Distance Learning: inequality has left some students with sinking hearts
This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.
COVID-19 has had far reaching implications on education, not only how it is delivered today, but how it will exacerbate existing issues experienced by vulnerable populations such as displaced persons, disabled children, and economically disadvantaged students, endangering their futures.
The COVID-19 crisis is among the most complex crises that humanity has faced in terms of disrupting different aspects of life and its direct impact on the sectors of health, education, and the economy. The pandemic has penetrated all societies, afflicting influential, wealthy people as well as the poor. Each person is vulnerable to the virus and its knock-on effects, which has given the impression that we were all equal in respect to this pandemic.
However, the impact of COVID-19 has been far from equal across societies, and certainly not within the education sector. The transition from traditional face-to-face learning to distance learning was not an option, but an urgent necessity as the world found itself stuck in this crisis. Many countries have devoted themselves, according to their capabilities, to preparing emergency plans and shifting to distance learning, in a noble effort to save the academic year, communicate with students, and continue education. But there is a large disparity in the access to secure digital learning environments, compounded by electronic illiteracy.
Now, after more than two months since schools closed and quarantines began, testing the distance learning experience, trying to compensate for the lack of preparedness and distance learning readiness, we can say: Some societies have succeeded in reducing the negative implications of the COVID-19 crisis through intensive community education, cultural transformation based on values and positivity, following instructions for disease transmission prevention like social distancing, building bridges of trust between countries and their citizens, and finally making investment in student health and education the ultimate priority. With all of the above, there are still shortcomings in the advancement of education for groups of students whose sufferings were doubled by the COVID-19 crisis.
Teachers are on the front lines.
Teachers are the leaders of the educational field. Many of them have taken the initiative by creating solutions to overcome the crisis, committing to their moral obligation towards their vocation and students. They work individually or in groups to adopt creative educational practices, produce games and motivational teaching aids, and engage students in self-learning experiences centered on knowledge, critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. Others have launched platforms for professional development like training in digital learning techniques. In order to keep the learning flame burning in their students, they use all possible methods of progression and overcome difficulties.
Students are suffering from the COVID-19 crisis.
Undoubtedly, the world is striving to achieve the fourth goal of the sustainable development goals (SDG4), but the spread of the COVID-19 virus has created new hurdles in enjoying the right to education. The loss of freedom of movement caused by forced closures and lockdowns causes negative impacts, the most important of which are anxiety, sadness, and psychological stress. Perhaps more upsettingly, the COVID-19 crisis threatens education for specific groups of students more than others.
Economically disadvantaged students
Within the first day of school closures, children in many wealthy households used their smart electronic devices to continue their education, while education was essentially halted for more economically disadvantaged children. Access to technology makes distance learning easier for the rich and harder for the poor, which contributes to increasing the gap between these segments of society. While many have adopted e-learning through the internet, there are still geographical areas that are denied access to the internet, millions of people without the necessary technology, and no digital learning requirements.
Students with learning disabilities and low-achieving students
Students with learning disabilities, and those who otherwise struggle academically, need specialized activities that help them overcome their learning difficulties. There is no doubt that the closure of special education programs, the more limited interactions with teachers and specialists, and the new reliance on e-learning tools will widen the gap between them and their peers in achieving learning goals.
The level of cognitive awareness and the structural needs of students in lower grades are completely different from the needs of those in higher grades. Unquestionably, the efforts made by teachers in the lower grades in traditional classroom education are twice as much as others in explaining, clarifying, and strengthening students’ skills in reading, writing, calculations, and others.
So, what will their status be in distance learning contexts where teachers are largely absent?
Girls in secondary school
Empowering girls and educating them depends on the environment and society in which the girl lives. We come across the phenomenon of early and forced marriage prevailing in some societies due to customs and traditions at times, and destitution at other times. This has contributed to depriving many girls of the right to education, the right to develop and achieve their ambitions. If schools, which provide an alternative to early marriage and play an enlightening role, remain closed, these issues will worsen and may affect other societies.
Digital illiteracy and low computer knowledge
Distance learning and e-learning depend largely on modern technology, which is reliant on mastery of computer culture and agility in using digital platforms. Students who lack basic technological skills are in trouble, preventing their continued learning due to their limited ability in using indispensable necessary technologies.
Refugee communities are vulnerable, living in harsh conditions due to displacement; their health and psychological suffering worsens with wars and other crises. They mainly rely on sources of humanitarian support and assistance to meet their needs. Adapting to the COVID-19 crisis calls for exceptional support to alleviate their suffering and help them to continue their education in ways that are commensurate with their situation and the restrictions imposed on them.
Finally, as some countries end a very challenging school year and approach a possible return to schools in a few months, how can we consider the distance learning experience a success when so many learners have been left out of it? There are many students who are still denied their human right to education: deprived of a balanced experience of challenge and opportunity, to build their personalities, and provide them with the skills necessary to lead their learning and their future.
The COVID-19 crisis has left sinking hearts; between the pain of losing education opportunities and the illusion of victory in distance learning — which some want to become the norm, but which still remains out of reach for many — the rights of the less fortunate of our students need to be our highest priority.
Abeer Qunaibi was an MEPLI fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2019, awarded best teacher of Palestine 2016, and was a top 50 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize 2017.
The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.