in recent years favoured PowerPoint learning are being replaced again by good old-fashioned ‘chalk and talk’ teaching methods. In short, teaching is a personable act: it is reciprocated best when it is made to be organic, individual, spontaneous and live; all aspects a computer cannot (yet) replicate.
To somewhat mitigate this, parents may well need to step into the breech and assume the role of a surrogate ‘teacher-presence’ in the virtual learning space. No doubt many parents are already being proactive in aiding their children in their online schooling, but they may become more and more significant the longer lockdown scenarios continue. Sitting beside a child and enforcing, encouraging and sharing in the experience through positive body language and encouragement may help compensate for a learner being deprived the fullness of this sensation from their teacher. Whether or not 1) teachers will want or permit parents to sit in on lessons 2) whether parents can afford the time to do so and 3) whether learners, particularly adolescents, will tolerate their parents being involved all remained to be seen. In any event, it will be clear that some parental intervention will likely be necessary to provide fluency and consistency to what is the peripatetic and disconnected nature of this new type of learning.
All of this, however, is a consideration only those who have the luxury of access to online facilities to start with need to factor in. Even within this small and fortunate subset of our demographic, there are going to be disruptive elements to the notion of stable learning. Not every student who attends these schools has adequate access to the online platform. Not every teacher does either. This will cause inequality and inconsistencies across classes. For those who do have laptops or tablets at their disposal, the question of whether and for how long parents will be able to afford forking out for extraordinarily expensive (and often unreliable) internet data is another specifically Zimbabwean problem. No doubt we have some of the most expensive internet in the region, if not the continent, and maintaining a live video feed to a series of lessons every day will be a considerable financial burden to parents. One needs to ask: are our internet suppliers aware of this predicament and are there any plans to enter into the community spirit of the whole Covid-19 zeitgeist and possibly offer knock-down student packages for the duration of this scenario? (Hint: almost free would be a good start!) Also: would our government consider possibly slashing duties/levies on the importation of internet data so that these companies can afford to pass on far cheaper data costs to subscribers who have scholars in the home? Can schools afford to cut the cost of their fees so that parents can afford to subsidise their child’s education with data costs? The answer is an emphatic no: schools operate on such tiny margins as they are; any further reduction in income would pose a very real existential crisis to most, if not all in the country.
Beyond this, there is the biggest issue of all: the simple fact that the vast majority of Zimbabwe’s school children are very shortly going to be left behind entirely as schools remain closed and access to devices and data is entirely beyond their reach. One has to wonder whether the ministry of education has come up with a workable policy to cover this impending reality? To date, the only announcement has been to confirm that the closure of schools remains an inevitability for the immediate future with no idea yet of when they will be permitted to reopen. This was accompanied by plans to enforce strict social distancing between students, ensuring all schools are kitted out with single desk units and providing teachers and learners with adequate personal protective equipment and sanitization abilities. This is all very well, but one has to openly wonder whether, given our economic reality, any of this is even remotely achievable? Even if it were, in the best of scenarios, the idea of a socially-distanced school is a virtual oxymoron. Schools are designed to accommodate hundreds and often thousands of students in very shared spaces and environments. The very nature of many senior school subjects – biology, chemistry, physics – implies that effective learning could never take place unless many students are in the same place at the same time otherwise economies of scale will rapidly make pupil-teacher ratios so expensive and unpractical as to be crippling to an already largely bankrupt sector.
What is a grim reality for all of us as Zimbabweans to face is that the months ahead will very possibly see the stagnation and cessation of almost all effective education in the country. This risks leaving thousands of our youth in limbo where what they desperately need are the liberating possibilities which a completed education brings: the prospect of further specialised study, the prospect of looking for employment, of becoming industrious, of contributing to national productivity. While the country is certainly cash-strapped for the provision of post-school opportunities for most, the added consequence of suspending or disrupting education for those approaching school-leaving age could be socially catastrophic, adding to an already widening economic disparity between our country’s small wealthy elite and largely impoverished majority. Where what we desperately need is rapid social mobility in our country, what we are now likely to face is certain social stagnation. In addition, suspension of proper learning for very young children risks stunting their educational prospects for life. For one, gaps in reading ages at this vital time of early childhood development will prove disastrous.
In the absence of the ability for most to resume some kind of schooling, one wonders what can be done to help our youth out? Thinking aloud, is there such a thing still as a government printer? Is there some source, somewhere, of ready paper? Could there be some drive perhaps to pool together any and all spare and unused paper companies and households may have lying about? If so, in the short term, collaboration of resources between more established schools and their rural counterparts might at least provide some kind of intermediary bridge to the education gap. Even before the crisis broke, many of our country’s school were seriously under-resourced, but established schools have stockpiles of material resources in the form of handouts, past papers, revision notes and fact sheets which might, with some kind of subsidisation of printing costs, be mass produced and at least distributed to students who do not have access to online learning platforms which the minority fortunately do. The key is to keep learning a progression, to keep moving forward with the curriculum. So: is there some way of printing screenshots of material accumulated during online lessons which will be advancing any given syllabus? There is some talk of broadcasting lessons from a cohort of our schools offering online lessons to other schools and if there were some way for all school children, especially in remote areas, to have access to a cheap radio receiver, then at least some kind of forward learning – no matter how sporadic or unorthodox – might at least be able to take place. A small portable digital AM/FM radio can be purchased for as little as $9 on Amazon, which means it can probably be bought for a fraction of that at source. Is there some wealthy benefactor out there willing to fund cheap radios for half a million of our school kids? Would a drive initiated amongst those who can afford to do so to sponsor one or two radios for students who do not have access to devices and data be supported by the community? One at least has to ask …
One thing is for certain: the virus has really not reached us yet. For this we are thankful, but to believe that it is not going to be unleashed on us – possibly in quite devastating ways – in the coming months is naïve. Of course we hope that it stays away from our borders, but we need to be prepared for the worst. With any luck our schools might open once again one day soon for proper and effective learning to take place for all our school students, but it is equally likely we will see a prolonged disruption to education at least for the next six, yet crucial months. Thinking of the ways this will play out in our national context at least bears thinking about in some detail and addressing now.
The reality of basic education standards in Zimbabwean schools means sustained closure due to the pandemic will prove difficult to move 'online.'